That Old-Time Profession
The airplanes are faster and the power lines more plentiful, but cropdusters fly today just as they did in the 1920s.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, March 2007
(Page 2 of 4)
On any given summer morning across the country in the postwar years there would be as many as a thousand Stearman cropdusters in the air. Stearmans served as primary trainers for the U.S. Army and Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, and by the end of World War II more than 10,000 had been built. The ones that survived their student pilots were sold as war surplus for as little as $250. For a generation, they were the standard of the industry, and a handful still fly. The Stearman didn’t have an energy-absorbing seat, but it was stable and friendly and allowed new pilots or low-flying cropdusters to fly out of most of the mistakes they could make. A Stearman A75 equipped with a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine occupies a place of honor at the National Agricultural Aviation Museum in Jackson, Mississippi.
Cotton dusting around Leland, where the Edwards brothers work today, was already a tradition when the war-surplus Stearmans showed up. By 1930, farmers in the Mississippi Delta were learning about aerial experiments conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Delta Laboratory in Tallulah, Louisiana. The laboratory was a sworn enemy of the boll weevil, which was causing millions of dollars’ worth of cotton losses annually, and its director, entomologist Bert Coad, was fascinated by airplanes. (So was his assistant, C.E. Woolman. Woolman later founded a dusting operation, Delta Flying Service, which eventually became Delta Air Lines.) Coad had been impressed by the 1921 flights of Army Captain John Macready, who spread lead arsenate on a grove of moth-infested catalpa trees near McCook Field in Ohio from a war-surplus Curtiss JN-6H Jenny. Until then, cropdusting had been a laborious and brutal process. Macready accomplished in 54 seconds what would have taken two men with a wagon and a team of mules a week to do.
By August 1922, Coad had hired World War I veterans to fly two Jennys and a surplus de Havilland DH-4B in hundreds of test flights over delta cotton fields. The heedful young Army pilots evolved techniques to prevent chemical drift, the cropduster’s perennial hassle, which required constantly “playing” surface winds and flying low and slow. The lab added a venturi in front of the hopper to provide ram-air pressure to blow the dust out a six-foot-wide dispenser fastened under the aircraft, mercifully replacing mechanics who had been crouching in back seats, operating the hoppers with a hand crank.
In 1923, George Post, pilot and vice president of the Huff-Daland Aircraft company, also learned of the test flying the U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory was conducting. Two years later, Huff-Daland had redesigned its Petrel 5 airplane and had begun building the Huff-Daland Duster, a fabric-covered biplane powered by the 200-horsepower Wright J-4 Whirlwind radial.
Other manufacturers saw the potential in ag aviation after the war, and in the 1950s and ’60s four new airplane types would dominate it: Grumman Ag-Cats, Piper Pawnees, Rockwell-Standard Commander Thrushes, designed by Leland Snow, and Snow’s Air Tractors. These would become the basis of the multimillion-dollar, 3,500-airplane industry cropdusting has become today. Snow, 77, has seen more than 2,000 Air Tractors alone roll out of his facility in Olney, Texas, since he started manufacturing them in 1958.
For more than 55 of the 85 years of cropdusting history, Leland Snow has been the major contributor to the development of “flying farm equipment,” as he calls his airplanes. Snow’s designs, which inspired other ag plane makers, incorporated a tubular steel framework that includes a roll cage to protect pilots in mishaps.
Former rice pilot Don Waguespack, whose career spanned the gamut from Stearmans to GPS-equipped turbines, knows first-hand how important cockpit protection can be. By the time he retired, at 66, “Wag,” as he is known throughout Louisiana rice country, had become a legend, having survived more forced landings than he can recall and walking away from three airplane wrecks. His worst, he says, was in a 450-horsepower Grumman Ag-Cat. “They had overloaded the airplane with fertilizer and didn’t tell me,” he recalls, “so after I took off, I couldn’t make it over the line of trees at the end of the runway.” The wings tore off as the Grumman shouldered through the treetops and went in head first. When the airplane hit the ground, the engine broke away and Waguespack jumped out into a pool of avgas, happy there was no electrical system in the airplane to ignite a fire. He was also happy he hadn’t been flying the Stearman, an airplane, he says, that “was not designed for that kind of work or that kind of wreck.”
Cropdusters work in a hierarchy of hazards, starting with the maze of obstacles they fly through and progressing through the farmers’ constant antagonists: time and weather. In the rice farming states—Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and California—every phase of rice production except the harvest is accomplished from the air. The most critical is planting. When the sprouted rice is ready, it must be aerially seeded in the flooded paddies within hours. “It doesn’t matter what the weather’s doing, the farmers have a small fortune tied up in the sprouts and we have to get it planted,” says pilot Butch Dehart. A muscular 45-year-old, Dehart grew up on a farm a couple miles from Ken Guidry’s Victory Flyers, near Abbeville, in southwest Louisiana, where Waguespack worked for years. Dehart speaks paternalistically about “his” farmers in his corner of Vermillion Parish, most of whom he’s known all his life. “They’re spoiled,” he laughs. “They pick up the phone and know we’re going to take care of their crops.”
The worst flying and landing conditions often coincide with the rice planting season, but rice pilots can’t wait till the weather clears. When the demands of the rice season required flying on rainy days, farmers would send fuel and loader trucks to parish roads surrounding the rice farms to refill the ag planes. “We need blacktop runways because the dirt strips are just mud,” says Dehart. Parish deputies would hold traffic until the pilots could land, fill up, and take off again, but for the last few years, Dehart explains with a hint of rancor, it’s up to the pilots and farmers to block roads so they can land for refueling and reloading their hoppers.