Sunday, April 15, 2018

Midnight Landing

As my readers have already guessed, cropduster types are often not like your average everyday folks.  They don’t seem to easily fit into any category. One pilot I have known like this was Donald Shoemacher.

I met Don shortly after I became a pilot myself.  He was flying for a company in Lewiston, Idaho.  He had served in the U.S. Marine corp during World War II and saw a good deal of combat in the Pacific theater, participating in some very bitter battles. Places like Iwo Jima, and other Japanese-held Islands. During these battles, he decided the Air Force was where he should have been instead of hitting the beaches as a ground pounder.

He made it home in one piece and soon learned to fly. He became a flight instructor, did charter type work and other general aviation flying, as well as bush flying in the outback of Idaho's wilderness areas. 

A good part of the state of Idaho is made up of tall mountains, deep canyons, all covered in big timber and much of it owned and managed by the U.S. forest service. As I have stated in earlier blogs, there are quite a number of landing strips scattered over these mountains and forests, most of them along the rivers and creeks in the bottom of the valleys and canyons. Many of these strips are short and are what is referred to as one-way strips, meaning you can only land going one way and there is no missed approach. Consequently, it requires a good deal of experience to access these little landing fields safely. 

Most of these strips are used and maintain by the Forest Service. They are used to bring in supplies and equipment to Forest Service personnel who are stationed in the outback. There are very few roads to these stations and what roads there are aren't very well maintained because of the rugged country.

One of Schumacher’s duties was to fly into these places with all kinds of stuff like mail, groceries, animal feed, small freight, as well as passengers at times.  Also, if a Forest Service person stationed in the back country was hurt or became ill it was a quick way to get them to a doctor. Because of the position of many of the strips, the weather was definitely a major factor. If the wind was wrong or there was limited visibility because of rain, snow or fog etc., one must use good judgment, extreme caution and extraordinary skilled airmanship to negotiate a landing and take-off at one of these strips. There are times when even an experienced pilot must say "No I ain’t going in there."

Anyway Don became very skilled at flying the out-back. A few of these strips were owned and operated by private individuals such as hunting lodges, summer homes, small ranchers, etc. Don became acquainted with many of the back-country folks and was much like the country mail carrier, he knew them by their first name as well as their family.  You know, as an example, "Well today I've got to go out and take Mrs. Jones a list of groceries."  He would then go into town and buy the beans and tatters and bags of flour and all sorts of other stuff and load it in a four-place plane and haul it into their strip.

One of these isolated customers had a strip near their home deep in Snake river country near the mouth of what was called Hell’s Canyon. Their only contact with the outside world was a very rough narrow dirt road carved out of the wilderness. It was a day’s drive just to get to a paved road. They kept in touch with civilization by two-way radio.

One night around eleven o’clock, the man sent a message to Shoemacher that said he had a medical emergency. His wife had had a heart attack. The man asked if him if he could fly into his strip at night and get her to a doctor. He said he would have bon-fire going at the strip for him.

Now this was a short one-way strip lying in a nook of the fairly broad area of the canyon. The strip lay perpendicular to the Snake river. To land there, one had to fly up the river and round a bend, make a ninety degree turn to the left, and about two hundred yards from the river, make a landing. The approach end of the strip was at least a hundred feet lower than the opposite end. A very tricky bit of maneuvering even in day time. I couldn’t imagine doing this as night.

Don wasn't sure he could even find the strip at night, but said he would give it a try.

According to his report, he took off from the Lewiston airport just before midnight and headed up the Snake river canyon. He could see the river below because of the reflection of a faint moonlight. He stayed directly over the river so as not to collide with the dark slopes rising on each side. Don had flown up the river many times in daytime, so he had a general idea of the area. He knew that the strip he was looking for should appear at a certain time.

Sure enough, as he rounded a bend in the river he saw the bright blaze of the fire that the owner had torched when he heard the plane approaching. Don knew full well that he would get only one shot at the strip and there would be no second chance if he missed. He reached the point of no return, left the river and turned toward the fire. 

He said he could not see the strip but knew it had to be just beyond the big fire so he made his approach directly toward the fire. When he reached a point within about fifty yards from the fire, he could just make out the near end of the strip. He chopped the power and touched down almost in the fire but quickly got on the brakes and rolled to a stop with only about twenty feet of strip left. His friend and wife were there anxiously waiting for him.

Without ceremony they quickly loaded the woman in the plane as soon as it stopped. Don quickly wiped the sweat from his face, swung the ship around and poured the coals to her and took off in the opposite direction that he had come. He related that the takeoff was as tricky as the landing.

