MONTROSE – The familiar yellow airplanes and helicopters of the Olathe Spray Service are essential to the agricultural vitality of the Western Slope, as well as an added resource for law enforcement throughout the region.
Every summer, Olathe Spray Service Air Tractor planes and Bell helicopters buzz over rural the farmlands of the Western Slope, helping farmers reach their yields through aerial applications of herbicide and insecticide to decrease invasive weeds and insects.
Pilot and founder Leonard Felix co-owns and operates the business with his sons, Devin and Seth, from a small airfield east of Colorado Highway 50, between Montrose and Olathe.
Using ground-spotters, pilots align their aircraft before deploying either the chemicals. Descending to just a few feet above-ground, pilots turn on their applicators over the first rows of corn and turn them off just as the last rows are sprayed, pulling out of their runs with sharp turns and steep banking so as to line up for the next pass.
The OSS does not spray near harvest crews or fields containing honeybee hives.
Felix, who began the OSS in 1969, has expanded its beyond Montrose to the counties of Delta, Mesa, Gunnison and Pitkin and south to Ouray San Juan and San Miguel counties (it is one of roughly 1,600 aerial application business in 46 states).
Along with crop dusting, Felix and his two sons have flown firefighting missions for the Bureau of Land Management, winter aerial photography near Craig and Steamboat Springs and wildlife surveying.
“We’ve been involved with crop dusting here for about 45 years,” Felix said. “Eventually when we got into bigger aircraft we got into firefighting, assisting local fire departments, and working for the BLM.”
At the midsummer high point, all three pilots once worked nearly 100,000 acres across the Western Slope, on missions that provide agricultural dusting (and reduce disease-carrying pests,like mosquitoes). But with a reductions of chemicals allowed for agricultural application, due in part to the Clean Water Act, the covered acreage has dropped by 35 percent, to 65,000 acres.
Another change came Sept. 11, 2001, when all aircraft were grounded in the days following the attacks. By order of the Federal Aviation Administration the Olathe Spray Service had to label all aircraft with large OSS letters to better identify the aircraft and the business.
The Olathe Spray Service regularly assists Search and Rescue operations throughout the region, via private charter, and Devin Felix flies its yellow Bell helicopters for the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office on rescue and retrieval missions at higher altitudes.