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Climb, turn and dive

Crop dusting on the Madeline Plains for Alturas Ranches, Tom Petterson skillfully flies low over alfalfa fields to spray pesticide.

Published July 14, 2004

Cropdusters are all business in the field

Story and photos by Anthony Larson

H&N Special Writer

It looks like nothing but fun.

You see those magnificent men in their crop dusting machines, flying around, back and forth, nose pointing into the blue as they climb out of a field, banking in a tight turn, wings stretching toward the sky and the ground, zooming out of the sky and skimming across the ground at breakneck speed only a few feet off the deck.

A veteran of Vietnam, Tom Petterson has a stepson, Sgt. Brandon Keller, serving in Baghdad. "I've always wanted to fly," says Petterson. "As a kid, I always just dreamed of flying. I loved it."

"Wow," you think. "What a great job that must be!"

Forget it. It's all business and no, or very little, play.


It may look like stunt flying but it is serious business and hard work. "A lot of people think you're out there barnstorming and having fun -- happy-go-lucky," explains pilot Tom Petterson. "They don't realize how professional and serious a business it is, how hard we try to do a good job for the farmers."

"A lot of people think you're out there barnstorming and having fun - happy-go-lucky," explains Tom Petterson, a pilot for Macy's Flying Service in Tulelake and a 28-year crop duster. "They don't realize how professional and serious a business it is, how hard we try to do a good job for the farmers."

"It's extremely hard work," echoes Petterson's crew chief, Gerald Moore. "A lot of people think it is easy, but it is hard work."

Like any other job, it takes skill and dedication to do it right. And Petterson and his two-man crew are all business.

"We work real hard at being safe and keeping the pesticides on the field where they belong," says Petterson. "Everything's repetition. You do it thousands and thousands of times. I've done it so much that it doesn't seem like anything extraordinary. You've just got a job to do, and you don't have a lot of time to do it in."

Crop dusters fly at early light when the winds are usually light to calm. On mornings when Petterson is flying he's usually at the airport at 4 a.m. to get his plane ready and to review the day's orders.

Petterson lifts off with nearly 2 tons of payload and fuel on board.

"Sometimes you're out there with over 700 gallons of liquid. But it can pack it. It's a good machine. You always carry as much as you can. That's what you've got to do to get the job done and to make money."

The "machine" he flies is a single-engine, turbine-powered Thrush made by Ayres that develops more than 700 horsepower. Compare that to the typical 100 to 150 horsepower single-engine private aircraft and it's apparent the Thrush is more like a World War II fighter plane in its weight-to-horsepower ratio. It is specifically designed for crop dusting with shorter takeoffs, higher spraying speeds, and increased chemical capacity to deliver more acres dusted per hour of flight time.

"Most of the crop dusters that you see nowadays are this (type) because they're more fuel efficient, and they're quieter. They're just a lot better aircraft for this kind of work," says Moore, a crew chief the past five years.

The aircraft's wingtips are fitted with small vertical stabilizers called winglets that reduce the spray drift. Since accuracy is critical - herbicide falling on the wrong field is disastrous - anything that causes the spray to drift out of the field is avoided. For that and for safety reasons - Petterson flies only 7 to 10 feet off the ground where a stiff gust of air could flip a plane - Petterson will not work in wind gusts over 10 mph.

Moore also watches for air inversions, distinct layers of warm and cold air that can hold the spray off its intended target. The crew chief acts as a second pair of eyes on the ground looking for hazards to the pilot and plane while coordinating the spraying operation.

"I get to set out here and watch everything, make sure everything gets done right," Moore says.

"You depend on people working with you to keep your field clear, to keep you aware of what's going on outside the field, your drift and to keep you out of trouble," injects Petterson.

From his perspective on the ground, Moore can better see some obstacles than the pilot - "They can't always see things like guy wires that come off of power poles. That's one of the things we do when we go out to a field - make sure they know where the power lines are and what they're flying around."

Moore also watches for intruders to keep them away from potentially harmful spray - "That's part of our responsibility, to keep people out of the fields."

The pilot depends on his two-man ground crew for support. James VanAcker, the payload specialist, is responsible for reloading the plane. He drives the tank truck that carries water and the spray concentrate to the work site. "I mix all the stuff in the pot (truck) and load the airplane. I do a little bit of everything."

Every 25 to 30 minutes, Petterson lands near the spray area and taxis to the tanker to refill. The engine is not shut off, and the roar from the prop is deafening. Once safely parked, pilot and crew attend to their tasks. VanAcker attaches a hose to the plane to fill the tank while pilot and crew chief confer.

In moments, Petterson returns to his cockpit, closes the canopy and roars skyward to spray another 120 to 140 acres. Pilot and crew will repeat this well-choreographed pit stop ballet many times a day, covering about 1,000 acres in a normal shift.

On board, Petterson has a global positioning satellite (GPS) system linked to a computer screen that displays a moving map. It shows him what has been sprayed and what has not.

"It's drawing him a picture of where he's at," says Moore. "It's pretty high tech."

The cockpit dash monitor shows the pilot a preprogrammed map of the fields to be sprayed and his plane's position. As Petterson makes each pass, the computer displays a swath on the map in real time, eliminating the need for flaggers on the ground.

"When he starts into a field, we make sure that he's in the right field," Moore adds. "Once he's started the field, the GPS keeps track for him."

All flying has its risks, but crop dusting is particularly hazardous. Instead of flying primarily in one direction, crop dusters climb, turn and dive repeatedly. They hug the ground rather than flying at a considerable altitude. That's what makes their work look like stunt flying.

"If there's a wire (power line) there, you try to go under it if you can," Petterson says. "You do what you do for a reason. It's not to show off. It's what you've got to do to do a good job."

"He's done this a long time," says Moore. "He knows how to bank 'em around and crank 'em around."

"After 26 years of it, you know you're going to come home. You don't worry about it," adds Petterson.

A crop duster must have what is called "situational awareness," a sense of where everything is around him, and good depth perception. Power lines and bird strikes are the greatest hazard.

"It's a feeling. It's judgment," says Petterson. "I've been in there so long I can tell you exactly how high I am. Sometimes I fly higher; there are times I fly lower. It just depends on what the winds are doing and stuff."

Watching a crop-duster work evokes the early days of aircraft barnstorming. To the casual observer it looks like stunt flying, which military fighter pilots call "turn and burn."

Petterson scoffs at such nonsense, bluntly insisting, "You don't get paid for turning. You get paid for spaying."

But, in an unguarded moment, a little wide-eyed wonder comes through.

"I've always wanted to fly. As a kid I always just dreamed of flying. I loved it. And it took a lot of work to get here. By golly, I did it, and I don't know what else I'd rather do."


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