He headed for the fire and manage to become airborne before he reached the fire. He said it was like diving into a black hole but manage to pick up the reflection of the river in a few seconds. Don said he stayed low over the middle of the water as he came down river.

He had given instructions to a ground crew to have an ambulance waiting if and when he returned. The woman was conscious during this scary ordeal and survived because she received the necessary medical treatment thanks to a brave and nervy pilot.

Don went on to become a cropduster pilot and eventually owned his own company, Shoemacher's Ag-Air. I flew for his company for some ten years.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Night Flying

Having been an ag-pilot or "cropduster" for many years, I met many different types of pilots and ag-operators. Some good people, some bad, some honest and some dishonest, some smart, some dumb - in other words, much like the general population. 

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 cafĂ© 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 Flying

Now 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 Newbie

I 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 Problems

Anyways, 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 Adventure

Then 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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Alaska Adventure: Part 2

Alaska is very different from the lower states, obviously. First off, it is a huge piece of real estate. One can fly hundreds of miles and see no sign of civilization, but you will see some of the most spectacular scenery to be found anywhere on earth. A land of high mountain ranges, some snowcapped year-round. Mount McKinley is among them, being the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet. One feels so terribly lonely, almost as though on another planet.

 The thought kept rumbling around in the back of my mind that if I had an engine failure and went down in this vast timber covered country it would swallow me up without a hiccup and no one would ever find me.

Of course, as always when flying over such places, the engine goes on “automatic rough” and my ears are keenly tuned to detect the slightest variation of sound.

As I explained earlier I was hired to apply seed and fertilizer to sections on the Winter Trail. It had been rubbed raw by the Alaska pipe line consortium as they were building a very large pipeline from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

My boss, a youngish fellow named Ken Frazer, had gotten permission for me to use sections of the new road being built along the Trail for my landing strips. This route would take me many many miles up and over the mountains of the Brooks mountain range and on across the North Slope.

All I had to do was watch out for vehicles also using the road. And other critters such as arctic fox, mountain sheep, caribou herds, grizzle bears, road building crews and their equipment, low flying freight and passenger aircraft, as well as a few bush pilots.

I also found that I must keep an eye out for EPA inspectors strutting around letting us know that they were keeping a close watch on our activities. These turkeys were the worst of the lot. As an example, one morning, I was fueling my aircraft which entailed pumping aircraft grade gasoline from barrels into my fuel tank with a hand-pump. To make sure my fuel hose was clear I ran about a pint of gasoline through the hose and on to ground or road base, as it were. The god-like EPA inspector spied me doing this and officiously marched up and gave me to understand that spilling fuel on the ground was a federal offence because it contaminated the EN-VIRO-MENT. At first I thought he was kidding. I soon found that he was dead serious.

Our conversation went something like this:

"Young man, if you spill any more fuel on this ground I will write you up for a huge fine."

"Well now, do you really think a pint of gasoline is going to contaminate the EN-VIRO-MENT?"

"It damn sure does. Nature didn’t intend for that gasoline to be on top of the ground, not even a pint."

"Now wait a minute, Mr. Grand Federal EPA representative, don’t you think I am part of nature?"

He glared at me, a surprised look on his officious face and snapped, "You know it ain’t natural for that gasoline to be on top of the ground."

"Great-scot! Nature didn’t intend for this pipeline to be here either, or this road or these camps or any of this traffic and you are concerned about a pint of fuel? You do realize if we weren’t here you wouldn’t have a job. Not only that, my big fat friend, but I am part of nature and this specimen of nature thinks it is better to fuel your airplane with a clean hose. I run some fuel through it so as to remove any dirt and debris and if I got that stuff in my plane’s fuel tank I might crash and really mess up the environment with aircraft parts and my blood, guts and other body parts."

He couldn't think of a rebuttal but I didn't think he liked to be called fat. He puffed up like a big toad frog and gave me a good cussing and said, "If you do that again I will have you removed from this operation."

Anyway, I never saw him again and I continued to clean my hose the same way. In fact I chuckled as I ran a couple of pints through the hose just see if the sky would fall.

We moved on up the trail and were within about 50 miles of Prudhoe Bay when the weather turned sour on us, It began to snow and blow and the camp supervisor of the camp where we were staying came to us and said, "You boys had better leave before it gets any worse."

I got in my plane and headed for the pass through the Brooks Range. I didn't get far up the route. The cloud ceiling got lower and lower until there was no room to fly under it. I turned back and tried another pass. It too was closed by clouds.

