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Luke English (30 months) helping his dad, Drew English, in last year's wheat harvest in Rosalia. Luke will be a sixth-generation farmer.
Photo by Ashley English

Wilbur-Ellis

PROFILES

Couple flies into aerial aviation business

Erin and Gavin Morse, GEM Air Inc.

June 2021
By Trista Crossley


The success of Gavin and Erin Morse’s aerial application company, GEM Air Inc., didn’t happen without a little turbulence.

Neither of the Morses grew up in agriculture or aviation. Erin graduated from Quincy High School in 2000. From there, she went to Big Bend Community College (BBCC) in Moses Lake and (later) Eastern Washington University in Cheney. Gavin grew up in Spokane where his father was a contractor. He was homeschooled instead of attending public high school, but took and passed the GED at 16 so he could get to the thing he had loved from the time he was a child—flying. His mother wasn’t very pleased.

“At the time, I thought high school was in the way of becoming a pilot,” he said. “I took the test and passed, packed my things and moved myself, at 16, to Seattle to be closer to where airplanes were.”

Upon arriving in Seattle, Gavin went straight to the Renton Municipal Airport to find a job. He was hired on the spot as a fuel line technician, responsible for making sure airplanes had enough fuel to get to where they were going. He worked in Renton for a year before enrolling in the flight school at BBCC in 2001 where he met Erin. One summer, Gavin took a job reloading planes for the U. S. Forest Service on the Super Air Tanker Base outside Moses Lake and realized that kind of flying appealed to him more than being a pilot for an airline did, especially since the airline industry was changing in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. By this time, Erin and Gavin’s relationship had turned serious.

“The pilots (at the Super Air Tanker Base) told Gavin that to fly fire, you either need to get time as a bush pilot or as an ag pilot. I said, ‘let’s please not move to Alaska,’” Erin recalled, laughing. At the time, Erin was working at US Bank in Royal City. She had a regular customer who had checks with an airplane on them, and after inquiring about that and explaining about Gavin, she got an invitation that would change their lives. “At that point, Gavin had his private and commercial license, but we didn’t know anything about agriculture.”

That customer was Jock Warren, owner of Royal Flying Service in Royal City, an aerial application company. Gavin met with Jock and was hired as a loader in 2003. In aerial application, a loader is usually responsible for mixing the products to be applied and loading them into the planes. The Morses began checking out the agricultural industry. Besides falling for each other (they married in 2005), they also fell in love with the world of agricultural aviation.

Gavin did groundwork for Royal Flying Service for four years learning what different crops looked like, their life cycles and what plants did and didn’t get what products.

“That’s why being an ag pilot is such a unique line of work as far as agriculture and aviation, it’s a blend of the two. Really, as an ag pilot, you are so much more a farmer who is flying rather than a pilot who is flying,” Gavin said. “It’s far more important to know chemistries and chemicals and the plants and the ag part than to know how to fly the airplane. Flying the airplane should be second nature. What you are really doing is paying attention to the surrounding crops and the pattern behind you as you are spraying to make sure everything is going as it should be.”

By this time, Erin and Gavin were determined to one day own their own company. Erin said they scrimped and saved every penny they could so they could put as much money as possible towards Gavin’s flight time and practice hours in various airplane models to build his qualifications.

“We loved the lifestyle and the people, and we realized that was really more our personalities than flying fire. When flying fire, you have to follow the seasons. It’s hard for families,” Erin said. “As busy and as many hours that ag pilots work, in our part of the world, they are home at night. So even if dad’s really tired, the kids can still see him. That was important for us to have something family-oriented. We decided we wanted to do something with flying, and we wanted to be our own business, so we started tailoring our work careers to get the experience we needed. Gavin leaned into flying and ag, and I started leaning into business and ag.”

Gavin began flying for Warren in 2007. Unfortunately, Warren didn’t have enough business to support two full time flyers, so in 2010, when Gavin was approached by B & R Aerial Crop Care in Connell, he left, with Warren’s blessing.

“He (Warren) didn’t have a whole bunch of work in Royal City. He was sharing his own flying time with me. If something came in that was at my skill level, he’d jump out of the airplane, and I’d jump in and go do the job. He didn’t have to do that,” Gavin said. Warren told Gavin that he needed to take the job with B & R, which would also include a step up to flying a turbine engine, not to mention giving Gavin an opportunity to become a full-time production pilot.

