CROP-DUSTING IN IDAHO

N78645

By John Bigelow

By early summer, 1959, my friend, Murray, an ex-F-86 fighter jock fresh from the Royal Canadian Air Force, and I, a furloughed Canadian C-46 copilot, were newly graduated crop-dusters.

Murray had landed a job flying Stearmans in Greeley, Colo., and was leaving tomorrow. I’d signed-on with Charlie Reeder of Reeder Flying Service in Twin Falls, Idaho. He needed pilots, and would start me on the Piper PA-11 Cub. If I knew what I was doing, I could look forward to upgrading to a Stearman. I was so excited that I’d hung up the phone before asking about pay. Not that it mattered. I was again employed as a pilot.

In the hotel bar that last night, drinking Jim Beam, listening to Keely Smith on the jukebox, drunk and happy, we shared the illusion we had the world by the tail.

“See ya, ugly!” Murray finally said, his idea of a fond goodbye.

“Take care, Murray. Watch the wires!” I retorted.

To me, Charlie Reeder was a small, old guy–maybe pushing 40 years old. A battered “Fly Navy” baseball cap rode the back of his bald head, and his eyes were unreadable behind a pair of Ray-Bans. He grinned up at me and stuck out a hand. I liked him immediately. I showed him my crop-dusting diploma from the Minden Aviation Institute, but he waved it away.

“I really don’t care much about that. I want to know if you can fly. Tomorrow morning, be here at seven o’clock. I’ll have Rob check you out in the PA-11.”

Then, as an afterthought, he asked: “Ever flown a Cub?”

“No sir, I haven’t. I learned to fly in a Harvard, the Canadian equivalent of the AT-6. The only other single-engine time I have is in a Stearman.”

“This is nothing more than a J-3 with a big engine–a 115-hp. Lycoming. If you can handle a Stearman, you won’t have any trouble with the Cub. And stop calling me sir. Around here, everybody calls me Charlie.”

Early the next day, Charlie’s foreman, Rob, explained the PA-11’s workings. The aircraft had no radio and the only instruments were an engine tachometer and oil pressure gauge. The back seat had been taken out, and a large hopper installed in its place would hold eight 50-lb. bags of dry chemical. A pilot-controlled gate allowed dust from the hopper to flow down to a spreader mounted behind the Cub’s main wheels. The spreader mixed chemical dust and air, creating a thin cloud about 50 ft. wide behind the aircraft. My job was to fly low over the crops and apply dust in barely overlapping patterns called “swath runs.” No overlap, and the bugs would live another day. Too much overlap, and the dust was wasted.

As we walked to the aircraft, Rob said: “Where the hell’s your helmet?”

“Helmet? I don’t have a helmet.”

“Cripes, son! Charlie won’t let you fly without one. I’ll let you go today, but before you start working, go buy one!”

Rob showed me how to start the engine. No electric starter on this machine; you “propped” it. That is, standing on the Cub’s right side, aft of the propeller, throttle closed, switches on, you gave a mighty, downward yank on a prop blade. Usually, the Lycoming growled to life. It was imperative, I was warned, that the throttle be closed before attempting this procedure. More than one airplane had gone flying without its pilot because of a moment’s carelessness.

Once the engine is ticking over, I climb into the cockpit, strap in and begin a short litany of checks. Rob stands behind the right wing strut holding onto his hat, yelling a few last words of advice before thumping me on the shoulder. I give him a thumbs up as he turns to walk back to his truck, and I taxi to the runway.

I’m supposed to fly to a field of alfalfa 3 mi. east of the airport and practice swath runs. Rob will be standing in the chest-high alfalfa, holding a red flag. I aim for the flag. After each run, Rob will move laterally 50 ft. while I’m pulling up and reversing direction.

I nearly decapitate him on my first pass. I spot the flag as I start the swath run, then drop lower until my wheels brush the tops of the alfalfa. As the flag grows larger in my windscreen, I see Rob’s head sticking out of the foliage like a large flower. Rob’s right hand, holding the flag, pumps up and down rapidly. His other hand appears, pointing straight up. We haven’t discussed this particular signal. What does he mean? Fifty feet away, the flag and hands suddenly disappear.

There is no sign of Rob when I begin my second run. On a road bordering the field, though, I notice his truck heading back to the airport. Assuming the lesson’s over–but not understanding why–I fly back and land. Engine off, I’m still sitting in the cockpit when Rob roars up, bringing the truck to a sliding stop inches from my airplane. He has a wild-eyed look and his voice quivers as he “explains” to me that I was flying much too low, and have seriously ruined his day. He says a lot more, most of it unfit to print.

The next day, Charlie Reeder himself came out to watch me fly. Suffice to say that, after the flight and a debriefing, he loaned me enough money to buy a new crash helmet.

So, I started crop-dusting around Twin Falls. My only navigational chart was a road map, and the radius of action grew as I became familiar with the territory. Murray and I were happy, employed pilots again.

It was past midnight when the phone rang. I struggled through the fog of a pleasant dream to hear my friend on the other end.

“I’m in the hospital. In Greeley,” Murray said, matter-of-factly. Wide awake now, I asked why.

“I really screwed up this afternoon. Flew into some power lines and the wire cutters didn’t work. I wrecked the Stearman.”

