October 2009
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Crop Dusters Not Yet Ready to Fly into Sunset

   

Gentry Smith is the last of the “Old Breed” crop-duster pilots in Central Alabama and he’s kept busy flying to cotton fields from his hangar at the Prattville Airport which he manages.

 
   

Once Diminishing Aerial Application Now Increasing

He’s not that old, but Gentry Smith is among the last of the "Old Breed" crop-dusters in Central Alabama and he’s doing his part to keep their aeronautical accomplishments alive.

Spraying fields where cotton, soybeans and watermelons grew was about all Smith ever wanted to do and he didn’t waste time after soloing on June 4, 1986.

Four years later, he was in a cockpit—flying low over cotton and bean fields throughout Dallas, Autauga, Perry and other counties in the region.

Slowly, he saw his fellow pilots, including mentors, leaving the business. Some retired. Some died. Some found other things to do.

"When I started in 1990, there were 14 crop-duster planes in the air from Greensboro to Tallassee just about every day," said Smith, 40, as he relaxed behind his desk at the Prattville Airport. "Now, I’m the last one."

Managing the airport helps him pay the bills, but, for Smith, it’s the thrill and excitement of zooming in low over budding cotton plants. His wheels occasionally touch the tops of the crop before he sprays his chemicals and then pulls back on the throttle to gain altitude.

"I don’t like to run my wheels into the cotton because you never know what might be there like a pipe for instance," he said. "But, it does happen from time to time. Back in the ‘old days,’ farmers would tell crop-dusters they weren’t doing their job if they weren’t touching the cotton."

Smith said flying that low causes a problem because of slipstreams affecting spray patterns. Maintaining an altitude a bit higher allows better coverage of the crop.

He’s been spraying cotton fields for the past 17 years and has gained an enviable reputation throughout the state. Given the fact there are so few crop-dusters left, his name is well known to farmers who need help.

 "Unfortunately, there are so few left I know all their names," he said. "We’re not spraying as much as we once did and there are several reasons for it.

"For one thing, cotton-growing technology has changed so much the number of applications has changed. Insects once causing problems for cotton aren’t around as much now."

As crop-dusting appears to be falling out of favor in Alabama, it’s booming in the Midwest because of the ethanol craze prompting farmers to increase their corn production.

That’s not the case in Alabama where different methods of treating cotton and other crops have created competition tightening profit margins.

Flying a crop-duster is an expensive proposition. Most of the newer planes cost more than $1 million and ancillary expenses can create headaches for those who fly and manage their aircraft.

Crop dusting has been an important part of American agriculture since 1921 when U.S. Army Lt. John Macready used a modified Curtiss "Super Jenny" to deposit insecticide over a field in Ohio.

That experiment occurred less than two decades after the Wright brothers made their brief, but historic, flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903. It proved powered flight was much more than just a dream.

Aviation continued to grow during the period between Kitty Hawk and that field in Ohio, and it wasn’t long before the federal government approved aerial application of insecticides in southern states, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA).

Since then, crop dusting has run the gamut of applications—ranging from boll weevil eradication in Louisiana to commodity dusting throughout Dixie.

The NAAA said aerial application accounts for up to 25 percent of the delivery of crop production products in U.S. agriculture.

"Farmers value the use of aircraft because they can cover so much area so quickly, without disturbing the soil or the growing crops," said the report. "Aircraft can glide over the crops at up to 140 miles per hour. This is important because some pests and disease can do serious damage in just a day or two."

When crop dusting began, most of the planes were war surplus models. The open-cockpit Stearman biplane, used to train pilots during World War II, not only were relatively inexpensive, they also gave veterans a chance to make some money after they returned to civilian life.

The NAAA said more than 3,000 professional operators and pilots handle the delicate, but vital, job of applying chemicals to farms across America. Each pilot must meet stringent federal and state requirements—not only involving flying but also the handling of those chemicals.

In addition to having a commercial pilot’s license, they must also have a letter of competency to work as an agriculture pilot. Those who qualify are well aware of the importance of their work.

Next to flying jet fighters, those who maneuver aerial application aircraft over fields from Maine to California are involved in "one of the most demanding career choices" imaginable, the NAAA said.

Obtaining a crop-dusting license doesn’t mean a life-time job. Continued training is required throughout a pilot’s career—in and out of classrooms.

"Aerial applicators are committed to the control of chemical drift through research, technology and innovation," said the NAAA. "Ag pilots continue to take responsibility for good decisions in the field, the benefit of the crop they are treating and for the protection of all that surrounds the field."

Crop dusting may not sound as thrilling as dogfights during times of war or as profitable as piloting large commercial aircraft, but it can be just as rewarding in other ways.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has reported aerial applicators have been growing in numbers and hours in recent years, especially during the recent economic downturn. The FAA said hours flown by crop dusters are up nearly 30 percent from 2003 to 2007—the most recent reporting period.

The kind of aircraft used in aerial application has advanced as fast and as far as the industry itself. Take Leland Snow, for instance. At the age of 23, the lanky Texan began designing his own version of a crop duster. It was in 1951 and, two years later, he had completed his test flights.

From that humble beginning came Air Tractor, one of the country’s leading producers of crop dusting aircraft. In the years since Snow flew his first aerial applicator, more than 2,000 Snow-designed aircraft have been delivered to happy customers.

The company Snow created promotes its products with an ad encouraging operators and pilots to take a ride on a "140 mph tractor."

Some Alabama farmers have opted for new ways to do the same job—ways allowing them to spray chemicals on cotton fields without the use of crop-dusters. They are using elevated equipment that sprays crops from the same distance above cotton where pilots once flew.

In Smith’s case, however, he’s much in demand throughout Alabama’s Black Belt region. As the "last man standing," he gets calls all the time to spray cotton and other crops throughout the year.

The problem is, he has to fly farther to get to the fields these days because pilots who had done it are no longer in business. That means he might have to fly 50 miles or so to begin spraying instead of the 15 to 20 miles he had been flying to treat fields in past years.

Smith admitted to having had some close calls through his years of crop dusting, but that isn’t unusual for pilots who fly so low they almost expect it.

Touching the top of cotton plants, nipping some wires along the way or winding up in pea soup fog are some of the hazards experienced by most crop-dusters, but few, other than Smith, have been wounded in the line of duty.

It happened several years ago when he was spraying a watermelon field in the Billingsley community of Autauga County.

His routine mission ended in a frightening fashion when bullets ripped through his cockpit. One round entered just behind him. Another grazed his right arm and struck the dash. Blood splattered around him. A third bullet also entered his plane.

"He was firing a 9 mm pistol," said Smith, who is married and the father of two young children. "The Feds caught him and he plea-bargained his way into a five-year prison sentence."

Had the shooter been more accurate, Smith might have crashed into a stand of trees near the watermelon field.

"When you’re flying 180 feet a second, it takes only a fraction of a second to lose control and that’s what might have happened," he said. "People would have wondered what caused the pilot to crash into trees and probably blamed it on him."

His skill as a pilot got Smith out of harm’s way in the nick of time. He hadn’t lost enough blood to jeopardize his control of the aircraft.

"It didn’t feel like I was hit at first," he said. "I was bleeding, but I was looking for big holes in my body. I know just how lucky I was."

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.