Photographer's Note


crop duster — day 2

As I reported yesterday, there were only three persons to handle the whole process. After taking material from transport-truck the driver of the pumping truck is loading up the aircraft’s container while the pilot waits to take off for dusting and will return at about 10-minute intervals.

According to the FAA, there were about 2,900 crop-dusters in the USA in 2004, down from about 5,000 in 1996. Now, the number at about 2,600. New techniques allow farmers to plant less and produce more. Modern planes can cost up to $1 million and spray at speeds near 150 mph. They fly 10 feet above fields during application.

Since the early 1900s, low-flying planes have swooped over the farms, leaving behind a swath of chemical cloud to kill pests or to fertilize crops. The crop duster's role is a professional one with tremendous pressures, requiring courage, caution, and safety. It is a game dealing with stress. Some pilots learned flying informally from other pilots or more formally in the military or commercial flight school. Likewise, many of the skills of cropdusting were and still are learned informally on the job from other cropdusters as well as in commercial flight schools. Ag-aviation required the low flying to minimize "chemical drift." The lower the plane flies, the less chance the chemicals will fall on the wrong crop.

Cropdusters also learn the specialized language of their trade in a traditional manner on the job. This language deals with the equipment, techniques, and names for the different jobs for the cropdusting crew. Cropdusting was dangerous in the past because planes were not made specifically for the job. They were light training planes with poor visibility or weak frames, which sometimes proved fatal.

In the past, the cropdusting crew included "flagmen" on the ground who marked the area just sprayed with a white flag so the pilot would know where he had sprayed that area or miss another area. If the flagman did not stay out of the way of the plane, his life was endangered by the low-flying plane. There were flagmen got killed on the job. Today's crop-spraying planes have an automatic flagging system on the plane to prevent overspraying which can damage the plant or even kill it.

In addition to the threat of poisons, the pilot's safety is threatened by obstacles he encounters on his route. "Dusting crops in those days was very close to combat. You had the same fear; all you had to do was hit the standpipe, or hit a fencepost, or pull up and not see a wire and hit a wire. You had bad luck waiting for you at every turn. To help cope with intense job pressures, cropduster pilots often hang out at airport hangars to "bull," or share jokes or funny stories about the dangers of the job.

The cropduster's relationship to the farmer is symbiotic and intensely important. Offering his skills to the farmer, the serious cropduster mediates between life and death. Willing to take a risk, the cropduster carries the power of life and death on the plane, and he faces death everyday on the job if he is careless. Their roles are normally regarded ambivalently, with fear and respect, with humor and awe. Certainly, these pilots live much of their lives suspended between sky and ground — heaven and earth — bringing death to pests and life to the crops.
(Compilation from a text by Susan Roach & Janet Ryland).


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Additional Photos by Ngy Thanh (ngythanh) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 471 W: 125 N: 2332] (8458)
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