Skyways of Langley

 The Skyway story


With “Operation Budworm’s” fleet of 75 planes this year, Skyway Air Services Ltd has contributed five Stearmans, leaving eight craft at the firm’s home base on the airfield at Langley, B.C., 30 miles from Vancouver, up the Fraser valley.

President and General Manager A. E. (Art) Seller has parlayed his original (1948) Skyway “fleet” of one Tiger Moth trainer and one Moth duster into the present 13 craft at various types best adapted to the needs of the specialized flying service he has developed. Art himself, would not phrase it just that way. He gives at least equal credit for the firm’s rise to his permanent staff.

Except for stenographer Ruth Miller, each staff member has special training for two jobs. Thus Les Kerr in summer is a spray pilot; in winter apprentice mechanic; Ralph Houghton, a licensed pilot, is a U. of B.C. graduate in plant pathology; has the scientific knowledge to advise spraying-prospects when to spray, what it will cost them; can prescribe and mix the chemicals; Percy Lotzer, the General Manager, is also a commercial pilot. Pilots Tommy Marsden, B. Engineer, and Ed. Batchelor, M. Engineer, both have instructors’ ratings. Chief spray-pilot Johnny Anderson is also an engineer and instructor.

This combination training, and the shifting it permits from one job to another, ensures for Skyway an economic manhour productivity the year round. It removes the bugbear of seasonal employment and labor turnover, in spite of the highly seasonal nature of many or the firm’s services. About 80% of the revenue is from dusting and spraying; about 15% from flying training; the rest from specialized work such as cattle cruising for the Cariboo ranchers; sight-seeing flights over the scenic lower mainland. Skyway holds two ATB licenses: a Class 7 specialty; a Class 7 training. All flights with students or passengers originate and terminate at Langley. Specialty flights are taking Skyway pilots farther and farther afield, not only in British Columbia and Western Canada, but now to distant New Brunswick.

In this air and chemistry age the aviator and the chemist are teaming up, not only to control many of man’s insect pests but to modify other conditions that are not to his liking or advantage. The immense and varied possibilities in this teamwork are being rapidly realized. Scope and variety of control operations from the air is constantly widening. For example, the mesquite shrub was aggressively taking over millions of acres of Texas pasture land. On a smaller scale the willow was growing unchecked, to change conditions in the B. C. cattle country to the great disadvantage of the cattlemen. Now on both ranges the spraying plane is coming to the rescue. Willow killing has become an important branch of Skyway’s work. So much so that landing on the Cariboo country’s lakes, to line up such work from the ranchers has become one of the chief missions of Skyway’s Aeronca Sedan on floats, based on the Fraser River, near Langley.

Perhaps the most recent innovation in spraying utilization also concerns cattle feed. This is a spray to defoliate clover and alfalfa crops. It saves the grower from swathing, and thus gambling his whole crop on a spell of dry weather; increases his yield; gives him a better grade of seed. Another development, new in Canada, though practiced for several years in the U. S. A., is Skyway’s aerial spraying of the great Okanagan apple orchards with a hormone solution that fixes the fruit on the tree – prevents its dropping off. This spraying is done at from 10 to 20 feet off the treetops, and is one of the reasons why the smaller aircraft has lost its usefulness in British Columbia for crop spraying. Many such applications require 10 to 15 gallons per acre to get results; therefore need a plane of the Stearman or Beaver class with range and carrying capacity to put the operation on an economic basis.

Three years’ experience must be gained by a Skyway spray pilot before he graduates to spraying fields without a fieldman as marker. He starts on mosquito-control work. This gives him the feel of the load, settles him into the work. Field-crop spraying is done about two feet off the deck; elevation for forestry work varies between 100 and 300 feet. Willow-killing contracts are flown about 25 feet above the trees. Cross winds are never a factor, because the maximum allowable breeze for dusting is three to four m.p.h. Spraying can be carried on with a wind of about double that strength – up to about eight m.p.h. This requirement means that the pilot need never come close to any obstructions such as poles and barns at the ends of fields, as he can always finish the ends crossways.

In addition to wind requirements being less rigid for spraying than for dusting, other conditions too, are less exacting. Moisture conditions must be just right for effective dusting; air must not be rising with any speed: i.e., dusting cannot be done near the noon heat of a summer’s day. None of these restrictions apply to spraying, and it all adds up to the fact that the utilization factor of a spray plane will be about four times that of a duster. The only limitation through heated air on spraying is that the air must not be too bumpy.

