LOCAL CROP DUSTERS ROUTINELY FACE DANGER
Story by Brad Goins • Photos by Eligio Herrera
Anyone who wants to be a daredevil in an airplane cockpit need only obtain a job as a crop duster (or “aerial applicator,” as they’re often called these days.) To get fertilizer, seed or other products on agricultural fields, crop dusters must fly close to the ground at speeds of 150 to 200 miles an hour (to keep the airplane from slamming into the ground at such a low altitude). While doing this, they must continually be on the lookout for power lines, towers and other hard-to-see threats. A miscalculation of even a few inches could mean a plane crash, and, potentially, death.
Those who have been pilots in the military, and are accustomed to thinking of flight as a risky business, are thought to have an advantage in the field of aerial application.
In 2013, the Lake Charles American Press filed a long report on the career of former crop duster Bill Kennedy of Jennings. As of his retirement in 1983, Kennedy had flown more than 80,000 hours while working in the service, as a private pilot and as a crop duster.
During World War II, Kennedy was one of the pilots of the U.S. Army Air Corps (the predecessor of the modern U.S. Air Force) who flew cargo planes over the Burma Hump — a route that ran from northeast India, through northern Burma and into south central China (in the Yunnan Province). Flying over the Himalayas was especially dangerous due to faulty maps, incomplete weather data and limited radio equipment. In spite of the difficulties posed by the Burma Hump, U.S. cargo plane pilots eventually delivered 650,000 tons of supplies to U.S. and Chinese troops.
When World War II ended, Kennedy used his three years of experience with flying cargo planes to become a crop duster for Jack Hains Flying Service in Rayne. Crop dusting, says Kennedy, was just getting started in Louisiana. It began as a means of eliminating parasites in cotton crops in north Louisiana. Later, it would be used to scatter rice over rice fields and fertilize the crop.
In the early days, the front seat was removed from the tiny Stearman planes that were flown in order to make room for the hopper that held the payload. Crop dusters such as Kennedy worked from dawn until dusk during peak agricultural seasons. He carried beef jerky and dried shrimp to eat. Few planes landed at airports; most used level strips of grass. As a rule, Kennedy worked seven days a week.
After a long stint as a personal pilot, Kennedy became a crop duster for the Zigler Flying Service in Jennings. In the early spring and summer, he worked the rice fields around Jennings. Then he took his plane to the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta. Finally, he returned to Louisiana for the end of the rice season.
Kennedy had plane crashes during his work as a crop duster. There wasn’t a clear reason for his first crash. He flew into a tree in the middle of a field. But he said he never even saw the tree. Still, it did enough damage to his small aircraft to cause it to plummet. “I just fell straight down. It didn’t hurt me at all,” he told the Press.
Once his wheels failed to clear a cattle fence near a landing strip and Kennedy and his plane wound up in a nearby corn field.
On another occasion, he hit a power line. But none of these accidents gave him serious injuries.
Crashes Around Jeff Davis Parish
Just in the last decade, several crop dusters in the general Jeff Davis Parish area have had major crashes.
In a July, 2019, crash, the pilot flew into a power pole that ripped off a wing. He then hit a tree and the wrecked plane came to rest upside down in a country field. Only the rear half of the fuselage was intact. The pilot suffered no serious injuries.
On Dec. 1 in 2020 in a muddy field south of Elton, a crop dusting plane hit the ground then flipped over. The pilot walked out through the mud in his socks, eventually reaching a nearby intersection where he got help.
Two years earlier, another crop duster in Vermilion Parish had taken a nose dive after he struck a power line. Although he survived, he “sustained serious injuries,” reported the Daily Advertiser.
And there was one fatal crash. On Feb. 15, 2013, the crashed plane of missing Iowa pilot William Precht, Jr., was found off Highway 1126. An investigation revealed he had snagged a line connected to a communications tower, most likely after it had grown dark.
Flying at 150 mph, his plane had just barely clipped a guy wire attached to the tower. The clip took place just 4 inches in from the tip of the wing. Still, the force of the impact caused a very swift loss of compression in the cockpit that caused Precht to die almost immediately.
