Thursday, October 29, 2015

Flagman Folly, Flying Folly

Back in the wohgie days, "aerial applicators" (a more dignified name for cropdusters) required flagmen. You see, when an ag-pilot made a swath across a field it was necessary to mark that pass so when he turned around at the end of the field to come back, he would know where to lay the next swath. The accepted method was to place a man (or woman) with a flag at each end of the field. The pilot would line up on the flags and know exactly where the next swath should be placed.

The flag-person had a few simple rules that he was required to follow.

Rule number 1. Both flagmen were to begin by standing at each end of the field to be sprayed and on the same side of the field. As an example, if the pilot intended to make his spray passes going north and south he would need a flagman on the north end of the field and another on the south end. Or, both flagmen would need to start on the east side of the field and walk toward the west side, or start on the west side and walk toward the east - whichever way the pilot had instructed them. Above all, they should both be starting on the same side and walking parallel to each other in the same direction. Most pilots liked to start on the down side of the field and fly cross-wind. This would keep the spray off of the flagmen and also off of the plane.

Rule number 2. Wave the flag until the pilot had time to line up on them for his pass. If the field to be sprayed was over a half mile in length it was necessary for the flagman to wave the flag quite vigorously so as to be quickly sighted by the pilot after making his turnaround and lining up for the next pass. This was especially necessary if there was no breeze to open the flag.

Rule number 3. As soon as it appeared that the plane was lined up, the flagman were instructed to take a given number of steps perpendicular to the flight path of the plane so as to be ready for the next pass. For example, if the known width of the plane’s swath was 48 feet, the average steps of a flagman for each pass would be sixteen steps. Simple right?

O.K. Now you know the rules.

Foolish Flagmen
On this particular morning I was assigned the field to be sprayed. The field was located some 20 miles away from our base. This was a bit unusual. We didn’t often work fields that far away from a landing strip. I was given instructions as to where the field was. My plane was fueled. A full load of the necessary chemical was pumped into the Stearman’s 180 gallon hopper, and I was told that my flagmen were already on their way to the field.

I buckled myself in, taxied out to the airstrip, and poured the coals to the Pratt & Whitney. After using up most of the runway, I finally pried the old girl loose from planet earth. The air was plenty warm in East Texas. It had rained the night before so it was also quite humid. Warm, humid air isn’t the best for producing aircraft lift. I had on a full load of fuel and a full load of spray so the old girl was needing some high manifold pressure to maintain our flight altitude of about a hundred feet.

I found the field which lay alongside a state highway. The flaggin’ wagon had just arrived and the flagmen were trudging across the field to take their positions. Well, just guess what……….bet you can see where I’m going with this. One flagman ended up on the south side of the field at the east end with the obvious intention of walking north, and the other idiot…excuse me…I mean flagman…perched on the north side of the field at the west end with the obvious intentions of walking south! The field had a hump in the middle so they could not see each other.

Now how in blue blazes was I supposed to line up on these two half-asleep klutzes? I had no radio in the airplane and it wouldn’t have helped anyway because they were out of their vehicle and I couldn’t have contacted them if I had a radio.

I flew by each one several times and made motions with my arms trying to make them understand that they were not where they should have been. They just stared at me like a couple of idiots. One of them grinned and waved, supposing I was just being friendly. If he could have read lips, he would certainly know I was NOT being friendly!

After circling a number of times I came to the conclusion that they were hopeless. In a fit of frustration and anger I decided I would land on the nice, wide, good ole Texas highway and go over and scorch their ears with some well-chosen verbiage.

Bad choice.

The highway ran east and west. There was a distinct cross-wind from the north. However, this was not the first time I landed on a highway or a dirt road even. I looked both ways for traffic and saw none. I set her down as gently as I could, knowing that I was pushing the envelope. What I had not counted on was the fact that the baffles in the chemical tank had been removed for some unknown reason.

As soon as the upwind wheel touched the pavement, that 180 gallons of chemical in the tank came alive! It began to slosh and the ole girl got the bit in her teeth and into the left side ditch we went. Oh yeah - it had rained the night before so the ditch contained a lot of water and mud in the bottom. We hit the ditch at an angle, went through the ditch issuing a spray of water from both sides, careened up the outer embankment, then off to the right, back to the ditch again flinging more water and mud, and then back out on to the paved highway where I managed to regain control and brought her to a stop.

Where he came from I do not know, but I looked behind me and there sat a farmer with wide eyes and startled look on his face. He never uttered a word. Didn’t leave his pickup, but slowly eased around me and hightailed it on down the road probably thinking "Them dang fool cropdusters is at it again!"

I sat there thanking God that the Texas highway department designed wide, gently sloping ditches, or else I would surely have made a wheels-up landing.

Dale Roberts crop dusting in the 1960s
When my brain-dead flagmen saw the near-disaster taking place, they jumped in their truck and raced over to see why I had landed. I was so shaken and thankful that I had not wrecked my plane that I forgot how furious I was and gently explained why I landed. HA! NOT!!

Lesson: Don’t let your emotions fool you into believing you are not subject to the laws of physics.


  1. LOL! This is a story I don't remember hearing before. If you ever had to do a skit about cropdusting, all you'd have to do to start off is to set two flagmen walking opposite directions....*cackles*

    1. Yes it certainly has a comical element Raquelle but it was no laughing matter at the time. It could easily ended in disaster.

  2. Cousin Dale - enjoyed it - what year - the historian in me wants to know. Kirk

    1. Hi Kirk, the year of the incident was 1962 if my memory serves.
      I started flying ag in 1960 and did so until 1994. Thanks for the response.
      Cousin Dale

  3. Great stories Dale...I have enjoyed each one. Do you remember a long time ago, (when I was a skinny high school kid), you gave me a ride in your single seat cropduster? It was early evening and you were just finishing for the day. You flew us a few miles south of the airport where you showed me what spraying a field was like. I can't remember how we both fit in that cockpit but I clearly remember it was the best airplane ride I ever had! Not many people can say they have had this kind of experience. You are the best pilot I have ever known but.... was that legal?

    1. Yes Stan I remember. The seat in the plane was quite wide and back then we were both pretty skinny. No it was not legal at that time. But later as I recall it became legal if certain requirements were met. Seat belt, etc.

  4. Roaring with laughter again. Please keep 'em comin'.
    By the way, don't think I didn't notice you didn't describe what you looked like after the ditch hopping.

    1. Well I suspect that I was a bit pale around the gills until my flagmen drove up and wanted to know why I had landed on the hi-way then I suspect I probably was pretty darned flushed as I blasted the poor flagmen. My boss would probably had a heart attack if he had seen this sorry episode.