I returned to the camp. where I was staying. The camp supervisor soon appeared at my room and gave me to understand that he was shipping me out anyway. He said in a very strong British/South African accent, "We need your beds for other workers. You will be leaving."

I explained that my aircraft did not have the necessary instruments to fly on instruments alone.

"Makes no difference, you will have to leave your aircraft in our custody and board the next commercial passenger plane that makes a daily run, landing at this camp each day. You can come back retrieve your aircraft when the weather permits... which may be next spring."

The weather was so bad with very low ceilings and it was nearly dark and gloomy. I was pretty sure no pilot in his right mind would be making a landing in a passenger airline type aircraft at this little airport which was located in the bottom of a large canyons. How wrong I was. A short time later I hear the engines of an approaching aircraft. I looked up the canyon, which was pretty much a tunnel about two hundred yards in width with rock walls on each side and a ragged cloudy ceiling of about two or three hundred feet. As I watched, a twin-engine turbo-prop Fairchild 24 burst out of the cloudy ceiling, flaps deployed, gear down and in seconds made a touchdown like he did this every day... which he did.

I climbed aboard, the plane was quickly turned around and we took off and within seconds we plunged back into the cloudy ceiling. In a very short time we broke out on top of the dirty scud in time to see a beautiful Alaskan sunset.

From that, I came to understand the skill and nerve of Alaskan pilots. My hat's off to the likes of them.

My return to the lower 48 was uneventful. So ends my little story of ag-flying above the Arctic Circle.


Photograph by Dale in 1974

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Alaska Adventure: Part 1

I was sitting there eating a peanut butter sandwich when the phone rang.

"Dale, this be Shoemacher."

"Yes, boss what’s up?"

"How would you like to go to Alaska?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Well, it being the first of September, our season is over so I thought you might be interested in a different sort of flying job."

"Can you supply more specifics?"

"Oh, heck yes, I am full of specifics," he chortled. "The person they wants has to be around 6 feet tall, weigh about 175 pounds, have good sanitary habits and steely nerves, be fearless, brave, and good looking, and also (by the way) he needs to know how to fly."

"Well, them specifics fit me to a tee, I reckon. Especially the good-looking part. What does it pay?" I asked.

"The figure they gave me was that the feller would need a tow-sack in which to carry the money home."

That got my undivided attention.

After I got all the (real) specifics I packed my ole travel-weary suitcase and next day took a commercial airline flight to Sea-Tac airport in Seattle Washington. From there I took another flight to Anchorage Alaska. There I met a young feller I will call Sourdough John, who represented a company called New Era Reclamation. These folks were under contract with a consortium of pipeline building companies that were in the process of building a pipeline from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. This company had been wrangling with the EPA for years and finally received permission to proceed.

But to gain this permission the EPA had specifics to be met. The most important one was that after the pipeline was installed, all the terrain had to be put back to its original condition. That is what New Era Reclamation was contracted to do.

Well Sourdough John and I took a commercial flight to Fairbanks, Alaska which is where I was to pick up the ag-plane that I was going to fly - a Cessna Agwagon. The Agwagon was an airplane built specifically for ag-flying work: dusting, spraying, etc.

Upon reaching Fairbanks I was introduced to several men employed by New Era Reclamation and was given a more detailed explanation of what was underway and what was expected of me. They gave me a history to date on the overall plan.

It was something like this: The first step was to build camps for workers along the proposed route of the pipeline. These were placed at intervals of about 75 miles and each camp was to accommodate around 300 to 400 workers. Keep in mind that there was no road or railway along the route. The building supplies had to be hauled in on huge trucks during the winter months when the ground was frozen solid enough to support them without damaging the tundra. 

They called the route the "Winter Trail."  At most of the camps there was a fairly good landing strip for aircraft.

The problem arose when spring came and the Winter Trail began to thaw. The cargo trucks should have stopped, but some continued up the trail and in a few places the tundra was damaged. To reclaim these damaged places New Era Reclamation hired me to fly arctic grass seed and then come back over the places with fertilizer. That brought me up to date.

I started at the Yukon River and worked my way northward. I used the newly graveled roadways as my landing strips. The seed and fertilizer had been stockpiled along the way at strategic points. My loading crew was Eskimo and Indians. They thought the whole thing was a joke and took far too much time loading the plane. Back in the lower 48 states a two-man crew could load the plane in about 5-10 minutes. These four-man turkeys took at least 35-40 minutes and sometimes longer.

It was a very interesting experience. I was not the only plane in the area. There were large two- and four-engine planes flying in and out of the camp strips carrying freight, passengers and mail. 

