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Medfly Spraying: A Thankless Job but They Do It

December 17, 1989|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim Josephson and his workers say they really don't like their jobs. The hours are bad. The work is stressful, dangerous. They are separated from their families one week before Christmas. And the people they are supposed to be helping are irritated, if not enraged, by their hovering presence.

"We've been condemned, badgered and shot at," said Josephson, a 49-year-old Delano resident who runs a helicopter service in the San Joaquin Valley. "We don't do this because we like to do it. We do it because a job like this needs top professionals."

Josephson and six pilots form the backbone of a 50-member squadron that has been enlisted to apply pesticide over Southern California to combat the Mediterranean fruit fly, the crop-destroying pest that has spread through more than 250 square miles of residential neighborhoods.

In the months ahead, their low-flying helicopters will become a commonplace sight--and sound--over Southland neighborhoods. As part of an escalated attack plan, officials have called for at least 12 aerial applications of the pesticide malathion over each pocket of infestation. Previously, they had attempted to fight infestations with only one spraying.

State and county officials say the aerial applications pose no health risks because of the extremely low dose of malathion dropped in a sticky molasses bait. Nonetheless, it remains controversial, eliciting protests from some residents and politicians who question the need for such an extensive attack.

For Josephson's pilots and ground support crews, the sensitivity drives them to extraordinary caution at every step. Virtually every action--from unsealing the pesticide barrel to mapping out the flight plan--is checked, double-checked and measured by somber-faced government officials. If something should go wrong, if the pesticide is not properly mixed, or a helicopter sprays the wrong neighborhood, a record of each action has been tabulated for the resulting state inquiry.

Perhaps that is why the staff goes about their nightly duties on the Tarmac at El Monte Airport with little emotion.

"It makes you serious about everything," Jim Rudig, the state's aerial spray program coordinator, said of the criticism. "I'd be lying if I said this was a fun job."

On one typical spray night last week, three slick, white helicopters sat alone on the Tarmac, glistening beneath the airport spotlights.

The six pilots were five miles away eating dinner at a Denny's restaurant. They are a quiet lot of middle-aged men from the San Joaquin Valley. Three are Vietnam War veterans, one is a sheriff's deputy, another is a test pilot for the National Guard, others are full-time pilots working for Josephson. They said publicity didn't interest them.

"We aren't interested in being heroes or anything," said Josephson, a pilot himself. "We just keep a low profile and stay out of the limelight so we can get the job done."

They sleep in the Vagabond Hotel, eat dinner together in coffee shops like Denny's and then head straight to the airport to tend their choppers every night.

On this night, like all others, the six pilots arrived at 8 p.m. sharp, wearing bomber jackets, down vests and jeans. Their arrival prompted a surge of activity around the Bell 204 helicopters. The men circled the choppers, touching the walls of the craft feeling for possible cracks, shining flashlights on engine parts and rotor blades.

A chubby tanker truck pulled up along side the helicopters, followed by four government pickup trucks. A man in a white jump suit unraveled a hose from the tanker, stuck the nozzle into the belly of the helicopter and pumped out 250 gallons of corn syrup laced with malathion.

The crew spoke their own language, an odd mix of military slang and agricultural terms. The "ships" were to follow "flight lines" above city streets, guided by ground navigators' "cue-beams" as they dropped "bait spray" over the sleeping populace.

The helicopter crews prefer the term "bait spray" to "pesticides."

"There's a big difference," Josephson said. "This is not contact spraying. Bugs are not physically drowning in spray. What we do here is apply bait. A fly has to eat the bait to die."

Josephson said that when he sprays crops in Bakersfield to kill bugs such as the beet leaf hopper, it is not uncommon to drop 10 to 20 gallons of water and pesticide over every acre. Officials say the Medfly sprayings drop 12.4 ounces of mixture over an acre, 2.8 ounces of which is malathion.

Josephson's firm, San Joaquin Helicopters, is one of the largest aerial application and ground spraying operations in the West. His company, which charges the state about $40,000 a night to treat 20 square miles, was the lowest bidder in a state contract awarded last year. He and most of his crew are veterans of the Northern California Medfly infestation of 1980-81 and are noted among their peers as pioneers of urban pesticide spraying.

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