How A Fleet of Aircraft Keeps The Florida Keys Inhabitable

Oct 24, 2019

The Florida Keys are made up of 1700 islands off the southernmost tip of Florida that curves between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Just above the Caribbean, they spread across 120 miles of teal blue waters and have an average temperature of 25°C / 77°F - the perfect retreat for vacationers and castaways alike, only these mangrove-and-sandbar islands present a particular headache...


They are an equally ideal home to over 46 species of mosquitoes.

It is a problem that generally goes unrecognised to the general public unless you live in the Florida Keys themselves. The problem is so substantial, however, that without consistent control of mosquito populations, the entire area would be uninhabitable. For over 80 years, it has been the job of the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District (FKMCD) to keep mosquito populations down, ensuring that the Florida Keys stays safe and comfortable for its residents. 

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Tackling the Problem from Above

FKMCD is a government agency with one mission: to keep the mosquito populations down and to prevent disease. 

Aviation is not typical in mosquito control, which makes Florida Keys Mosquito Control District unique. They utilize a fleet of six aircraft to do the job, which includes two Bell Jet Ranger helicopters, two Bell Long Ranger helicopters, and two fixed-winged Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander airplanes. 73% of Monroe County is covered by water, so to cover such an area daily makes the use of aircraft essential. 

For FKMCD, each day starts relatively the same – after inspectors check their respective areas,  they send requests to the aerial department to treat mosquitoes all over the Florida Keys. Requested areas are divided up and pilot and ground crews are allocated and briefed on the targeted plan for the day.

The pilots fly solo, and with much of the area wet and uninhabited, they undergo a formal risk assessment and mission briefing. It is a high-risk operation, one that requires low flying, at approximately 100 ft. The area is also extremely rural in places, so if there were an unexpected incident, it would be extremely challenging to find the aircraft. 

Spidertracks is used by the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District to increase the safety of their team and crew and they utilise a range of the platform’s features. The technology was introduced to their team by Director of Operations Josh Kogut a year and a half ago. With years of experience in flight operations, he used Spidertracks during his time with Bristow Helicopters. A pilot himself, Kogut believes being able to communicate a pilot’s location and situational awareness is invaluable.  

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Two Techniques, Two Types of Aircraft 

Beyond the nuisance that mosquitos are, especially to the extent they can be in the Florida Keys, the diseases they carry claim around one million lives around the world yearly. Of the 46 species of mosquitoes in Monroe County, half target humans. In this way, the risk of spreading diseases such as the Zika virus, Dengue, West Nile, and Yellow Fever is ever-present. Some mosquito-borne diseases, such as Chikungunya, have not yet been reported in Monroe County, yet there are thousands of reports just south in the Caribbean. 

One of the most efficient ways to prevent the spread of such diseases is by eliminating mosquitoes before they develop into mature adults – in the aquatic larvae stage. Targeting the larvae is the primary goal of Mosquito Control, and they do it as safely as possible for the environment. Of the six aircraft they operate, they employ the four rotary aircraft to do this particular task. Mosquito Control deploys helicopters back and forth throughout the day to treat the waters home to the larvae. With their goal in mind, they use a naturally occurring soil bacterium. The larvae ingest the product, eventually killing them, which means fewer mature adult mosquitoes in the air. 

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The helicopters spray the product, which is granular in form, through a blower system on the side of the aircraft, called ‘hoppers.’ The helicopters treat a 70ft area by flying at 100 feet to spread the product. They fly at this height to ensure the accuracy of their ‘drops.’ The process continues throughout the day, with pilots doing round trips from treatment areas, stopping at the main ramp, or at the multiple landing zones to load up. 

For mosquitos already hatched (‘full-flying’ or adult mosquitos), Mosquito Control deploys their fixed-wing aircraft. These aircraft spray a fine mist with a very minute amount of liquid chemical (.75) ounces per acre), which attacks the mosquitos who are already airborne. They only have two fixed-wings to do this, as they can complete their acreage in one run, in about 2.5 hours.


How a Government Agency Uses Spidertracks

As the pilots finish their spray runs for the day, Spidertrack’s Mark feature notifies key personnel when an aircraft is en route, back to the main ramp. It is a feature the team uses daily. This notification not only keeps pilots safe by tracking them throughout the day, but it’s good for business too. With four of their six aircraft making multiple trips per day, successfully carried out missions are instantly reported.

Since Spidertracks joined the pilots of FKMCD in the cockpit, the crew have had a few precautionary landings. Even when the pilots don’t know where they are, they can put the aircraft down and send a Spidertxt to HQ. Regardless of location or cellular range, HQ  knows precisely where the pilots are. With this simple, yet vital capability, the team in the office can dispatch ground crew and assistance immediately. 

From a PR perspective, the benefits of knowing exactly where an aircraft is at any given time are unprecedented. As a government entity, it is not uncommon for FKMCD to get calls that aircraft are flying close to houses, sometimes with accusations as close as 20 ft. With post-flight reviews, FKMCD can find out at what height pilots were flying at any given time. It is a different story altogether when the team can prove they were at 120 ft instead of 20 ft.  

Although Josh Kogut’s focus is now more on operations than flying, Spidertracks is something he wished existed earlier. With the extremely rural areas that FKMCD flies over daily, knowing that someone is watching over you in case anything were to happen is crucial. Spidertracks now rests in the proverbial ‘back pocket’ of their pilots as they fly across the vast territory they service daily. It is a small detail that helps FKMCD keep this slice of paradise habitable.

 



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