Aerial application is a relatively obscure flying profession piloting large, single seat, turbine tailwheel airplanes. Add that attraction to legally strafing the ground low and fast, dozens, if not hundreds of times a day. The catch? It’s extremely specialized, and requires the aviator to be half farmer, half fighter pilot (in that order).
The best part of aviation is that so many diverse corners exist to satisfy every pilot’s personality and sense of adventure. I spent a career flying big, black, fire-breathing iron buffaloes, and never thought another form of flying outside the military could fill the void when I left the 160th. It’s not landing to the “X” in the middle of the night, nor is it punching the afterburner inverted after dropping hate on a target, but it’s as close as you can get without wearing a military uniform. Crop dusting is the near perfect combination of precision, speed, and adrenaline, with a little freedom and patriotism mixed in. There’s no flying more rewarding, or American than directly helping farmers feed the world.
I genuinely appreciate the technical knowledge and responsibility required of the crew every time I board a 737, and sometimes think flying a Lear 85 or Gulfstream 550 would be a rush. However, I’ve faced the reality that despite almost three decades of supposed refinement in the military, I’m a knuckle dragger. I could pin on shiny wings, strap on a tie and epaulets every day, but it’s not my first choice. You’re far more likely to find me happily climbing out of a cockpit, gritty and sweaty, wearing a dirty T-shirt, Carhartts and a pair of boots. The combined decades in the SEAL Teams, and flying special operations helicopters may have produced a diamond too rough to polish. Don’t misread my intent; agricultural aviators I’ve been privileged to hang with are some of the most intellectual and proficient pilots I’ve ever met. Not to mention a good number have walked away from the heavy iron and shiny corporate ships to fly agriculture. There’s just no circumventing the fact that farming, and supporting farmers requires long hours and getting dirty, even if you’re flying. My first airplane ride at five years old was in my dad’s WWII Stearman off a grass strip, and the hook was pretty much set. From then on, all I ever wanted to do was fly big, powerful tailwheel airplanes for a living. Flying taildraggers is a dying skill set, so the career options are limited. The details of how I travelled the road from there to here, via the ultra-circuitous route, is another story entirely.
Welcome to a multi-part series to educate, and de-mystify some common misconceptions about agricultural aviation. I’ll talk about the type of flying we do, the specialized machines used, and the scope of what the industry accomplishes relative to its size to put food on your table. If those segments hook you, we’ll finish up with what it takes to be an ag pilot.
If you bring up the topic of “crop dusting” among professional pilots, military or civilian, there’s going to be some eye raising, and a detectable change in tone. Depending on the listener’s individual perceptions, reactions range wildly from “I’d give anything to do that kind of flying”, to “Bunch of lawless cowboys.” I’ve also had one peer ask, “Does crop dusting even require a pilot’s license?” Nothing could be further from the truth, agricultural aviation is one of the most heavily regulated segments of flying.
Agricultural aviation or “crop dusting” necessitates airplanes or helicopters flying 10-15 feet above the ground to apply pesticides and fertilizers in liquid or granular form, at speeds up to 150 mph. Watching a talented ag pilot work is aviation art in motion. However, to the observer that gets nervous when their airliner banks more than 30 degrees, it can perpetuate the “crazy stunt pilot” reputation we strive so hard to shed. The objective of ag flying is to ensure precise, metered application, and complete overage, in the safest and most efficient manner possible. The physical and regulatory obstacles always present are only a few of the challenges a pilot faces. The maneuvers required in the field are not acrobatic, but decidedly contradict the sanitized, straight and level flying culture much of aviation is force-fed from the beginning of their training. Agricultural aviation is one of the last refuges of hands on, intuitive flying remaining in America, and therein lies it’s appeal.
What’s in a Title?
Crop Dusting or Agricultural Aviation? Truth be told, we don’t “dust” anymore except in specialized applications depending on where in the county you fly. Most of what we dispense is liquid chemical, granular fertilizers, or dry materials in the form of seeding. That said, most pilots prefer the legacy title of “Crop Duster” because it links us directly to the lineage of hard men that forged the industry without the benefit of the modern planes and technology we use today. The description of “Ag Pilot” seems to have its niche’ as a compromise between the image of the leather cap and goggled crop duster, and the modern aerial applicator. No matter what you call us, the electronic wizardry, the efficient and advanced the aircraft are just enablers. The skilled inputs of the man (and woman) behind the stick is what makes it work.
Agricultural aviation has been aggressively trying to reshape its aviation outlaw perception accumulated over the last 95 years. However, the bold pioneers, with their tireless work ethic, and innovation that matured the industry will never be fully removed from our culture, and they shouldn’t. The US Army Air Corps dusted its first crops in 1921 using a modified Curtiss JN-4 Jenny as an experiment to kill moth larvae and save the Catalpa trees in Ohio. In 1922 aerial application was again used to control cotton Bollweevils in Tallulah, Louisiana. Fast forward to the 1940s, WWII surplus military airplanes were cheap, along with a generation of available, military pilots who needed flying jobs that would replace combat. A few enterprising operators combined the two and crop dusting flourished. The decades that followed proved aerial application was the most efficient method of eradicating pests, and increasing crop yields to feed and clothe a rapidly growing post war population.
To be continued in Part 2; “The Planes – How Agricultural Aviation went from Biplanes to the Jet Age”