“Geez, Murray! How badly are you hurt?”

“A broken arm. Some ribs. That’s about it. Guess I was lucky.”

“You [censored]!” I said, using a mutually familiar term of endearment.

Murray continued. “A moment’s carelessness, a loss of concentration. I really don’t know. Seven days a week, for over a month, I’ve been up at dawn to take advantage of the still air. Dust or spray for three hours until the daytime thermals make the air unstable. Around sunset, when the air improves again, another hour of flying until it gets too dark to see. That’s when it happened.”

A pause before he added: “Maybe it was the dust. I was wearing a respirator, but they say the stuff can still get into you. Particularly Malathion. Makes you goofy after awhile. All I remember is I was suddenly in the wires. I hadn’t seen them.”

“I’d say you were lucky, mate,” I sympathized, relieved he was still alive.

“Yeah, I guess so. Anyway, watch your tail. Gotta go now. Some gorgeous babe just walked in and wants to poke me with a needle.”

It took a long time to get back to sleep. Cripes! If it could happen to Murray, it could happen to anyone.

A month later, it did.

Parathion is a nasty, lethal chemical–albeit with a short-lived toxicity. One drop of concentrate can kill a man on contact, much like its nerve gas equivalent. As an agricultural spray, it’s used on aphids, which are immune to conventional dry chemicals. Charlie Reeder had two PA-11 spray planes for applying Parathion. A tank for the liquid replaced the Cub’s conventional hopper. Plumbing fed the Parathion to an air-driven pump, then out to a spray bar under each wing. Nozzles mounted at intervals converted the liquid into a fine spray.

A pilot wore a rubber suit that protected him from the poisonous spray, plus goggles and a tight-fitting respirator over his nose and mouth. So attired, he looked like something out of a Grade-B science fiction movie. The gear was very hot and uncomfortable, but, because the chemical spray was so deadly, there were few complaints.

Thus configured, I climb into the PA-11 and take off for a field of peas somewhere near Jerome, Idaho. I find the field with no trouble, circle it once to look for obstructions, and notice a string of low-hanging power lines along a road on the north end. A farm house sits on the other side, and dust rising from the road suggests a light breeze from the east. It’s late in the afternoon, and shadows have begun to lengthen noticeably.

The wind and low Sun angle suggest I begin my run at the field’s eastern end and work my way west in north-south swaths. The spray will lay better with the light crosswind. It means flying over the power lines, but there’s plenty of room to pull up and over them going north, and to drop down over them on the reversal.

I’m soon having trouble seeing. It’s very hot, and sweat from my forehead pours into my goggles and respirator. I lift the goggles from my face for a second, trying to clear and drain them, but it isn’t working. I finally tear them off to see better. I’m on the final run, heading north toward the farmhouse.

Suddenly, the wires are much too close–above and directly in front of me. No room to pull up. My only choice–not a choice really; more like pure instinct–is to go down and under them. It almost works. The maneuver pushes the Cub’s tail up, just enough to catch one of the wires, which snaps and wraps itself around the elevator and rudder. The airplane is about to stop flying. Nothing to do in that last second but reach up and turn off the ignition switches.

The aircraft comes down hard on its landing gear, then “pitchpoles” onto its back–and catches fire. I release the safety harness and promptly land on my head. On hands and knees, I struggle out and try to get away from the wreckage, more worried about being poisoned than roasted. I’m covered with Parathion, and have rips and tears in the rubber suit.

I see I’ve crashed in the farmhouse’s back yard. A man, woman and two terrified children stare at me from beside the house.

“Water!” I yell. “Please, get me a hose and water!” I start stripping off the rubber suit, still screaming. “Water! I need water!”

I’m quickly down to my crash helmet and nothing else–a naked, somewhat excited guy leaking a lot of blood.

Behind me, the airplane burns, then explodes into an impressive, short-lived fireball.

The farmer finally gets the water going and hands me a garden hose. His wife herds the now-screaming children into the house while I hose myself off. Inside, she calls an ambulance, then returns, eyes averted, and hands me a blanket. In the excitement, I had forgotten I was bare-tail naked. The couple leads me to their house, where I’m able to sit down. Trembling, I light a cigarette and call Charlie. He says he’ll see me at the hospital and hangs up.

I know I’m in big trouble, but at least I’m alive. Somehow, I had avoided being burned to death and poisoned.

The ambulance arrives. I make a feeble attempt at apologizing to the traumatized family, before being loaded onto a gurney and slid into the ambulance. I’m already on an IV when we start rolling, siren wailing.

Late that night, the hospital guardians let him in to see me. At first, I mistake his dark frown for anger. Again, I try to apologize, but Charlie just picks up my hand and squeezes it.

“Be quiet for a minute,” the gruff voice says. “The airplane’s nothing. You’re alive and not too badly banged up. That’s what’s important. …And I’d like to have you back. That is, if you want to come back.”

Through the morphine haze, I imagine a glistening in his tired old eyes.

“Thanks, Charlie,” I mutter. “Thanks a lot.”

John Bigelow later became Pan American’s chief pilot for its Berlin base, taking early retirement in late 1988. He worked as an instructor pilot for Airbus until 1996, then traded his wings for a sailboat. He and his wife, Norah, lived on the boat and sailed the Mediterranean before returning to the U.S. about a year ago.

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