Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
Climb, turn and dive
Published July 14, 2004
Story and photos by Anthony Larson
It looks like nothing but fun.
"Wow," you think. "What a great job that must be!"
"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."
Like any other job, it takes skill and dedication
to do it right. And Petterson and his two-man crew
are all business.
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
"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."
"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.
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.
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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
"He's done this a long time," says Moore. "He
knows how to bank 'em around and crank 'em
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
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."
But, in an unguarded moment, a little wide-eyed
wonder comes through.
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