What I Learned as a Crop Duster

To fly an airplane is, to many people, an apt metaphor for prosperity, a rising above the niggling difficulties of life but, for me, that metaphor no longer fits.  In this, my first season as a crop duster, I returned to my roots as a farm kid and flew airplanes with hard-scrabble names like “Air Tractor” and “Pawnee”, sailing through the wide green canyons of farmers’ fields with crops below and trees above.

Agricultural flying is different from the panel-driven processes we use in instrument flying.  You fly by feel – the sound of the wind and the resistance in the stick and the center of your weight.  You bank all day long.  Pull too little and you don’t turn.  Pull too hard and you don’t fly again, ever.  Pull just right and the airplane sings; you pick a spot on the ground and watch as your wingtip traces a circle around it.  The altitude you claimed as you zoomed over the trees you now give back, little by little, spiraling down, conceding to gravity in exchange for centripetal force, using your lift to pull the field back into view.

It is a dance which does not dull with repetition for the grace of the turn is rewarded with deep satisfaction and the desire to dance well transcends the discouragement of missteps.  But with the dance comes the gritty reality of life with flying machines…  Like the night the airport remained black despite my feverish tap-dance on the radio – which had apparently failed – after bucking ferocious headwinds and now with little fuel to go somewhere else.  The day I landed the lumbering Air Tractor and the right brake pedal went without resistance straight to the floor as the big taildragger veered slowly, inexorably away from the centerline and toward the ditch.  The morning I pulled up to clear the powerline that I expected, directly into a powerline I did not expect.

I remember my first simulated spray flight with Steve, a skillful and experienced spray pilot.  I saw that the field we were to spray cupped out into the adjacent wood, forming a little half-circle large enough for a few short rows of potatoes.  I kept my mouth shut as we skimmed over the tree tops then dove to the surface.  I gulped as I scanned the front and right side windows, both unexpectedly filled with a blur of black and green as we hurtled past tall trees, riding no higher than when, as a kid, I drove a tractor along such fence rows.  Staring forward, I saw trees ahead and well above our path growing rapidly larger and thought “Steve is going to pull up now”, but he didn’t.  It may have been a second later or it may have been a month before he did pull and the windscreen changed, at last, from tree trunks to tree limbs to treetops and, finally, to the blessed blue sky.  As we circled for another pass I arrived at a threshold in my little mind.  Do I really want to do this?  I did not feel afraid, exactly, but I wondered if this dance conformed to predictable laws of physics or if, perhaps, it was a form of slow surrender to chance.

I had read about a maneuver called the “Avalanche” in a book and rode my trusty Super Decathlon high into the sky to try it.  It’s not technically difficult; you perform a loop and, at the top as you hang lightly from your shoulder harness upside down – the earth above the horizon and the sky below – at this moment when your grasp upon the physical world seems must vulnerable and confused, you do what most of your pilot training has taught you to never do: You pull the stick hard to the stop and stomp on a rudder as the stall warning horn wails, in order, I suppose, to fully surrender all that feels safe and familiar.  And then, in a mad blur the horizon twists, the earth twirls from the top of the windscreen to the bottom and again to the top and then, having returned to the relative safe haven of inverted flight at slow airspeed, you center the controls and pull gently to begin the sweeping, accelerating arc to level flight.

Through some defect in my character or reason, I decided to do it again and, over time, came to love it.  At first, I think, I simply did not dare to not try it; to be ruled by fear of something that was apparently safe.  And, in my practice for Ag flying, my feeling was much the same.  Yes, the ground whistled by at normal cruising speeds just below the gear.  Yes, the trees reached hungrily into the field and tossed their heads boisterously above.  And always those cruel wires, barely visible, ready to slice off a wing or grasp a careless wheel. 

And yet, despite my active imagination, they did not really move, did not actively menace.  Low over a field, zooming over treetops or twisting back for the next pass, an airplane does what airplanes always do, given proper commands and airspeed.  In Ag flying the tolerances are reduced and the aircraft performance varies much with load and temperature, but it is a predictable and trustworthy environment, a subset of the consistent and predictable physics of our world.  God has, in his kindness, made it so.

Nonetheless, I found myself in some precarious situations this summer, most of my own creation.  On that dark night when I could not turn airport lights on, I returned to a little grass strip I had passed a few minutes earlier.  Though rarely used, it’s dim runway lights were inexplicably burning.  No people, no fuel, but a safe haven in my personal storm. 

When the Air Tractor began its slow and seemingly irresistible departure from the runway I stomped violently on the right brake, ripped off my shoulder harness so I could stomp harder and yelled aloud for God’s help.   Slowly, the left turn stopped, and the big airplane rolled to a stop at the edge of the runway.  While other airplanes waited, I tried to coax her forward but, even with all of my weight on the opposing brake, she would do nothing but turn circles on the runway. 