Gavin worked at B & R for five years. But the Morses were still working towards owning their own company. In 2015, they heard about an aerial applicator in the Palouse who wanted to retire and was looking to sell their company. The Morses moved to Oakesdale and began learning about that business, the area and the customers. But things just didn’t seem to be fitting properly.

“We had to have a serious talk with ourselves,” Erin said. “Do we sign the paperwork and muscle this into what we want, or do we have a really frank conversation?”

In the end, the Morses admitted the company wasn’t the right fit for them and backed away. It all worked out as the owners decided they weren’t quite ready to retire. But now, the Morses had a problem. Gavin no longer had a seat at B & R, and the Palouse deal had fallen through.

But like many fortuitous events in life, the closing of one door often blows another door open. Out of nowhere, they received a call from a father and son aerial application business in the Columbia Basin that was interested in selling as the son wanted to move into farming.

“These operations don’t just come up for sale,” Gavin explained. “This one was right in the area we wanted to be in. We already knew a lot of the people here, and I had flown here. It was neighbors to B & R. It was closer to family. It checked all of the boxes.”

While the business looked like a fantastic opportunity, the purchase price was sobering, and the Morses weren’t sure how they were going to make that work.

“But we are not quitters,” Erin said. “We exhausted a lot of avenues. I don’t think it’s in a Morse not to be persistent. We just tried to think outside of the box to find a unique fit that would meet both of our needs.”

Their persistence paid off, and the Morses acquired the business at the end of 2015. They renamed it GEM Air Inc. and hit the ground flying, almost literally, as the 2016 wheat crop was a bad year for rust. Aerial ag applicators were suddenly very much in demand. The couple rose to the challenge, contracting five planes out of several local airports and spraying 10,000 to 15,000 acres a day.

“We knocked it out of the park. By this point, Erin was more than capable of handling the office and business, and I was fairly experienced in the airplane. We were basically a ready-made dream team,” Gavin said. “Nobody waited more than three days (for service). We flew daily from 5 a.m. to when the sun went down. It was a heck of a good way to show everybody what we were capable of right out of the gate.”

These days, GEM Air Inc. has several employees (besides Gavin and Erin). They call themselves a 1 ½ plane operation as they “share” another aerial applicator with B & R Aerial Crop Care. Their season runs from “when the snow melts until the snow falls,” approximately from the end of January to the beginning of December. When Gavin isn’t flying, the Morses spend their time doing customer calls, attending conferences, talking to legislators about the pesticide application industry, training and performing maintenance on their equipment. Both of them are active in professional associations and advocate on behalf of their industry, especially Erin, who takes care to “humanize” the aerial application industry, letting legislators and the public know the real facts and data.

“When I’m talking to anyone, especially legislators, my goal is to say we are real people. We are a family. We are part of our community. We are not some fly-by-night operation, mindlessly putting things in the air. We are highly trained professionals. Whatever concerns they have, we can meet them with facts and truth,” she said.

The Morses believe the services the aerial application industry provides to agriculture are critical, especially when timeliness is important. Aerial applicators can apply pesticides more quickly than ground spraying, they don’t compact the soil, and they can often access hard-to-reach areas more easily than vehicles. Erin referred to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service report that estimates that without aerial applicators, the U.S. economy would see a $23 billion hit due to crop losses, and selected crops (corn for grain, wheat, cotton, soybeans and rice) would have a 91 percent chance of occurring a loss.

For the Morses, their customers are almost like family, and they are proud to contribute to such a critical industry as agriculture.

“I’m not just flying an airplane to get to point a or b, I’m taking an airplane and doing something with it that has tangible results at the end of the day,” Gavin said. “I’m helping my neighbor raise a crop that’s going to make a difference. It’s going to feed people. It’s flying for a purpose. I’m lucky to be able to do what I do. I see things every day that nobody else gets to see. I’m out in the middle of nowhere, south of Benge, flying rye patches in canola. It’s beautiful. It’s the best office window you can have.”

Erin and Gavin have two daughters, ages 8 and 6. GEM Air Inc. is based out of Warden, Wash. For more information, visit their website at gemairinc.com.