Erik Burgess, Published August 10 2013
VIDEO: Watch as only mosquito sprayer in region buzzes around
Now, 30 years later, you could almost mistake him for one of the birds.
Solum runs Airborne Custom Spraying here, and he’s the only guy aerial spraying for mosquitoes in the entire Red River Valley and pretty much across the tri-state area, which can make for a frantic summertime schedule.
From mid-May until September, he’s out dusting crops every day and spraying for skeeters every night, a nonstop schedule that leaves virtually no time for a social life.
Solum, 50, is not married and lives alone in a modest home connected to his hangar just south of town. Many of his friends are people he works with. “I am probably the only one in the area doing this because I’m the only one dumb enough to do it,” Solum said.
Still, there’s no place Solum would rather be than up in the air, and over the years he’s become renowned among his peers for being a mentor and a steady voice in the fight against mosquitos.
His reputation allows him opportunities to spray for mosquitos and other pests in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin and as far away as Texas and Florida during their hurricane season, connections he’s made through mosquito sprayer associations and conferences.
Solum has become “a well-known character – the soft-spoken guy from North Dakota,” said Ben Prather, director of Cass County Vector Control.
“He’s there to knock mosquitoes down and provide a level of safety for people. He’s not just buzzing around,” Prather said. “If you speak to him long enough, longer than five minutes, that comes across pretty clear.”
‘You gotta work hard’
Solum didn’t grow up aspiring to be a pilot. As a child, he didn’t play with toy planes and he didn’t transform laundry baskets into makeshift cockpits in his Excelsior, Minn., home.
It wasn’t until he finished high school at Minnetonka, a Minneapolis suburb, that he had an opportunity to become a pilot.
Solum was working in the women’s shoe stock room at Dayton’s in a Minneapolis mall when a co-worker mentioned that his father’s crop-dusting business in Davenport, N.D., needed an extra hand for the summer.
Darrol Schroeder had been running that crop-dusting business since 1957, after years in the Air Force flying jet fighters.
“I thought to myself ‘Oh man, a Minneapolis kid. How’s he going to relate to working out in a crop-duster’s hangar?’ ” Schroeder said. “So I thought, well, I better do my son a favor.”
But Solum immediately proved himself to be a hard worker, despite his lack of experience on an airstrip, Schroeder said.
Solum attributed that hardworking ethic to childhood visits to his grandfather’s dairy farm at a young age.
“I liked to get out of the city and just be out in the country and work hard,” Solum said. “And this business – you gotta work really hard, and I don’t mind that. I like that. I enjoy the challenge of working hard.”
Schroeder, now a co-chairman of the Fargo AirSho, remembers Solum’s first time in an airplane. Schroeder had to run an errand to Fergus Falls and he invited the 19-year-old Solum along.
“He jumped in, and man, he just vibrated. He’d never been up in an airplane,” Schroeder said. “A couple days later, he said, ‘I want to learn how to fly.’ ”
By the seat of my pants
Solum came to Davenport in April 1982. In September, he started flight lessons in Kindred, N.D. By October, he had his private pilot’s license.
Solum was a natural behind the stick of a crop-dusting plane, Schroeder said.
“It’s all he could think about,” Schroeder said. “He just developed a sudden, extreme interest in aviation.”
Schroeder’s business, which for decades was all crop-dusting, soon picked up a new market: spraying for mosquitoes. Schroeder had a cabin on Pelican Lake in Minnesota, where his neighbors began to wonder if the pilot could also spray for mosquitoes. This was years before West Nile virus; spraying was more about nuisance control than preventing disease, Schroeder said.
After 33 years in the business, Schroeder got an offer to sell the crop-dusting business in 1987, but the buyer didn’t want the mosquito spraying operation, which had few customers at the time.
Solum saw it as his chance. He bought the fledgling mosquito spraying business and moved the operation in 1991 to an old grass airstrip south of Halstad, where he still is today. He sprays for cities around the region, from Grand Forks to Aberdeen, S.D., and from Williston, N.D., to the Twin Cities.
Solum bought the business with some reservation. He was just finishing school at the University of North Dakota, intending to leave the crop-spraying business.
