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.

Mark Edwards in a turbine Air Tractor (Grant/DCP Inc.)
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We are tearing along at 120 mph about six feet above the ground in Mark Edwards’ Citabria. Ripe cotton brushes the landing gear, and the field is a dirty white blur. “You want leaves in your brake calipers when you land,” Edwards says matter-of-factly on my headset. The Mississippi cotton field is bordered by dirt roads and outlined with rows of trees, fences, and more power lines and utility poles than I’ve noticed anywhere before. Silos, sheds, and barns jut ominously. When you’re looking for potential obstructions, cell phone towers and radio antennas held erect with nearly invisible guy wires seem to multiply.

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Edwards, an agricultural pilot with 16,000 hours, calls my attention to the power lines that cut across the field about a quarter of a mile ahead. We’re closing in on them at roughly 200 feet per second. This is like “slow mo,” he says, compared with his turbine-powered Air Tractor, which he flies all day long at 140 mph. But the Air Tractor doesn’t have a passenger seat, so he’s using his two-place Citabria to approximate for me what cropdusting is like.

As we pass under the wires, I duck and curse reflexively. “Make you duck?” Edwards asks. “I do sometimes.” He pulls up short of some trees, points the nose at the oyster-shell sky, then rolls the airplane over on its left wing and dives back down at the cotton field. He levels out, seemingly inches above the ground, and does the power line limbo again. “You gotta stay composed doing that,” he says. “Real hot days the wires stretch and droop. Ones you fit under before can go lower.” He makes another turn, then says, “You get bird strikes around power lines. They spook at the last second.”

Aerial application, as cropdusters like to call their trade, is barely aerial. The lower the airplane flies, the smaller the chance the chemicals it disperses will drift away from the target crops and the greater the chance the target will be covered evenly. Mark Brown, an ag pilot in central Washington, says he flies 10 or 12 feet above the ground “so the product mixes in our airflow instead of individual streaks hitting the ground. Too high, you get drift.

Fifteen feet can be too high. You take what the wind offers.”

Short of combat flying, there probably isn’t a more demanding mission for pilots and aircraft than spraying crops. I’ve heard stories of ducks flying up into airplanes from Louisiana rice paddies, horses that suddenly stand from a slumber in tall Mississippi cotton, fence posts that appear in inconvenient locations, and any number of mishaps, mid-airs, near-misses, and forced landings.

A 2002 Federal Aviation Administration report noted that the accident rate for agricultural operations is higher than the overall accident rate for general aviation, yet the fatality rate is lower. Ag pilots and the makers of the airplanes they fly have learned to manage a workplace crowded with things to run into. Safety features include wire cutters in front of the windscreen to keep a pilot who has run into a power line from being decapitated. Cockpits have strong harness systems, collapsible structure in front of the pilot, low-positioned instrument panels, and an energy-absorbing seat. But ag planes didn’t start out that way.

The Edwards brothers, Mark and Bubba, grew up on a farm less than a mile from their fixed-base operation, Edwards Flying Service, which comprises two hangars, tanks, sheds, a 3,400-foot runway, and a concrete pad, where they mix and load chemicals. They are hefty, pleasant, unflappable pilots who rarely fly above 500 feet or more than a few miles from their strip. They aren’t instrument-rated and don’t want to be, and they can’t imagine wanting to do any less challenging kind of flying. Like all ag pilots, they avoid obstacles (or not) all day while precisely spraying dozens of 3,000-pound loads of expensive chemicals, seeds, and fertilizers from airplanes that are designed to withstand 50 or more takeoffs and landings and a couple of hundred tight, fast turns a day, day after day.
From a dirt strip next to the Edwards’ farmhouse, John “Bubba” Edwards Sr. flew a war-surplus Stearman with a 55-gallon drum strapped in the back seat that was plumbed to spray crops. The brothers went to a cropdusting school because Bubba Sr. was self-taught and didn’t feel he’d be a good instructor, but they grew into ag aviation under his tutelage. “Daddy’d watch us fly neighbors’ fields and talk to us afterwards,” Mark recalls. “He’d tell us things like: ‘Drive around every new field and look for wires before you fly it’ or ‘Put the throttle to the firewall. Those planes can take it’ or ‘Look way out ahead; don’t get stuck staring.’ We grew up living and talking flying.”

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.

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