Mark Edwards in a turbine Air Tractor. (Grant/DCP Inc.)
The pilot of a 1924 Huff-Daland leaves a cloud behind. (NASM (SI Neg. #91-723))
A purpose-built Grumman Ag-Cat still has to land as often as every 10 minutes to reload the hopper. (Grant/DCP, INC.)
A war-surplus Stearman. (Hans Groenhoff Photographic Collection/NASM (SI Neg. #2003-33190))
Even with a crash helmet and safety harness, Butch Dehart is watchful during turns. (Grant/DCP, INC.)
Vigilance is wise; cropdusters share the airways. (Grant/DCP, INC.)
The birthplaces of ag aviation: Mississippi cotton fields. (NASM (SI Neg. #USAF-10870AC))
The old terminal at Louisiana's Vicksburg/Tullulah Regional Airport is still a dusters' depot. (Grant/DCP, INC.)
One of the few classes of pilots who don't fly to get somewhere, cropdusters build thousands of hours in a few square miles. (Grant/DCP, INC.)

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.

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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.”

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