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Crop Dusting

Story ID:3635
Written by:James Baker (bio, contact, other stories)
Organization:Writers' Circle
Story type:Diary/Journal Entry
Location:Phoenix AZ USA
Year:1952
Person:Jim Baker
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Sometimes you just luck into these things. I spent the summer before my senior year in high school with my brother in Phoenix.

A few days after my arrival one of Bob's friends told him Marsh Aviation at Sky Harbor Airport was hiring high school boys. When I applied I had no idea what the job entailed.

I soon found myself loading insecticide into crop dusters--World War II tandem seat trainers retrofitted with 450-horsepower Pratt and Whitney radial engines with Hamilton Standard propellers. We had two types, both biplanes: Army Stearmans, and Navy N3Ns. I liked the N3Ns better because with hydraulic struts they were not as tall which meant the insecticide hopper--where the front seat had been originally--was about five inches closer to the ground. That meant we didn't have to throw the bags full of chemicals so high. The pilot flew from the rear seat.

The hoppers were designed with a single fold-down seat, so with two of us assigned, the second loader scrunched down in the bottom. We took turns, swapping places each day.

Air currents propelled past the hopper sucked up remnants of the dusting powder and swirled it in our faces. Sitting just a few feet behind the air-cooled engine, I felt a constant blast of heated air, tempered with the smell of hot oil and the burnt-match odor of insecticide.

I had only flown in an airplane once before taking the job, so riding in the hopper to and from outlying duster strips proved to be a heady experience. We wore World War II surplus leather helmets and goggles. When I turned my head I had to hold the goggles in place to keep the slipstream from yanking them off. Sometimes small ripples danced across my cheeks from the air pressure. I learned quickly that rain showers provided a painful massage. Usually my face felt numb for several minutes after we landed.

The job provided good exercise for the two loaders. We lined up 20 bags of insecticide and cut the tops off. When the pilot landed he swung the tail of the airplane so the bags were just to the left of the fuselage. One loader climbed on the wing and removed the lid on the hopper, then his partner began tossing the 50-pound bags up to him. He slashed the bag diagonally with a knife to break the suction, then dumped the contents in the hopper. We soon developed a rhythm--throw, slash, dump, then toss the empty bag on the other side of the fuselage. We each pulled a bandana across our mouth and nose to keep from breathing the yellow powder, a mixture of DDT, sulfur and benzene hexachloride.

As soon as we finished the pilot took off to continue the bollworm battle. When he returned we did it all over again.

My brother lived in a mobile home near 36th Street and Washington. A permanent shower and toilet sat on a concrete slab outside the back door. When you turned on a light in the bathroom, dozens of cockroaches ran for a crack or scurried up the walls.

When I came home from work each day, I tossed my work clothes in the corner of the bathroom. By the second day all the cockroaches had left. We soon noticed an absense of mosquitos, too.

While working near the aircraft on the ground a faint hint of aviation gasoline and the sweet scent of fabric dope lingered on the air. The dope--a varnish-like substance was used to stretch the cloth covering on the wings and fuselage.

On a typical morning we took off about 5 a.m. Weathermen often talk about inversion layers, but in an open-cockpit airplane you can actually feel the temperature change as you climb into a stratum of warmer air.

The pilots, ever aware we were not belted in, took care to avoid any negative G maneuvers. (G stands for gravity--the weight of the object.) About the wildest ride I heard of was when two of the loaders said their pilot did a wing over with them. A wing over is when the pilot pulls up and banks slightly past vertical, all the time keeping back pressure on the stick, which glues the passenger to what ever they are sitting on. Our pilot flew straight by the book--no hijinks, no fun.

At that time Sky Harbor tower sat atop a hangar on the north side of the field. Our planes had no radios, so the pilot checked the wind sock to identify the active runway, then taxied to the run-up area. After checking magnetos and moving the propeller control through its range, he turned the airplane to face the tower. When the controller thought it safe for us to take off, he flashed a green light at us with what they called a "biscuit gun," a tube that concentrated the light into a narrow beam.

Usually by 9 a.m. thermals kept the insecticide from settling, so we kicked the remaining dust out of the bottom of the hopper and climbed in for the ride back to Sky Harbor.

This one morning after we finished loading the airplane, the pilot told us he had spotted a watermelon patch about 100 yards north of the duster strip. While he finished his last run, we checked out the watermelon field and returned with one beneath each arm. It was my turn to ride in the bottom of the hopper, so with nearly a hundred pounds of purloined fruit on my chest and stomach, I hoped the pilot didn't need to pull a several Gs maneuver. Back at Sky Harbor we had a watermelon bust.

One morning in August we flew out of a duster strip near Surprise, northwest of Phoenix. Another airplane, a Stearman from Koiner Aviation, worked from the same field. We had an opportunity to visit with Koiner's loaders while both airplanes were out applying dust.

That evening when I reported for work, Bob Neece, the manager, told me my airplane was down for maintenance so I could go home and get a good night's sleep. I wasn't about to argue with that. I had been working two shifts a day, seven days a week for most of the summer. At a buck an hour I made 70 something dollars a week, including overtime. A new pair of Levis cost $5.70 at J.C. Penny.

Just after 10 p.m. that night I woke to hear gravel scrunching, then the sound of tires sliding just outside. I sat up, but before I threw the sheet back the door flew open and my brother charged in. When he saw me he collapsed against the door jamb, hands shaking. We was never an emotional person and I had never seen him so worked up. His face was pale, and when he looked at me I saw tears glistening in his eyes. He tried to smile, but he had a hard time faking it.

After Bob regained his composure he told me on his way back from Chandler he heard on the car radio that one of Marsh's crop dusters had been in a head-on collision with another plane and a pilot and two loaders had been killed.

Thinking about it later I am sure Bob ignored a few speed limit signs and maybe a traffic light or two that night.

The next morning when I arrived at work I learned the Marsh pilot had started his take-off roll behind another plane on a dirt strip. Hidden in the dust, the Koiner pilot failed to see him and landed in the opposite direction. Both were on the runway when they hit about 18 inches from nose to nose. Our pilot, the only survivor, escaped from the flaming wreckage with minor injuries.

Bill Marsh, the owner, decided loaders would no longer ride in the airplanes. After that we rode in the fuel truck with several hundred gallons of aviation gas. Fate is strange but that first morning I wound up at the same duster strip where the Koiner pilot and loaders had died the previous evening. The burned hulks of both airplanes still sat where they had been dragged off the runway.

With teen curiosity, we examined the wreckage. When I looked inside the Koiner plane, I saw charred cloth stuck to the bottom of the hopper. Instantly an image entered my mind--an image of the broadcloth shirt worn by one of the boys I had met just hours before he died.

It would be a dozen years before my interest in airplanes became kindled again.