Company owner John Schwenk began his apprenticeship as an agricultural pilot at a very early age under the tutelage of his Father, Philip Schwenk.
Philip Schwenk started an agricultural spraying service in the mid-1950s with a war surplus Stearman trainer that he converted into a sprayer himself. That is how it was done in those days. There were no store bought crop spraying airplanes; those came into the world years later.
Growing up on his father's crop spraying airstrip in the 1960’s, John started his career at age 12 by pumping gas by hand into the family Stearman. A short while later, John continued his education by graduating into more challenging duties such as cleaning aircraft (including scraping Toxaphene off the belly of the Stearman with a putty knife) and mixing chemicals in a 30 gallon barrel.
As a young boy, John loved to watch the airplanes fly and listen to customers comment on the beauty of the application work. He found this to be captivating. Flagging the spray swaths on foot, mixing and loading chemicals, and fueling the Stearman were a little different story. Nonetheless, all this early exposure created some lasting impressions and helped mold John’s life as an aerial spray pilot and business owner.
In the late 1970s, after a short sabbatical from working with the family business and experiencing other kinds of work, John returned to his roots in aviation with a commercial pilot's license and started flying the original Stearman under his father's close mentorship. This was when John really learned the art of aerial crop spraying.
However, this was also the beginning of the battle between the “old ways” and the modernization of the industry. The old Stearman aircraft was the flagships of the agricultural aviation industry in its day, and in good hands, did the safety and quality part very well. However, in terms of productivity, the Stearman’s better days were behind it.
During the early 1980's the agriculture industry fell on some hard times. Neither John nor his Father had the financial resources or credit ratings to borrow any money to modernize the business. Fortunately, John had developed his skill as a certified pipe welder and was able to find an abundance of off-season work. By 1984, John had saved enough money to buy a used AG-Cat without the help of the bank. He then leased it to the family spraying service to help bring some badly needed productivity into the business.
In 1988, John started his own company with the help of his former wife Barb. Unfortunately, John and his Father were unable to reconcile their differences regarding new vs. old methods of aerial spraying. It was a very tough decision for John but he decided to go out on his own and respectfully moved a distance far enough away as to not compete with the original family business. In the 1990s, John’s new business was eventually incorporated as Aero Spray.
Encouraged by the company's early successes with focusing on safety, quality application, and efficiency, Aero Spray quickly evolved into utilizing radial engine equipped Air Tractor aircraft. Turbine powered Air Tractors equipped with GPS navigation systems soon followed. After thorough analysis, John decided to make the investment in the larger and faster AT-802A. His first 802, N6159F, purchased in 1996, generated a whole new level of productivity for the company.
Within a year, and before the new 802 program had really matured, Aero Spray was approached by the Minnesota DNR to solicit the company’s interest in getting involved with aerial fire suppression. John was intrigued with this business opportunity and agreed to move forward. Aero Spray quickly adapted to single engine air tanker, or SEAT, operations. The company soon expanded its SEAT program with the acquisition of a second AT-802A and by securing call-when-needed work in Minnesota and with federal fire agencies out west.
After almost a decade of experience firefighting with land-based, retardant hauling AT-802's, the Aero Spray team was once again requested to take the lead and operate the latest in water scooping/firefighting technology, an AT-802 Fire Boss equipped with Wipaire 10000 series amphibious floats.
Aero Spray embraced the Fire Boss program with enthusiasm. John Schwenk and his close friend and Chief Pilot, Jesse Weaver, worked closely with Wipaire to develop a training program that would ensure that experienced AT-802 pilots would make the challenging transition from wheels to seaplane operations. John, Jesse, and several other pilots obtained their seaplane rating in Florida. John then purchased an amphibious 2-seat Scout aircraft so that the new fledging seaplane pilots could build the 200 hour minimum experience required by federal fire contracts. Mark Mathisen, Wipaire’s Fire Boss training pilot, checked each pilot out on the Fire Boss. This was no easy task because the aircraft only had one seat! As a result, Mark provided an intensive ground school on aircraft systems and procedures, followed by a thorough cockpit briefing to each pilot (on the ground of course … the trainee sat the cockpit and Mark stood on the wing). Finally, Mark talked each candidate through hours of flight training, including hundreds of water scooping runs, using a hand-held radio and bobbing in a small boat on the Mississippi River.
Aero Spray secured its first Fire Boss contract in 2007 with the Minnesota DNR. In 2009, the company secured contracts with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Land Management. Overall, the Fire Boss program was very successful, resulting in additional federal and state exclusive use and on call contracts throughout the United States (e.g. Minnesota; Washington State; Alaska; Idaho; North Carolina; California; Oregon).
By 2010, Aero Spray’s Fire Boss program had expanded from one to three Fire Bosses, all leased on a seasonal basis from Wipaire. In 2012, Aero Spray purchased two single seat AT-802A Fire Bosses from Wipaire followed by the acquisition of two new Fire Bosses in 2013 and 2014. The company’s Fire Boss fleet will expand to five AT-802A Fire Bosses for the 2015 fire season to accommodate additional growth.
All of Aero Spray's present day operating equipment consists of different model Air Tractors with various configurations. This specific choice of aircraft revolves around safety and efficiency from the AT-502s spraying crops all the way to the AT-802 Fire Bosses doing wild land firefighting work.