When I flew into the powerline, I had no time to react or even pray.  I was passing through the narrow neck of a field between a barn on my left and a house to my right, both ringed with trees.  I had circled the field looking for wires here and was surprised to find none but decided they were probably there, near the road, hidden in the shadows.  The wires were there, in fact, but not near the road. They were well into the field, suspended between poles hidden within the tree lines on my left and right. 

Looking ahead as I skimmed over the crop, the wires were invisible against the gray-green horizon but as I pulled early to pass well above the road I saw for an instant against the gray sky two horizontal lines bisecting my windscreen, perhaps ten feet ahead.  I must have blinked because I then saw nothing and heard nothing, just the sky and the normal roar of the big radial.  I gently tested the controls, especially concerned that the wire had dragged over the sturdy cockpit and sliced off my tail but, no, the rudder responded normally.  In the one hundredth of a second in which I saw my peril the airplane’s massive propeller had sliced through the wires, saving both of our lives.

Why was I, in any of these cases, spared the bitter end which has claimed the lives or careers of better pilots?  They had families, too, expecting them to come home that night.  Of course, I have no answer to that question but several Psalms that I used to read as allegory I now regard as simple fact.  “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”  “Our God is a God who saves; from the Sovereign Lord comes escape from death.”  “In the day of my trouble I will call to you for you will answer me.”  “The Lord protects the simple-hearted; when I was in great need, he saved me.”  “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

I am anxious, now that harvest time has come, to return to a more normal schedule and to the privilege of occasionally serving with Wings of Mercy.  I return with a renewed awareness that, for many of the people we serve, life comes hard with obstacles hurtling toward them and new, unexpected heartaches waiting around every corner.  As pilots, we are often allowed the great privilege of soaring above this world but, as servants through Wings of Mercy, we are allowed the still greater privilege to “weep with those who weep”, praying for the comfort and deliverance of a merciful God who helps even fools like me.

But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.  Turn to me and have mercy on me; grant your strength to your servant…for you, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me.

Psalm 86

In the Pawnee at Gaylord

An angry spirit inhabits this place.  It slaps and jars my little ship with contempt.  I am accustomed to turbulence, but this is something different.  It has personality.  The gusts and eddies of its breath do not just shove the airplane around, they strike it with sharp jabs from all directions, like a circling boxer.  My head, encumbered by the crash helmet, bobbles atop my shoulders, sometimes raps against the side windows.  I am in a boxing match, but I cannot raise my guard and I cannot fight back.

I have a strained relationship with the Pawnee.  Over the field it is a stable platform and it turns well.  Farmers say that its spray coverage is better than the bigger machines and the owner loves its lower operating cost and ability to get into obstructed fields.  But it has annoying traits which include a small hopper and relatively slow airspeed, leading to endless ferrying, and an abysmal roll rate.  The angry spirit probes, sees an opportunity, and sets its lips into a grim smirk.

The field is beautiful from a spray pilot’s point of view.  One hundred fifty acres with no wires within its boundaries, only a large, self-propelled irrigation line to dodge while spraying.  On the east, a powerline runs along a road, perpendicular to my path.  On the west and north, tall trees bound the field then follow terrain which falls steeply away. The wind, as usual here, is from the north.  It comes roiling up and over the hill then spills sharply over the tree line into the field.

The little Pawnee bobs gently over the crop, climbs briefly to clear the irrigation pivot, then settles again over the field.  She is full of fuel and full of material and flies a little like a bathtub in the hot, humid air.  As the west tree line fills my windscreen I pull and, for a sickening half-second, feel the airplane mush in the approaching downdraft but it soon recovers, scrabbles out of the hole and labors over the treetops.  I have spent most of my zoom and the airplane wallows.  I widen and make shallow my turn.  It is impossible to hold a constant bank angle; gusts shove the wings one way and then another and I correct, over and again, the stick waving back and forth as I fight the lee wind for command of the ship.

The Pawnee has a small windscreen; I see only the tossing heads of trees below as I turn back toward the estimated location of my next swath.  Bouncing along, I restore the bank angle yet again and am hit hard by a stronger gust as I pass through a heading of south-west.  My upwind wing is struck by wind racing over the hill and lifted high, increasing my bank to perhaps 75 degrees.  My left hand jabs the throttle forward, my right hand buries the stick against the right stop but the Pawnee’s little ailerons are a poor match for the lifting force on my right wing and, even with full control deflection, my bank continues to increase as I begin to descend toward the trees. 

