Sunday, February 28, 2016


When aerial crop dusting and spraying first began to be widely accepted by farmers, there were no airplanes designed for this purpose. Consequently the earlier cropdusting airplanes were highly modified planes designed for other purposes such as passenger ships, cargo ships, training planes, mail carriers, and military planes etc.

Prior to the Second World War there was very little aerial application of dust and chemicals to crops. A cropduster pilot had the whole sky pretty much to himself since all other aircraft were scarce and flying high above the earth. His greatest concerns were to keep his ship on an even keel on the proper heading, maintaining his altitude of a few feet above the crop, keeping his propeller turning in the right directions and being careful not to collide with obstacles on the ground. 

These obstacles came in all shapes and sizes: trees, posts, buildings, farm equipment, towers of various kinds, vehicles, and last but not least, telephone and electrical lines and poles. In the earlier days these power and telephone lines were not so plentiful, so were of little concern. As time passed, the cropdusting planes became bigger and better and more numerous and so did the power lines. That is the subject of my present dissertation.

Wire Hazards

By the time I entered the scene these blasted lines were everywhere. Along the roads, highways, railroads, canals and fields of croplands. Some fields were bordered on all sides with these wires and many times they ran across the field at various angles. 

The size or thickness of these wires varied - a thin telephone wire the diameter of a pencil lead to huge cables with a diameter of an inch or more. Also there were brace-cables often called guy wires attached to the power line poles and towers. The size or thickness of these was usually about a half inch or so - strong enough lift a truck or tractor.

I believe that lines were the ag pilot’s most pervasive headache. One of the first things a new ag pilot had to learn was how to fly along, around, amongst and under these devilish and sometime lethal wires. A field that had multiple wires across was generally referred to by ag pilots as a wire-orchard. No matter how large an overhead cable might be, ag pilots called them “wires.”

I lost several friends and a brother because of an encounter with these wretched wires. My first mishap involving a wire happened in a cotton field in East Texas. I was still young but had two seasons under my belt and up to now had no wire problems. So I felt I was a fine ag pilot. 

I was flying a newly rebuilt Stearman with a 450 hp. Pratt-Whitney up front. It had been a long day beginning at first light and now the sun had dropped below the horizon. I was spraying bug control chemical on a field of cotton, making my runs across the field going north and south, back and forth. A power line ran across the south end of the field leaving me just enough space to fly under it. Beginning on the east side I worked my way, swath by swath across the field until I only lacked about five or six more swath to finish the field. It was getting close to dusky-dark and I was hurrying to finish the field before it got too dark to see.

I was flying south and approaching the power line that I had been flying under with no problem. When I reached a point too close to pull up and go over the line I suddenly spotted ahead of me -directly in my flight path - two old fence post protruding about two feet above the cotton. It was too late to pull up and go over the line but I didn’t want to hit those sturdy looking posts. I had a split second to make up my mind. I lifted the plane up about two feet above the posts and Wham! My upper wing struck the lower power line. 

In a flash the line broke first at the nearest pole on my right and the loose end in a fraction of a second wrapped itself around the N strut between the upper and lower wings on the right side - and hung on. It stretched the line on the left side till it too broke. That end of the broken wire on the left side then whipped completely around the rear of the plane and then came forward striking the back of my crash-helmet. Sounding like a rifle shot, it whipped on forward smashing my windshield. 

All that happened in the blink of an eye. I pulled up quickly. Looking the plane over I saw nothing was damaged except the shattered windshield. I was carrying a length of wire tied fast to the right-hand N strut and draped over the rear of the fuselage just ahead of the vertical rudder fin. 

I headed for the base and landed in the dim light just before dark. It had been a long hard day with a hair raising ending. I pulled into the hanger and shut the Pratt-Whitney down. Leaning back with a sigh I finally relaxed. I thanked the Lord for his protection. If that wire had struck my helmet three inches lower it would have taken my head off.

My boss, Mr. Weldon Briscoe, walked out and saw the prop spinner was messed up and a long piece of power line draped around the plane. I figured I was about to get a real chewing out because after all it was a new airplane. He looked at me and then the windshield and made a sort of whistling sound through his teeth. I could tell he wasn’t all that pleased but all he said was, "Son, you cut it pretty darn close. Just don’t make a habit of it. Next time you may not be so lucky."

During my 35 years of chasing the bugs I tore down enough wire that one of my employers said with a worried look on his face. "Roberts I do believe you are going to run the power companies out of wire if you don’t hang yourself first."

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