“I thought it would be better to have a career in the airlines,” he said.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in airway science in 1988, he got a job flying for UPS in Texas, where he spent a few months of 1990 in the jump seat of package planes, observing pilots. He returned to the Midwest the next summer after deciding that flying airlines was not for him.
“Airline pilots, they carry a big responsibility for all those passengers behind them, and I kinda like sitting in the airplane by myself and flying by the seat of my pants,” he said.
‘A true Christian’
Another important thing happened in those cockpits at UPS, Solum said. He spent hours talking to fellow pilots about God. He was by no means a religious kid, but his late father had just been diagnosed with cancer, so Solum sought answers in Christianity.
Faith is now an integral part of Solum’s life. When you enter his office next to his hangar, a North Dakota license plate above the door reads “GOD CZU.” Inside, above his massive and cluttered white board schedule, is a wooden sign that reads simply: “Jesus lives.”
It is that faith that sets Solum apart from the rest, said Todd Hanson, supervisor of Grand Forks Mosquito Control, who called Solum “a true Christian.”
“If you need something, he’s going to do what he can to help you out,” Hanson said.
Solum is also known for his level head at the stick of an airplane and in a room full of city and county officials staring down a West Nile virus scare, Prather said.
“I’ll call Dean, and the walls are coming down and the wheels are falling off, and we need things now, and he’s usually a calm, assertive voice in the room,” Prather said.
Prather believes that calmness is rooted in Solum’s strong faith.
“Even up in the aircraft, I think he knows he’s got more wings than what’s on his left and right,” Prather said.
It’s not an easy calmness to achieve, Solum said. While he has never been in a serious accident, the veteran pilot knows some pilots who have.
Aerial spraying is dangerous, Solum said. Pilots have to focus on avoiding obstructions, dispensing product and mitigating drift, all while flying at 200 mph just a couple of hundred feet off the ground. Mosquito spraying, done primarily at night, is that much more difficult.
Solum attributed his success to local pilots and mentors Jerry Beck and Bob Odegaard, who both died in flying accidents. Beck helped Solum develop the aerial spraying system he still uses today for mosquito control.
“Flying is incredibly unforgiving,” Solum said. “There’s many opportunities every day that are dangerous, and it brings the reality of life and death before our face every day. … When I’m by myself, I think about that a lot, and that’s probably why I like to fly solo.”
That’s also one reason he hasn’t settled down and started a family, Solum admitted.
While most crop-dusters get to go home at night to a family, Solum isn’t afforded that luxury. When he’s done spraying crops during the day, he switches planes and starts spraying mosquitoes at night. It’s a never-ending routine he keeps up all summer.
“The only reason I can afford to do that is because I don’t have a family, or a family wouldn’t put up with that kind of lifestyle,” he said.
Looking for successor
Sitting on the couch in his Halstad home, which used to house migrant field workers, Solum is a bit reluctant to talk about hobbies other than planes.
Whenever he talks about flying, which is often, his eyes glow and his mouth turns up into a soft smile.
“You get me talking about the airplanes, and I get carried away with that because that’s my passion,” he said.
He recently bought a helicopter so he could share that passion with others. He couldn’t do that before because his planes are all one-seaters.
He often visits his sister in Mound, Minn., and said he’s pretty happy being Uncle Dean to her two young kids, 9 and 12 years old. The kids don’t mind the free helicopter rides, either, he said.
When he’s on the ground, he bow-hunts pheasant, and he has also run in the Fargo Marathon for about the past 10 years.
Solum is the only pilot at his business. It’s part of his type A personality and his need to micromanage, he said. It’s also because pilots are expensive and some years, like last year, the business dries up in the hot weather.
Solum said he is always looking for someone to take over when the time comes. Until then, he’ll continue doing what he loves as long as he can.
If you visit his home, and he’s not out spraying, it’s likely you’ll find Solum in the hangar working on one of the four planes he’s acquired over the years. The most recent is a recognizable yellow Piper Chieftain he uses to spray Fargo-Moorhead.
While Solum owns a couple of vehicles that don’t have wings, you’d be hard-pressed to find him driving one.
“I try my best not to use them,” he says with a smile.
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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518