At bank angles much over 60 degrees increasing the elevator only increases the centripetal force, committing available lift to accelerate the turn – a bad idea in this situation.  Top rudder could be used to raise the nose but at my airspeed the resulting lack of coordination would soon produce a spin.  The only way to escape the limbs now growing large the windscreen, is to gently move the stick forward while holding full opposite aileron, remaining below the wing’s critical angle of attack while fighting my way back to a level attitude.

The gust, of course, subsided and the whole episode, which I have perhaps inflated to an epic, lasted only a few seconds but I can still see that dark green hole in the forest into which I was quickly and helplessly turning.  Perhaps I was terrified, I just remember being mad.  I cursed the little airplane and increased my margins.  I grumbled through turn after ragged turn over the wind-swept hilltop. The angry spirit smiled. 

During the first load, turns on the east side of the field were smooth by comparison and flight over the field itself uneventful but during the second load the wind began to increase. 

I find it a beautiful and natural thing that an airplane should leave the earth and fly about the sky.  I find it much less desirable that a pilot should leave his seat and fly about the cabin.  Still, as the wind began to accelerate and its waves to solidify, the west tree line had become punishing.  Though my seat belt and shoulder harness were fastened, they were clearly not tight enough.

Turning back into field, I cross the treeline and lower the nose.  Suddenly I am flung from my seat, my shoulders straining against the harness.  A flying bottle of Gatorade whacks my arm; Windex and paper-towels are cascading from the shelf behind my head to my lap and then to the floor.  The ground is coming up fast, but it is difficult to work the stick as my body bounces back to the seat.  I compose myself as best I can during the spray pass and make a wide turn at the other end, taking time to clean house and tighten each harness strap until it presses into my skin. 

So far, I am having no fun, but the work is getting done.  The wind over the field is about 12 miles per hour with minimal gusts.  It is bumpy here, always bumpy.  You could wait a week for calm conditions.  If you can put your spray on the crops accurately without drift and without hurting your equipment, you spray.

But today, the spirit is a little angrier than usual.  Wind over flat terrain, usually, is not a complex foe.  It may come hard and vary in speed, but it is somewhat consistent and, thus, may be compensated for.  And so, even though pounded while over the trees, I was and expected to be in a stable environment over the field.  Crabbing, perhaps, to stay on swath, and using elevator gently to maintain position, but the ailerons are generally still.  This is necessary in any case because the wings and spray booms are near the ground.  Lift one wing and the other drops, very possibly into the crop, bringing a sudden and climatic end to spraying activities.  And so, I was rattled when, while spraying over the middle of the field, a gust hit and one wing dropped almost thirty degrees.  I did not strike but I easily could have.  I finished the load at 8 feet and headed back to park the airplane. 

This, too, at Gaylord is easier said than done.  Over several weeks I concluded that a more suitable name for the little runway we use is ‘the Devil’s Driveway’.  It is plenty long at over 4,000 feet but not much wider than the Pawnee’s wings, the asphalt is rated ‘poor’ and a 20-foot slope appears about one third of the way from the west end.  You may ask, as I have asked, why the runway was laid east to west when the wind is almost always whistling from the north.  You might marvel at the swirling effects created by the broken tree line along the upwind side of the runway.  You might conclude, as I have concluded, that the real purpose of this facility is weed out incompetent crop-dusters.  It has certainly exposed me.

I noted the other day that the Pawnee’s right main shows a bit more wear than the left and I know why.  Most take-offs and landings here are performed on that wheel, the airplane’s nose hunting up and down to maintain the desired angle of attack from one swirling parcel of air to the next.  I have made both horrible and wonderful landings here and, from a non-pilot’s point of view, they probably looked a lot alike.

After one very busy but soft and short upwind-wheel landing I cut power and rolled for about twenty feet then suddenly found myself ten feet above the runway with, of course, very little airspeed.  I jammed in power and fought my way back to the surface and centerline for another soft one-wheel touch-down and thought to myself “That may be the best landing I have ever made and my loader is probably thinking ‘What an idiot!’”. 

Then again, several of my landings on that driveway were the work of an idiot.  Once, after a wind shear-accelerated full-stall landing I bounced into space and, while in this vulnerable state, weathervaned into the stiff crosswind and returned to earth headed directly into a runway light.  I did what little I could with the left brake and braced for the sickening sound of the spray boom being ripped from the wing.  Somehow, I missed the light.  I cannot tell you how, except to say that God often has mercy on this fool.  I tried to taxi in a nonchalant manner as I twirled around in the grass and rolled back to the loading rig. 

That is the last time I attempted a three-point landing on a hard surface in a crosswind with the Pawnee.  Between the springy bungees that support the gear, the big bouncy tires, the low wing-loading while empty and its little ailerons, this airplane seems – in my hands – like a bounce waiting to happen.