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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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.

When ag plane builders started equipping their products with turbine engines, the cropdusting life got easier. Victory Flyers owner Ken Guidry, who was a cropduster for 46 years, since he was 19, modified his fleet with turbines in the 1980s, and at one time owned five turbine Ag-Cats. “I never dreamed anyone would have that much, let alone me,” he says today. “Everything got faster, safer, more fun, and paid better,” recalls Waguespack.

“One turbine-powered spray plane can do more than twice what a radial-engined plane could.

“When you’re turning, you ain’t earning,” Waguespack continues. “You make your pass, close your hopper, and your first move is downwind, nose up, to bleed off speed.” I ask him if that’s called a “P” turn or a “hammerhead.” He shrugs and says: “I call it the get-back-down-on-the field-as-fast-as-you-can turn.” Cropdusters repeat that pattern hundreds of times a day, between landings and takeoffs every 10 minutes or less to refill the hopper.

The public feels a sort of general unease about the chemicals the ag pilots spread. GPS has improved the precision and efficiency of spraying, but chemicals can still drift, and the practice of cropdusting has grown controversial. “People waved to us 30 years ago,” says Waguespack. “Now we look out for guys with shotguns.” To avoid drift, Louisiana pilots ground themselves when winds exceed 10 mph. “Dust devils or strong gusts crossing over trees could throw you out of the plane if you weren’t strapped in,” Waguespack claims. “It only throws you around for a second or two, but at 30 feet of altitude that can spoil your day.”

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