VERO BEACH — Every summer, the yellow plane emerges on the horizon.
Hastily taken photos of the aircraft crop up online like UFO sightings, followed by incessant questions from the uninitiated: “Did anyone else see that yellow plane divebomb our neighborhood?”
“What you see is this little yellow plane, and you can actually see the numbers, it goes so low,” said Caroline Rodriguez, 53, of Pointe West. “At the beginning, you say, ‘Oh my goodness, is this guy drunk? I don’t know if he’s doing acrobatics or what!'”
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No, the pilot isn’t drunk, and no, the plane isn’t dropping corn snakes on people’s heads, despite what some sarcastic Facebook commenters might suggest. Five years ago, Rodriguez learned the little plane’s purpose, as do all Vero Beach newbies.
It operates in conjunction with the Indian River Mosquito Control District, twirling around Vero’s skies, dropping larvicide over marshes and mosquito breeding grounds — in style.
To Rodriguez and the hundreds of locals who discuss its whereabouts online, the plane is practically the city’s mascot, she said.
Why has the plane returned?
The plane is typically used during the summer, explaining its mysterious disappearance and reemergence every year. It flies so low because it drops a granular larvicide that kills mosquito larvae in marshes.
“You want the product to get to the water,” explained Sherry Burroughs, Mosquito Control District executive director. “If the product hits the ground or a sidewalk or a house, it’s not really going to be effective.”
There are more than 80 species of mosquitoes in Florida, c said, and the salt marshes along the Indian River Lagoon are the perfect breeding grounds, making the county’s problem especially nasty.
That’s why, almost 100 years ago, the Mosquito Control District was established here. It also happened to be the state’s first.
The district has used planes for mosquito control for “probably decades,” Burroughs said. Because mosquitoes breed in standing water and wet soil, the pests are particularly bad during the summer.
The district controls water levels in marshes to make conditions less hospitable, but when that doesn’t do the trick, it brings out the big guns: the famed yellow plane, which drops its 4,000-pound payload on areas that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Despite the real work that the plane does, it’s become a local inside joke, one that the Indian River Mosquito Control District is aware of.
“It’s very recognizable in the yellow,” Burroughs said. “They mostly know us from that yellow plane.”
In Vero Beach Neighborhood Inc., a 37,000-member neighborhood Facebook page, the yellow plane’s status is near-mythic. A mere reference to the plane gets immediate laughs, and members often post pictures of any similar-looking aircraft they spot around the world, saying they “found the yellow plane.”
It’s a light-hearted jab at the area’s newbies, who tend to ask about the plane when they see it roar overhead for the first time.
In their defense, the plane does fly surprisingly low, Rodriguez said. It was a shock to her when she moved to the area in 2017.
“I didn’t know what the heck was his problem, and then when I started going into the Facebook group, I started to find out, ‘Oh, it’s mosquito control — the good guy,'” she said.
Who flies the yellow plane?
The Mosquito Control District has contracted aviation company Thomas R. Summersill to fly its model 802 planes for about seven years. According to Jeff Summersill, the yellow plane’s pilot, flying it isn’t as easy as it looks.
“You have to fly a line that’s straight at 165 mph,” Summersill, 48, said. “So that can be difficult.”
Because of FAA regulations, the plane only flies about as low as 300 feet, he said. He didn’t know why the plane is yellow, but he did reveal something that may come as a surprise to Vero Beach residents: There actually are three “yellow planes” and two other pilots.
He wasn’t aware of the yellow plane’s celebrity status online, he said. But, flying as low as he does, he said, he often sees people on the ground watching and waving as he flies past.
Despite the online and in-person acclaim, Summersill feels he’s ultimately just doing his job.
“It’s a public-health job that we’re proud to be able to do,” he said. “We’re keeping the vector of disease down … it would be an unbelievable swarm of mosquitoes if the Indian River mosquito control group wasn’t doing their job.”
Still, he couldn’t deny how fun it is to work in the skies.
“It is a cool job,” he said. “I get to fly down the beach every once in a while.”
And his work doesn’t go unnoticed. Rodriguez said there’s always a noticeable difference in mosquito activity in the days following the yellow plane’s treatment. Vero Beach ought to use a “bat signal, but with the silhouette of a big mosquito,” she said.
“He’s like our hero,” she said. “Because it only takes a couple of days — not even a couple of days — one good day of standing rain, and those things will be there.”
Thomas Weber is a Digital Now Reporter at TCPalm. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-545-9113. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.