In spite of the pilot’s inactivity, the plane kept flying for 2 1/2 minutes, climbing to a height of 400 feet then descending. When it came to rest on the ground, the amount of damage was not severe.
All plane crashes in the U.S. are investigated by members of the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board. In this case, the plane was so badly damaged it took investigators some time just to be able to read the number of the tail of the plane, which was a necessary preliminary to identifying the pilot.
The Many Risks
In 2017, there were seven fatalities among crop dusting pilots in the U.S. That gave crop dusters a 0.02 percent annual fatality rate. That is roughly the same rate that one faces when one drives a car. The difference, of course, is that a vast number of people drive cars several times a day, with the result that the total number killed while driving will be something like 40,000 a year — certainly a number that dwarfs 7.
AreoCorner claims crop dusters’ risky job of “dodging trees, homes, power lines and onlookers” accounts for 5 accidents a month among crop dusters in North America.
Power lines are especially dangerous. The FAA does not require warning signs for objects that have an elevation of less than 200 feet. Pilots may learn the location of power lines. But if one doesn’t know where these lines are, they can be a challenge to see from the cockpit. And if the plane is going 200 mph, a power line can cut it in half.
Some planes have guides designed to keep power lines off their tails. But these are not 100 percent effective.
A new threat is the meteorological tower: a narrow tower that rises to a height of less than 200 feet. The towers, sometimes called MET towers, are used to gather data for wind energy companies. Any farmer can lease part of his land to these companies for the construction of a tower. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration require these towers be marked and lighted, but for now that’s only happening in a few states.
Stalling can pose a real danger when a plane is so low to the ground that the pilot cannot make the plane dip. To avoid this danger, crop dusters tend to fly at fast rates when they are close to the ground — obviously a risky proposition. (Remember that one of the accidents described above involved a pilot who got his wheels caught in a farm field fence.)
At the peak of the agricultural season, some crop dusters work as much as 14 hours. And the work is physically demanding. Crop dusters must make turns with a 70-degree angle of bank. Such a turn subjects a pilot to a force three times that of gravity (3G). The force of these turns can hammer away at the strength of even the most athletic pilots.
Fire retardant clothing is extremely important for keeping crop dusters safe. (Fire is a frequent factor in serious accidents or deaths.) Helmets are also important.
Pilots should inspect their crafts carefully before flights to make sure maintenance is up to snuff. They should keep current on safety innovations by being involved in such groups as PAASS (Professional Aerial Applicators’ Support System).
Finally, pilots should keep emotions out of the cockpits. At times, farmers or landowners may apply pressure to get a certain amount of product covered by a certain time. If a pilot is aggravated or angered by a particular employer’s demands or tone, he should wait until he calms down before he takes off. An emotionally overwrought pilot may not be able to muster the degree of focus he needs to spot power lines.
Glass Half Full
Crop dusting is not going away. Right now, about a fifth of the commercial cropland in the country receives some sort of aerial application.
In spite of repeated concerns about the dangers of crop dusting, there is some reason to accentuate the positive elements of the occupation. “Unless you just go straight into the ground, you’re going to survive a crash in these kinds of airplanes,” Missouri crop duster Mike Lee told Harvest Public Media. “It’s kind of like a NASCAR. It’s going to disintegrate around you, and most likely you’ll still be holding the stick and in the seat when it’s all been said and done.”
One person who might agree with those statements is Wayne Guillard, who’s spent much of his life in an airplane cockpit, and who became the owner of Lake Air Service in Jennings 13 years ago. Guillard says that in those 13 years, the company “hasn’t had an incident” of a plane crashing. “Knock on wood.”
Guillard, who presently operates six planes and hires the pilots to fly them, says he “would like to improve the public’s image of the crop duster.”
Short of radical and unanticipated changes, the profession will continue to attract a very specific sort of employee: the adrenaline junky, the daredevil, the one who is invigorated by risk. For some people, it will always be worthwhile to take a few extra chances in order to keep flying the way they want to fly.