I had radio contact with the ground stations as well as the planes. It was funny sometimes - I could hear the conversation between the ground station and say, a large freight hauling plane. The ground station would caution the large plane to be aware of an EGGWAGON working the area roads. This usually caused a gabble of conversation amongst them. Or a response like, "What the heck is he doing down there?" 

I would usually pipe up and say, "I am flinging fertilizer on the road in places that you despoilers have messed up. I do this so the EPA won’t shut you down again." 

This usually brought a response like, "Carry on, buddy." I do believe I was the first ag-pilot to ply my trade this far north.

I'll write some more of my Alaska adventures in my next blog. 

Dale and his (slow) loading crew

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Nefarious Pea-Killer

Many farmers had fields of peas alongside a field of wheat. They were always nervous when an ag-plane was spraying the wheat for weeds because the chemicals that were used to kill weeds in the wheat would also kill peas. If the wind happened to be blowing from the wheat field toward the pea field, the drifting over-spray could do a lot of damage to the peas.

One day my friend Buck Erickson was spraying a wheat field with a chemical, carbine, that would kill wild oats. Now carbine will not harm peas. The wheat field that Buck was spraying lay alongside a field of peas. The farmer who owned the pea field, thinking that Buck was applying the common weed killer called 24D, became concerned that the overspray would drift over on his peas.

Mr. Farmer ran out into his field of peas and began trying to wave Buck off. Of course, Buck paid him no mind because he knew the carbine wasn’t going to harm the peas. In desperation, the farmer ran back to his house to call the headquarters of the spray company that Buck worked for to tell them to stop him.

By sheer coincidence Buck accidently struck the telephone line which ran to the farmer’s house, cutting it down. The farmer was so enraged that he jumped in his pickup and raced to the airport to blast the company.  

He stormed into the office and yelled that not only he could not wave the blanky-de-blank pilot off but the blanky-de-blank pilot cut his phone line down so he couldn’t call the office to stop him!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Don't Meet in the Middle

I was working for Arrow Aviation, east of Lewiston, Idaho, applying dry fertilizer to winter wheat. About 2 miles away on another make-shift air strip two of my friends were doing the same thing for a competitor.

I guess I should change the names to protect the guilty. One friend was Fats Hughes and the other was named Germania Gene.

When flying on dry fertilizer it only takes a few minutes to apply a full load of fertilizer if the field you are fertilizing is close by. So it was this day for my friends. As one pilot was out applying his load to the field, the other one was on the ground being loaded. As soon as the load was pumped into the plane on the ground, the pilot quickly swung the plane around and headed down the strip for a takeoff. Shortly after he was airborne he would head for the field being treated and usually pass the other plane returning for his next load. 

Nothing complicated about this, most crop-dusting crews did this regularly. Generally, you would hit the ground about every 15 or 20 minutes. Very monotonous. Up and down, back and forth, get a load, takeoff, fly it on the field and return for the next load, all day long.

The strip that my friends were working off was located in the middle of a pea field. It had a sizeable hump in the middle so much so that when you started your takeoff run you could not see the opposite end of the strip until you topped this hump. Still, it was a smooth strip and the hump presented no problem to experienced pilots. 

You started your takeoff going up-hill, you topped the hill and started downhill and were soon airborne. Same thing in reverse when landing. It was a steady rhythm. 

For some reason, Fats Hughes had a problem and came back to the strip early. He landed on the down-hill side of the hump. Germania Gene didn’t see Fats land. He received his load, swung around, and poured on the coals to the old Pratt Whitney and went roaring up-hill for his takeoff. 

You guessed it. They met at the top of the hump. 

Fortunately, each was off center of the strip, each was a little to his right. They passed each other and sheared off the upper and lower wings on the left side of both Stearman biplanes. Gene said they passed close enough that he could have reached out and slapped Fats as he went by.

Of course, they filled the air with the debris of chopped up airplane wings. Gene, who was taking off, had up a head of steam as they collided. His plane was going fast and before he could shut it down, it careened around to the left, making an wide circular path out through the pea field, and headed back toward Fat’s plane. 

Fats’s plane slewed around, went off the strip, and quickly came to a stop. Whereupon Fats, seeing the other plane circling and coming back in his direction, bailed out and started running. 

Later he explained, "Well, h***, he made one pass at me and I shore wasn’t gonna sit there and let him make another one." 

