On board with Beaufort County Mosquito Control
The man in the tan flight suit arrived just before dawn, the sound of his footsteps muffled by the rubber soles of his Sperry boat shoes.
He entered the hangar, green coffee cup in hand, and headed toward the mechanic.
“No socks today, I see,” the mechanic said to him.
“You know I don’t like to wear socks when I fly,” Russ Appleton replied.
Appleton, chief pilot for Beaufort County Mosquito Control, proceeded to joke with the agency’s aircraft mechanic, Gary Davy. The men stood in front of the sleek airplane Davy had just finished inspecting. The OV-10 Bronco had a large glass canopy, two engines, a twin-boom tail and a raised wing area. Underneath the wing were two pods, one on either side, filled with insecticide.
“Adulticide,” more accurately — a chemical that kills adult mosquitoes on contact, one which Appleton would soon spray over Fripp, Hunting and Harbor islands.
The county’s aerial spraying program complements its ground spraying operations, Mosquito Control Director Gregg Hunt said Friday. The trucks operate between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., and they travel at speeds around 10 miles per hour. The county’s geography — and the absence of roads in some areas — complicates ground spraying. Hence the Bronco, and the MD-500 helicopter the program operates.
Appleton climbed the steps that led to the hangar’s operation center. He sat down at a computer and checked the weather one last time. There were a couple of spot showers popping up on the radar, and he’d heard from friend about a low cloud ceiling. But there was no rain in the immediate area, and the winds were calm.
He walked downstairs and watched as Davy towed the Bronco out of the hangar.
The plane sat on the tarmac, and Appleton walked around it for one last visual inspection. Satisfied, he wedged his 6-foot frame into the cockpit and flipped the switches that spun up the propellers.
He taxied and took off, leaving behind the airport and, in the hangar, a little cloud of mosquitoes.
Davy, 72, a thin man with a white mustache, has been working on airplanes for more than five decades, and he’s been with Mosquito Control for the past 15 years.
He’s known as a “round engine man,” a mechanic who can work on radial — round-looking — engines.
When he deployed to Vietnam, he started out working on F-105 Thunderchiefs — a supersonic, jet engine fighter-bomber — but someone learned of his skills with radials. He was transferred to a high-ranking officer’s command, where he worked on the man’s DC-3, an old propeller plane.
When Mosquito Control acquired the Bronco in 2009, it was his first time working on such an airplane. The program purchased the plane for $2,400, according to Hunt. It was a military surplus aircraft, and the county decided to buy another just like it, for the same price. Davy spent months dismantling the second airplane, so it could be used for spare parts.
Old airplane parts are hard to come by, he said.
The Bronco was built in 1968. It was initially attached to a U.S. Navy squadron, the first OV-10 unit the Navy sent to Vietnam, according to Appleton. But it never deployed to Southeast Asia. Instead it wound up in a Marine Corps squadron before ending up in surplus.
The plane’s top speed is around 350 miles per hour, Appleton said. During the Vietnam War, OV-10s served as spotter planes — designating and marking targets for bigger planes to hit — and, sometimes, in ground attack roles.
Today, Mosquito Control’s Bronco attacks the salt marsh mosquito — the county’s No. 1 nuisance — and species such as aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus, which can carry the Zika virus, with a chemical spray. About half an ounce of product per acre is spread, according to Hunt.
On an hour-long, 100-or-so mile flight, about 14 gallons will do the job.
After taking off from Beaufort County — “Frogmore International” — Airport, Appleton climbed to 600 feet.
He cruised toward Fripp Island as the sun warmed his cockpit to more than 100 degrees.
Nearing the island, he loaded a pre-programmed flight plan into his computer. The program showed him the recommended spray pattern for the island, and he made a turn to set up his first approach. Flight data from four GPS units helps him line up each pass by factoring in wind and other variables.
In the 1980s, before GPS and the Bronco, Mosquito Control’s plane would spray smoke first, to see where the wind blew it, before making another pass dropping insecticide — “eyeballing it,” as it were.
Appleton descended the Bronco to 200 feet and flew at just under 200 miles per hour. When he was over the target zone, he flicked a silver switch on the flight stick and released the insecticide.
He finished his pass, shut off the spray and headed out over the water, where he banked the airplane into the wind to started his next turn. He ascended to about 600 feet during the first part of the turn, then began to descend through the second part.
As he dropped the plane’s nose he experienced about three times the normal force of gravity — meaning his body’s weight felt like it tripled, to 750 pounds. He squeezed his stomach to combat the effect — the “Gs” — and completed the turn.
He lined up his next pass.
When he’s flying low, he has to watch out for birds, cell and water towers, and kites.
“Kites can wreck your day real quick,” he said.
And he has to be aware of “no-spray zones.”
Most of them are beekeepers — out of the 130 county residents who have requested a no-spray zone on their property, 87 keep bees, Hunt said.
The insecticide Mosquito Control uses is lethal to bees. That’s why the Bronco flies between 6 and 8:30 a.m., when the bees are still in their hives and the risk of exposure is minimal.
In addition to beekeepers, organic farmers and people allergic to the pesticide comprise the no-spray-zone list. When Appleton nears a no-spray-zone — which can be located directly in his flight path, in the middle of a pass — his computer will alert him, and he’ll quickly flick off the spray.
The chemical will also kill biting midges — “no-see-ums” — though it’s not very effective against them.
A biting midge, compared to a mosquito, is a tiny, tiny target.
Gregg Hunt, Mosquito Control director
“A biting midge, compared to a mosquito, is a tiny, tiny target,” Hunt said, adding that his office still gets a lot of complaints about the pest.
Aerial spraying constitutes about a third of the total spraying Mosquito Control does, Hunt said, adding that variations in the mosquito season can bump that number up.
This season’s been mild, he said. His office has averaged about seven complaints a week over the past month or so. But September and October are on the way, he said. Those are the busy months.
Appleton makes a total of six spray passes on Fripp Island, five on Hunting Island and, finally, five more on Harbor Island.
Then, he turns and heads home.
He approaches from the north and lands. The tires squeal when they hit the runway. He slows the plane and opens the canopy to let in some cooler air.
Appleton — whose 43-year flying career includes stints at air shows, time in the military and a gig as Bob Hope’s pilot — climbs out of the cockpit.
Sweat stains the back of his shirt.
Davy remarks how impressed he is that Appleton can manage to dislodge himself from the airplane.
The men exchange a few barbs as they hook up the plane to the tractor to push it into the hangar.
But the tractor stalls out. Again and again.
Appleton remarks at Davy’s mechanical skills.
More barbs. More laughs.
They manage to push the plane into the hangar with a golf cart — that smells like it’s overheating.
They comment on the lack of a breeze.
And the little cloud of mosquitoes still in the hangar.
The most pests, they joked, they’d ever seen there.