Saturday, June 25, 2011

These Guys Are Nuts

Crop dusters. Spray pilots. Aerial applicators or top dressers. Whatever the substance they are spreading over the crops - they're crazy. Or they are highly skilled pilots who shave the edges of safety to do their jobs. Yeah, that's what they are - not adrenaline junkies what. so. ever.

The whole industry got it's start in the US with the ready availability of war surplus Boeing-Stearman Model 75s that were converted to air spray rigs. All you have to do is say "Stearman" around farm country and everyone thinks of this plane. Hell, when one says "biplane," this is what most of us picture in our minds.

The Grumman Ag Cat was the next step in the evolution of the aerial applicators. All one has to say is "Ag Cat" and yer average farmer knows just what you're talking about. Some of them had radial powerplants as well. One can kinda see how the design mimics a stunt plane, too.

Today's winnah and champeen design is the Air Tractor. The different sizes that this company makes are all powered by increasingly rated Pratt and Whitney turboprop motors - you can really hear these puppies whine and whoosh when they are at work. The hopper is actually in between the motor and the pilot - thus the long nosed look. Plus, the tail is close to the wings for a short couple for increased maneuverability and quick response. These suckers would make great stunt planes except for one feature - the asymmetrical airfoil on the main wing. Since the whole purpose of these beasts is to carry a heavy load and dump it close to the ground at a controlled rate, but remain highly maneuverable to be able to turn around and get back to the crop in a short time - well, lift while being upside down is really not that necessary. Better to sacrifice that and have a high lift wing under more "normal" usage. Of course, normal sometimes includes riding the rudder knifing through a turn with the wings vertical to the ground as well. So, instant on high power is pretty useful if the pilot expects to succeed in some of the moves he makes regularly as part of his job.

And, some don't live. One of my childhood buddies died about twenty years ago in an imported plane - I can't remember if it was Czech or Polish, but it was a biggun with a big motor. It was certainly distinctive - I could see it coming along and know it was Neal at work. When I was driving my old hotrod Cummins and catch him skimming along, I'd stand on it three times to blow three smoke signals. He'd waggle his wings and give three short bursts of chemical as an answer. Of course, he'd seen me rolling along and he'd fly a bit out of his way so I could see him or he could sneak up on me to buzz me and catch me unaware. He'd kinda swoop down on me and crack open the throttle, and it would sound like my truck was coming apart. Then I'd see him fly on over and realize what had happened. Ornery sucker, anyhow.

But, one day he was working over a feedlot when his motor just quit. These things may have great rates of glide or whatever, but when they're loaded and only fifteen or twenty feet off the ground, well, they're gonna be landing right there, immediately if not before. He went down in a bunch of welded steel rail pens set in concrete. His landing gear caught the pipe, flipped him over and stopped the plane right then and there. It was just bad luck. Had he been over some corn or milo - he'd have set it down, figured out what was broke, fixed it and went back to work.

And rare indeed is the crop duster who hasn't crashed. Most have cracked up several planes. They've made their peace with the idea that the job is dangerous a long time ago.

What prompted this post was my catching one of these nuts at work, and realizing he was working around a power line. Some fly under the lines, but I think these lines were just too low. At any rate, he knew what I was up to and shaved it pretty close to give me a show. I'm sure he could see me holding my phone up to the windshield to record his mad skilz.


Of course, my phone is hardly the best thing for recording important stuff, but it's all I had. I go to war with the tools I have. You can see him coming from the left to the right, and he lifts up to just clear the line. He kind of turns along the line, floating just above it, and turns back to go the other way. He was working a circle - from a center pivot irrigation setup, and his application plan was to work from the outside in, so he didn't have to waste a bunch of time in the air turning back and forth if he was to apply in adjacent strips. They've all got GPS setups now, so they can line right up these days without flaggers, toilet paper roll markers, or whatever, and they can blank some "rows" and come back and catch them later.

Plus, it should be noted that a lot of aerial applicators use helicopters as well - they are much better at getting around obstacles like powerlines and trees. However, they are more expensive as well as being maintenance hogs that are really quite unreliable. Those pilots are nuts in a different fashion.

Anyways, hope ya enjoy!


KurtP said...

OT- but doesn't your DOT have a problem with that crack that's interfering with your wiper?

I'm sure in Texas that would be a problem.

Jeffro said...

If it were on my big truck, yeah, it would be a problem. The DOT would have a fit.

And I'm sure that the windshield violates the law - but there isn't much enforcement. That said, I might get pulled over in some random check and have an officer go nuts upon seeing it. I really should get it replaced, but it's been my experience that as soon as I get a fresh windshield, I get a fresh rock thrown against it, and the cycle begins anew.

KurtP said...

So that was your POV?

Jeffro said...

Yeah, I was in my pickup on the way home from work.