Then there were the odd ball types that would not fit in any category. It seems to me that this type of flying attracted more than our share of this sort. I would place Shorty Biggers in this group. When we would go to a café for breakfast, lunch or dinner (supper if you prefer) he always ordered fried chicken.
No bread, no salad, no anything else - just fried chicken. He would clean the bones and then pile them up beside his plate. A bit odd wouldn’t you say?
Then there was Slick Callahan. I guess he was called Slick because he always wet his hair in the morning and slicked it straight back. Slick was absolutely sure that he was the best ag-pilot that ever climbed in an airplane. Whatever was to be done he could do it better than anyone and no doubt about it. We worked for the same operator in North Idaho for one season and then it struck James that he ought to start his own business. He bought an ag-plane and other equipment and set up shop near a small town in south Idaho.
Night FlyingNow in this area most of the ag-type flying was done at night. That’s right, at night. There was a reason for this insanity. You see most of the crops in this part of the world were "Seed Crops," meaning the crops were raised just for the seeds. Now I am not talking about wheat, rye, barley, or oats, the usual seed crops. I’m talking turnips, carrots, onions, cabbages, parsnips and other vegetables type crops. To make good seeds the crops had to be pollinated. The best pollinator for this purpose was a creature called a "leaf-cutter" bee.
These bees like most bees did their beesness during the daylight hours - from first light in the morning until dark-thirty in the evening. The seed-crop farmer had to import these little critters and they were very expensive. Some said worth a dollar or more each. Consequently, the seed-crop farmers made bee-boards by drilling hundreds of small holes in a 4" X 6" around four feet long, fasten these together and placed them all over his fields as homes for his bees. Yes sir, he took very good care of his bees and he sure did not want them harmed in anyway, especially by cropduster-types spraying insecticide.
However, his vegetables had to be sprayed every so often for other types of predatory insects that would attack and devour his precious turnips, carrots, cabbages, onions and other stuff. This posed a problem. So, the solution was to have the ag-type flyers do their insect killing spraying at night when his dang leaf-cutting pollinating little worker bees were all at home and asleep in their cozy little holes in the bee-boards.
My friend and fellow aviator Slick Callahan (his real name was James) called me one fine day and he sayeth unto me, "Roberts, I need for you to come down here and work for me. The pay is good, the food is excellent, the flying at night is fun, and I’m sure you will like it."
Well gullible and broke that I happened to be at the time, I packed my carpet-bag and appeared at his door forthwith.
James showed me around and introduced me to his ground crew and the CallAir-type aeroplane I would be flying. The plane was modified somewhat for night flying, such as having large one-million-candle-power light under each wing with the light beam directed straight ahead. On each wing tip was a smaller light attached at an angle which helped to make a turn at low altitude safer by directing the beam toward the ground. On the control stick in the cockpit was a cluster of switches that controlled theses lights. The forward lights were powerful enough to light up the area in the path of the plane for at least a half mile.
His ground crew included two female women-types for flagmen, or should I say flagwomen. These persons carried a strong flashlight and when the pilot was lining up for swath at low altitude they would shine their lights directly at him. It all sounded like it was well planned and might even work.
"You are going to love this type of flying," he repeated over and over. "The air is lots smoother at night. You’ll have the whole sky to yourself. No one to complain about your low flying 'cause they can't see you - heh heh heh. You don’t have to worry about killing someone's bees. Yeah, yer gonna love it."
So, after being briefed on the operation James took me on a tour during the daylight hours of the fields I would be spraying during the following nights. So began my career as a night flying ag-pilot.
Night Flying NewbieI don’t mind telling that I was a bit nervous as I loaded up my plane and took off into the pitch-black night. First off, I was a stranger to the area and it took me some time just to find the field that I was to spray. As I climbed up to about three or four hundred feet and looked around there were lights everywhere. Every farm house, every chicken house, every barn, every vehicle had lights.
I had to fly around for half an hour looking for those two flag-women with what I thought would be strong lights. Finally, I spotted lights that were blinking on and off and realized it was the women standing at each end of the target field. Their flash lights were not strong at all. They looked like tiny little pin lights. Nevertheless, I lined up on them and swooped into the field for my first swath. As lined up I hit the button that turned on my flood lights.
Now these lights were definitely powerful. They lit things up for at least a half mile which was about the length of the field. I made my first pass pulled up at the end of the field, clicked off my flood lights, clicked on the right-hand wingtip light as I turned forty-five degrees to the right.
I could see the ground on the right side just fine. I rolled to the left to make my turnaround as I clicked off the right-hand light and clicked on the left-hand tip light. Bringing the plane around I saw my flagwomen flashing their lights at me. I lined up and clicked off the wingtip light and clicked on my flood lights. I made another pass and then repeated the operation until this field was covered with a coating of insecticide and by George, I didn’t kill any of the danged leaf-cutters.
As I made the last swath and headed back to the strip I could not find it. I wandered around in the darkness thinking, "Slick, ma frien, I'm not enjoying this here night flying very much."
Finally, I spotted the strip with the help of the loading crewman. He flashed his truck lights on and off till I noticed him. After a few trips I began to feel slightly more confident and soon fell into the usual routine familiar to all ag-pilots. Back and forth, to and fro, up and down. I worked for about eight hours and headed back to the home base which I had a bit of trouble finding among all those blasted lights.
