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 4 of 4)
Like a lot of cropdusters, the Quincy pilots talk about ag flying as though it were motocross riding or extreme skiing, where the speed and time in the air and the split-second decisions and the equipment they’re riding are always manageable if not exactly under control.
Perhaps the most perilous job in ag aviation is the night spraying that Gary Hubler, near Boise, has done for most of 31 seasons. Seed crops such as alfalfa in Idaho’s Treasure Valley must be pollinated by bees. Hundreds of beehives are trucked into the valley for the seasonal job. Insecticides sprayed during the day would kill the bees, so the crop sprayers work at night, after the bees have made it back to the hives. About 30 percent of his flying time, Hubler takes to the night skies. He shrugs off the danger. “You develop night vision,” he says. “But when you’re going under power lines and over trees, a good memory of where the obstructions are from seeing the field in daylight helps a lot. It’s usually smooth; the winds die down at night.” Hubler, 52, is tall and slim with a rolling stride. He flies Polish-built Dromader M-18As, a monoplane design derived from Leland Snow’s S-2.
Hubler’s father was a cropduster for 21 years. His brother Dan, also a cropduster, died in 1986 when he clipped a power line while he was spraying at dusk, a mishap, as Hubler explains it, that Dan had avoided “a million times.” Hubler shakes his head slowly. “For a while I flew freight, and didn’t know if I’d go back to the job that killed my little brother.”
Ag pilots don’t grow on trees. Many in the profession are retiring, and there are only a handful of schools around the country to instruct new pilots. One of them, Ag Flight in Bainbridge, Georgia, graduates as many as 40 students a year, but they can become ag pilots only after established operators bring them up through the ranks, sometimes starting them off as loaders or other ground-crew positions. The fine points of cropdusting continue to be passed along, for the most part, by word of mouth, just as John Edwards instructed his sons how to spray cotton around Leland, Mississippi. And because a turbine-powered ag plane can cost well over half a million dollars, insurance companies often request a training syllabus from operators before insuring the aircraft. “You have to be real persistent to break into ag aviation,” according to Jerry Miller, an instructor at Ag Flight.
In that way, the profession hasn’t changed so much. It was tough to break into the business when Don Waguespack was trying in the early 1950s. “I always had the urge to fly, since I was about 12,” he says. “I wanted to learn but I didn’t know how I would go about doing it.” He got a job loading trucks for the air service that sprayed his father’s rice farm, and with a loan from his uncle, he bought a Piper Cub Special and got his pilot’s license. “Then the owner of the air service gave me the chance to fly,” he says. “Flying low like that—it was exactly what I imagined.” Ken Guidry had a similar experience: “I started with nothing, and I made a lot of money, and it was fun,” he says. “It never seemed like a day’s work.”
For the determined, Jerry Miller believes, there are jobs today. “I hear every day about some operator who needs to replace a retiring pilot,” Miller says. “Fifteen years ago there were no job openings. Today a new pilot can earn 90 dollars per hour spraying boll weevil in the southeast. I don’t know about other regions and crops, but the jobs are out there.” He pauses, then adds, “When they quit building John Deere tractors, they can quit building ag planes.”
When I asked Gary Hubler about retirement, and if he could sell his business, he said, “I’d have to get a cheap plane and break a young guy in like my Dad did me. Get his hours built up, watch him fly, and talk to him about all the ways to avoid getting hurt. Eventually he’d be coming out of a turn, in the dark, checking the GPS, while shooting an approach back down to the field under a power line, and exactly when and where he needs to, he’d open the old ‘money handle’ and put the spray exactly where it has to go and then he’d know he had arrived and I’d be happy and so would some farmers.”
Kenneth Trahan, a fifth-generation Louisiana rice farmer, put it this way: “Thank goodness there’s a few pilots brave enough to do it. We can’t grow rice without ’em.”