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

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