Laboratory work on sprays, in the past couple of years, has therefore been an important factor in the growth of aerial control work. With these new formulas, spraying is said to be now as effective as dusting, except for certain fungus infestations. For these limited but important applications, Skyways still maintains one Moth as a duster. All the spray planes are convertible to dusters with one day’s shop work so that they can, if necessary, swing onto the vital work of blight control, for which the fungicide is still available only as a dust.

Sprays effect not only a great basic economy in keeping the planes at work for an average of four hours for each hour in which they could be dusting, but also in the cost of materials. With these liquids, water is used as the carrier, instead of the talc which must be used with the dusts. In 1953 Skyway is spraying in the Fraser Valley at an average cost of $3 to $5 per acre plus the cost of the material used, which varies greatly. Density of the application needed is not only the governing factor in material cost, but also in the spread in flying costs. Some crops, moreover, require a lot more preliminary and after-spraying field work, which, of course, brings up the total cost.

Costs on other work vary as greatly as do the operations themselves, and range between $1.50 and $5 an acre. The growing diversity of the operations is in itself one of the most important factors in cost control. When Art Seller started to learn this game the hard way, in 1948, aerial control work in B. C. had a two-month season. Working closely with the forestry and agricultural scientists at the University of British Columbia, Skyway has, within five years, expanded that annual working season from two months to eight months. Now it compares favorably with that enjoyed by American operators, and puts in line with theirs the big items of capital and depreciation costs per hour of plane utilization, as well as other items of overhead expense that must be incurred, whether the season be long or short.

Skyway Grumman Avenger #601, Gander Airport, Newfoundland, July 1968. 
The engine cowl showing the No. 1 is retained by the Museum.
Photo credit: Steve Holmes.


In fact, Art Seller thinks Skyway may be a little ahead of the Americans in its work (developed with the U. of B. C. Forestry faculty) on underbrush killing in newly seeded forest areas. Grasshopper control is another crop-saving operation Skyway is undertaking on a big scale this year, further expanding the field of insect control on field crops with which aerial dusting started, before branching into such other activities as the killing of objectionable plant and tree growth, the hormone-fixing of fruit crops, and the immense work of insect control over millions of acres of forest.

Like the spraying industry itself, Art Seller got his start through an emergency. This was caused by an aphis infestation of the Delta pea crop, near Vancouver, in 1947. Only one week stood between the growers and complete disaster, but that was long enough for two planes from the U. S. A. to save the crop by aerial dusting – the only way in which it could have been done. Art was then based on nearby Sea Island as an instructor; spent the week watching the planes at work; learning all he could from the pilots. He resolved then to enter this new business; bought two Tiger Moths, a duster and a trainer with his RCAF gratuities saved during his internment of several years in a German prison camp, after he was shot down over enemy territory.

At Langley the Department of Transport had built an emergency landing field for TCA, with three 2,700-ft. runways, taking care nicely for lightplane operation, of the variable winds encountered in the locality. The field is licensed, and Art manages it for the hay crop, cut by a farmer, who in return keeps the runways smoothed up. Skyway does not require snow removal. If a fall occurs, it will be during their winter overhaul period, and if any flights are required the shop puts on skis. The fully equipped shop is heated, has room to work on three planes at once. Art has applied to D.O.T. to be licensed as an approved shop for custom work. Other buildings are a 10-plane hangar just completed, in which space is for rent, and the office building.

This dramatic shot shows one of the Avengers conducting tests at Langley to
determine the spray rate for budworm control.

In addition to this base, Skyway has in B. C, no less than 40 small, unlicensed strips about 1,000 to 1,200 ft. long, which they have bulldozed off, or have contributed toward having the work done. But a 10-mile round trip from temporary base to the work is about the economic limit. Therefore, even with so many strips now available, most of Skyway’s spraying let-downs and takeoffs, use such “airports” as a Fraser Valley field or a Cariboo pasture. This requires top-flight pilots and maintenance engineers. That Skyway’s Art Seller and his co-workers qualify is evident in that they have never yet had any kind of accident in this work. And to date their work has protected about 150,000 acres.

To service these peregrinating temporary bases, Skyway has four ground units, each with water tank and fuel tank, and a light delivery truck for service and for hauling supplies. Shop keeps on hand a spare motor adaptable to the Stearmans. If any develop trouble Skyway can fly this motor in, use a wrecking truck to make the change, and have the plane airborne again in two days.

This photo shows an Avenger dumping its load of water during testing for water bombing.

In five years Skyway Air Services has evidently came a long way from its one-plane dusting experiments with Art Seller at the controls.

