With new chemicals coming on the market to kill both insects and weeds, farmers began looking for the best way to apply them. An industry that had been in existence for two decades got a huge boost during the post-war period – crop dusting. And because the pilots pulled off amazing feats of aerial daring while facing death every day, the “dusters” gained a measure of fame and popular romance.
The industry – now known as aerial application – began in 1921 when a surplus World War I Curtis Jenny airplane took off from a field near Dayton, Ohio. A local orchard was being attacked by Catalpa sphinx moths. The Jenny had been fitted with a makeshift metal hopper and a distribution mechanism. The pilot came in low and dusted the orchard with powdered lead arsenate, the best insecticide available at the time. The moths were killed and an industry was born.
News spread and other farmers looked for local pilots when they faced insect invasions. Pilots would teach other how to drop down on a field, fly with their wheels almost touching the crops to reduce “chemical drift” and then pull up sharply at the end of the field. The trick was to know where obstacles like power lines, fence posts and water standpipes were. Hitting an obstacle could kill you. And more than one pilot was responsible for killing the power to a nearby town or rural area by snagging the power lines with his or her tail hook.
On the ground, “flagmen” were stationed to help the pilot keep track of what parts of the field still needed to be sprayed. This was almost as dangerous a job as the pilots, both because of the possibility of being hit by the plane and the long-term exposure to deadly chemicals. Both pilots and flagmen used to boast that they didn’t have to worry about being bit by mosquitoes after a day of spraying.
World War II provided a tremendous boom to the industry –
- The war, of course, produced the new chemicals that became popular with farmers after it.
- The war also trained thousands of pilots and many of them wanted to keep flying after it.
- And the war produced thousands of military training aircraft that later became surplus.
For instance, the Piper J-3 Cub was the airplane that 80 percent of U.S. military pilots learned to fly on during the war. A total of 14,125 Piper Cubs were built between 1939 and 1947. At one point, one new Cub was built every 20 minutes.
After the war, the government dumped 30,000 surplus airplanes on the market at low prices. Surplus two-wing, two-seat Boeing Kaydet trainers were sold for as little as $250. A brand new J-3 Piper Cut was only $2,195. Many of these aircraft were converted into crop dusters.
Jim Chenault was one of the WWII pilots who became a crop duster. He and a partner, Don Bair bought a surplus Piper J-C Cub, “put a tank in the back seat and hung a spray boom under the wing and put a little propeller driven pump to supply the pressure,” Jim says. “2,4-D was our primary weed killer at the time… Everybody that flew kind of had a desire to ‘buzz’ – get close to the ground and get close to things and whatnot. It kind of adds to that. But, really, it’s just about as dangerous as you want to make it.”
Later, the crop dusting market got so big that aircraft engineers designed planes specifically for the industry. These planes had maximum visibility for the pilots, huge wings for lift and maneuverability, strengthened cockpits, special tanks and sprayers and airframes coated with polyurethane to reduce corrosion from the strong chemicals. But since 2000, the industry has hit hard times. Genetically modified crops that have insect resistance built in have reduced the need for spraying, and the pilots are looking for new markets for their skills.