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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The winds that pitch and plunge, often unpredictably, out of Washington state’s 10,000-foot Cascade Mountains are day spoilers for northwestern ag pilots. The Quincy Flying Service’s hangars and paved strip reside in the lee of the Cascade foothills. In central Washington, where the foothills finally flatten out, hardened volcanic flows intrude through thin soil and make farming difficult. The farmers manage with the help of irrigation pivots, watering booms that look like fallen radio towers mounted on tractor tires. Center-pivot irrigation fixtures have turned Grant County into the “second biggest potato-producing county in the U.S.,” signs on Highway 2 brag.

Two dachshunds, a terrier, and Rick Weaver, flying service owner and pilot, greet visitors at the hangar office. Weaver employs two pilots to do the spraying: Mark Brown, 38, and Dave Mickelson, 48. Over the years, the Weavers have owned six Pawnees, two helicopters, and an assortment of smaller “recip planes,” which they have now replaced with turbine-powered Air Tractors.

The Columbia River defines the western edge of Grant County, and two-inch-thick cross-country power lines, carried in sets of eight by towers 12 stories tall, radiate from the many hydroelectric dams like strands in an enormous metal web. Fiber-optic lines have been hung beneath the power lines. More wires to new irrigation pivots and commuter ranchettes show up every year, in addition to the hundreds of phone and electric lines that serve crossroads communities and farms. Grant County looks to be embroidered with more wires per square mile than any place in the United States.

Among Grant County ag pilots, a conventional wisdom has developed about how to survive wire strikes. Mickelson’s advice: “You can’t break a cross-country wire with your landing gear, so hit the wire square with your prop, so you cut it,” which Mickelson did, just seconds before totaling an Air Tractor a few years ago. “I was looking at the wires a couple hundred feet ahead and forgot about the one right in front of me,” he says. “I got my prop into it and cut it. I swapped some airspeed for maybe a hundred feet of altitude. My windscreen was covered with oil, but out the side I saw a chance to clear a hundred-foot-tall poplar windbreak and land uphill in an apple orchard between the rows.” From the moment he hit the wire until he climbed from the wreckage, perhaps a minute elapsed.

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.”

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