 “In that year of 1948,” Art recently said: “I made no money, but I got in about 60 flying hours of invaluable experience, working on mosquito control after the great Fraser River flood, and on dusting peas and potatoes. One of the first things I taught myself, or experience taught me, was never to look through the windshield, always to look over it, because it gets dusted up, won’t give full visibility. Another thing I learned was to give barns and poles a good wide berth; to finish the ends crossways unless the field (usually about 40 acres) was out in the clear.”

In 1949 Art added a Moth sprayer to team up with the duster and embarked on the program of training, analysis of his market in co-operation with the scientists, and general hard work that soon gathered around him his integrated team of pilots and engineers, all now in possession of the special training and techniques needed to put across this specialized operation. Art’s hobbies relate to aviation. He enjoys flying in to the sportsman’s paradise of interior B. C. for a spot of big-game hunting. His other hobby is gliding, and the Soaring Club have a glider on the Langley station.


The Skyway story (continued)

Skyways Began As Business On Wheels

Pilots who can repair an aircraft engine, balance the books or run the office, form the nucleus of a B.C. flying outfit that has sprouted from two aircraft in 1946 to its present total of 28. Indeed, it was the versatility of the staff that sustained Skyway Air Services Ltd. during the lean post-war years, says A. E. Seller, founder and present owner-manager.

Seller set up shop in Langley, B.C., after World War Two with two Tiger Moths and a trailer for an office. Undaunted by a first-year revenue of less than $3,000, he steadily built up the business to the present annual income of over half-a-million dollars. And from its early string-bag beginning as a one-man flying school cum crop-spraying enterprise, the company has developed until it now boasts a permanent staff of 20, with a seasonal high of about 80. Key men in the organization are P. C. Lotzer, assistant manager, E. W. Batchelor, chief flying instructor, L. G. Kerr, chief pilot; and P. P. Deck, operations manager, aerial tankers.

In the early years of the company, operations were confined to mosquito control, spraying of potatoes and some row crops. Since that time aerial spray services have been extended to include weeding, insect and plant disease control, forest spraying and aerial fire bombing. During this period, Skyway also branched out into other aviation fields. First of these was establishment of a government-approved flying school, followed by a charter service, new and used aircraft sales and service, light aircraft overhaul and maintenance, and other facilities. Latterly, full facilities for light aircraft were established at both Langley Airport and Fort Langley seaplane base.

The flying school was recently enlarged by the addition of four Cessna 150s, making a total of ten aircraft. This resulted from the acquisition of West Coast Air Services’ ab initio school section. With the impending removal by the Department of Transport of most light aircraft and all ab initio flying schools from Vancouver Airport by Aug 31 of this year, West Coast decided to sell the school to Skyway and retain their other services and facilities rather than move off Vancouver International Airport. With the takeover of West Coast’s school, Skyway is in the process of generally improving all aspects of its operation and the planned expansion will probably place it among the largest flying schools in Canada.

The original Tiger Moths have been replaced by larger, more powerful 450 hp Boeing Stearman and Grumman TBM Avenger aircraft for the spray and fire control operations. The company now utilizes 15 Avengers, five Stearman, four Cessna 182s and two Harvard AT-6s.

In 1962, 960,000 acres of forest were sprayed with the Avengers, plus 25,000 acres of row crop. Other forestry operations – fire bombing and patrols, timber cruising and transportation of forestry personnel – accounted for a large amount of flying time even though the fire season was unusually light, because of an abnormally wet year. As a repeat from 1962, Skyway has been awarded a $200,000 aerial fire bombing standby contract by the B.C. Forest Service. This calls for a total of l6 aircraft; twelve Avengers and four birddog (spotters) plus crews and radio control trucks. Three Avengers, one birddog aircraft and one radio truck form a base unit, one of each being based at Smithers, Prince George, Kamloops and Cranbrook this year. Skyway also has an Avenger spray contract in New Brunswick from Forest Protection Limited, having participated in this project since it began in 1952.

All the aircraft are maintained by the Company at its hangars at Abbotsford and Langley Airports. Engine overhauls are farmed out to firms located at Vancouver Airport; the larger ones to Bristol Aero Engines (Western) Ltd., and the ones under 450 hp to Pacific Aero Engines Ltd. Propeller overhauls are carried out by B.C. Propeller & Engines Ltd.

The company is in a happy position as far as spares is concerned since it secured almost all Grumman Avenger parts declared surplus by Crown Assets. “We have possibly the largest stock of such parts anywhere,” said Seller.


 For more on Art Seller, see:
To learn more about the Skyway Stearman, see;