Fats was a tobacco-chewing feller and said it was enough to make him swaller his chaw!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fog vs the Bossman

Back around 1963 or so, I was flying for American Dusting Company of Chickasha, Oklahoma. My unit was based in the town of Pecan Gap Texas. Pecan Gap consisted of a small restaurant, a service station, a feed store and about fifteen private residences. The town was surrounded by thousands of acres of cotton fields. 

My airport was owned and operated by a man named Weldon Briscoe who was also my boss. The landing strip was in the middle of his 160-acre place. Being a carpenter in the off season Briscoe asked me to build a hanger for him, which I did. It was large enough to hanger two planes - both Stearman biplanes that were once military trainers and had been converted to ag aircraft.

For the benefit of the unlearned, commercial aircraft, even crop-duster types, have to be inspected every 100 hours of flying time by a federal authorized mechanic. To get this inspection each time I reached one hundred hours, I had to fly to Chickasha where American had their headquarters and did all the maintenance on the planes.

One morning Boss Briscoe said, "Roberts, your time is up. Take the plane to headquarters and get the danged inspection."  Whereupon I looked all around and observed that there was pretty heavy fog enveloping us. Briscoe allowed that we were located only a few miles from the Red River, and fog forms along the river at this time of year. "If you can take off, you will be out of the fog very shortly since it just hangs along the river area."

The fog wasn’t very thick, I noticed, because I could see the big red ball of the early morning sun through the fog.

So I mounted my trusty steed and, keeping my eye on that big red ball, departed for Oklahoma. Sure enough, I soon came out of the ground-hugging layers of fog and viola! It was a beautiful clear day on top of the fog. 

I continued to climb, thinking if I got high enough I could probably see that the fog was just local. I climbed and climbed and climbed. At ten thousand feet all I could see in all directions was the brilliantly white cottony fog; no holes, no openings anywhere.

I wasn’t too worried though, I figured I would take up a heading to Chickasha and no doubt would leave the fog behind after a bit. As I said, it was a beautiful spring morning and I was enjoying the flight thinking how lucky I was to be flying on such a glorious day. 

I flew for about an hour and very slowly two thing began to crowd into my consciousness. One, the fog was not any local thing at all and two, my fuel gauge was getting nearer and nearer to the empty point. The fuel tank located in the top wing of the biplane directly in the middle of the center-section. The fuel gauge was a glass tube attached to the bottom of the tank directly in front of my eyes. It was placed there for a reason.

This airplane was originally designed for a 225 hp Lycoming engine which consumed about 10 or 12 gallons per hour. The tank held about 46 gallons of fuel which would give one about three and a half hours of flight. But...when the plane was converted to crop-dusting configuration a 450 hp Pratt Whitney engine was added. This engine burned about 20 gallons of fuel per hour of flight, meaning I only had about 30 more minutes of flight before I ran out of fuel. 

Still no sign of the ground anywhere. I became alarmed and began to make desperate plans.

I decided I would have to go down through the fog. I would slow the plane to the slowest speed that it would fly and still have control, and take whatever came, be it good or bad. Just before I did this suddenly I saw a small hole in the white layer below me.

As I circled the hole I could see the ground and there was a strange pattern on the earth. I could not imagine what it was. Whatever it was, I was about to find out. 

I rolled into a tight turn and cut my engine back, beginning a corkscrew descent into this cloudy well of an opening. Nearer and nearer came the ground. When the altimeter showed that I was only about a hundred or so feet above the surface suddenly - I was in the clear. Thank God, there was a clear space between the bottom of the fog and the earth! 

The strange pattern I had seen was a fish hatchery. It was a small lake with dikes running parallel across it, spaced about twenty feet apart. I had not remembered this landmark though I had flown this way several times in the past.

Of course, I rolled out of my tight turn into level flight and stopped my descent. However, I was still as lost as a goose. I took up a heading to the northwest anyway and figured, "At least I can land in a pasture or field."  

Then I suddenly came to a highway. "That is where I will put this flying machine down," I determined. I turned so I was flying along parallel to the pavement, expecting to hear the engine stop any moment. Then up came a sign that said "Duncan 10 miles." This was going to be my first fuel stop. Within minutes I was on the runway and taxing into the gas pit.

I pull up to the fuel pump and shut the engine down. Needless to say I was a bit sweaty. The small airport fuel boy came sauntering out and looked at me and then up at the low ceiling, shook his head and said "What in God’s name are you doing flying in this stuff?" I wondered the same thing.

The gas boy filled my tank and it took 45 1/2 gallons. As I said, the tank was a 46 gallon tank. 

Moral: I was stupid for taking off in the fog no matter what the bossman sez.