One other item I need to mention was the fact that I had a CB radio in the cockpit and was in contact with my boss who was driving around in his pickup talking to farmers and hustling up business. This was the time of the advent of CB (Citizens Band) radio when radio contact with common folks was a novel thing, especially between truckers and other types who were always chattering away in their peculiar lingo. It was "Hey, good buddy what's yer twenty? Have we got a clear shot with no smoky bears to worry about? Are yew my front door or back door? I’m nearing Denver town, good buddy. Jabber jabber jabber."
Bossman James had picked up this stupid lingo and it was, "How’s it goin' good buddy? What’s yer twenty, good buddy. I’ll see you at the strip good buddy. Etc etc." James was a talker and talk he did to the point I want to tell him to "Shut the h--- up, Good buddy!!" But he was my boss, so I didn't.
Night Flying ProblemsAnyways, I eventually I was able to find my way around at night and was beginning to get comfortable in the CallAir, but I found I could not sleep during the day. Most every evening I went to work very sleepy. Not good.
I also found that I could not see power lines very well at night. I would be down in the field with an altitude of three or four feet, doing about one hundred and twenty miles per hour approaching a power line at the opposite end of the field. It was danged difficult to tell just when to pull up to clear the line. One time I would pull up convinced I was close enough only to find I was still some distance from the power line. The next time I would pull up and just miss hitting the line by inches. A real heart stopper. Actually I could see the lines alright because they were shiny reflecting my flood lights but my depth perception was not very consistent. NOT GOOD.
Another problem I encountered that was not only irksome but dangerous - I felt I needed to go out to the fields that I was to spray and look them over in the day time noting any and all obstructions such as trees, posts, power lines telephone lines etc. Then at night I was familiar with the location and there would not be any last-minute surprises. After I had been on the job for a few weeks I would be working a field that I had surveyed in daylight hours. Bossman James would be on the ground visiting with the owner of the field. He would call me on the radio and say, "Hey good buddy, the farmer is here with me and has decided he would have you do another field nearby while you were here." Which would be fine in day time, but I had not looked that field over the day before. I didn't like to fall into a field that I had not had a chance to look over and I had complained to him several times about this. He assured me he would always let me know if there were any obstructions.
Another irritation was a mechanical one. On occasion when I would be entering a field I would click the button on my stick to turn on the flood lights and the blasted lights didn’t come on. It was like diving into a black pit expecting it to be lit up and I was totally blind. My reaction was to quickly pull up while frantically punching the danged button. The lights usually came on after a half dozen tries. But in those few seconds of blindness at low altitude all sorts of things could happen and all of them bad. The same goes for the wingtip lights. Especially scary on a cloudy night with no moon or starlight and no visual horizon.
When I got back to the landing strip I would heatedly express my opinion of the lights switches. James would work the electrical gadgets over and it would work fine for a while but then it would happen again.
I was getting weary of these adrenaline rushes and began to talk about quitting this insane aviation stuff at night. James would talk me out of it, saying, "Aw, you will get used to it and you will like it better than daylight flying."
Night Flying AdventureThen one night I was working a field and good buddy James put me in another nearby patch of vegetables. He said, "The only obstruction is an electrical line running down the east side fence and a cattle feeder pen at the south end, but it is not very close."
"O.K.," I growled, "but I don’t like it."
I decide I would start to work on the east side next to the fence and the power line and that way I would be working further away with each pass. I made my first pass going north just fine. Pulled up and turned around came back into the field going south toward the feeder pens. About half way across the field my eye caught the glint of a power line directly over me, running the same direction as I was going. I saw that the line going down the east side did not go straight down that side but after a few yards along that side it angled across the corner of the field and went into the middle of the feeder pens. I suddenly realized I had gone under that wire on my first pass without even seeing it!!!
Now I was under it going the same direction. In a fraction of a second, I knew if I pulled up I would become entangled with that wire and it would drag me down into those pens. I was too low to the ground to bank to either side without the wing tip hitting the ground. My only chance was to hit the rudder hard and make a skidding change of direction to the right side, which I did.
The feeder pens were coming up fast as I stood up on the rudder pedal and hoped to high heaven that I would pass out from under the wire with room to pull up over the feeder pens. Around the perimeter of the pens were several tall poles with lights on them. In a flash I got out from under the wire and missed the feeder pen fence and sailed between the tall poles missing the overhead wire, the fence and the poles just by inches.
I leveled off shaking so badly I could hardly keep my feet on the rudder pedals. My heart was pounding hard. I thought I could hear it over the roar of the engine. I shut off the spray boom, headed toward the home base and called my boss. “HEY GOOD BUDDIE, I AM HEADED FOR THE HOME STRIP AND I WANT YOU TO BE THERE WITH MY FINAL PAYCHECK IN YOUR GOOD BUDDIE HAND."
James happened to see the whole thing and it scared him too. When he arrived back at the base he took one look at me and didn’t even try to talk me out of quitting 'cause he was afraid if he said anything he might get punched in his good buddie chops.
So ended my night flying career. I just wasn't cut out fer 'at sort of flyin'. And seeing as to how I had to sleep sometime I just as soon it be at night.