Monday, March 28, 2016

Stealth Cropdusters

Many years ago I was employed by an ag-flying company or as some would call it, an agricultural-air application company, based in Oklahoma called "American Dusting Company."  It was quite a large company with dozens of planes and pilots, one of the largest in the U.S. The company divided its planes and pilots up into units of two, three, or more. Each unit had a manager and these units were scattered all over the southwest. The main base and maintenance shop was in Chickasaw, Oklahoma. I became acquainted with many of the pilots during the three years that I flew for American.

Of course all pilots have flying stories: Some true, some true but "embellished," and some out-right LIES. One of the true ones I shall pass along because I thought it very interesting. This story I believe to be authentic because it came to me from several different sources and they all told the same tale.

Back in the middle 20th century there was an outbreak of a certain kind of beetle that infested very large areas of forests of the northeastern states of the U.S. A group of companies got their heads together and made plans to gather up as many ag-planes and pilots as they could lay hands on and get them organized and attack the devilish little creatures that were doing great damage to the forests.

The word went out all across the fruited plains of agricultural America that there was much money to be made by this armada of bug-fighting flyers. American Dusting Company was contacted and agreed to send six of their choice birdmen to join this effort. This detachment was to be led by one of the owners, Mr. Bob Smith (not his real name), who was a former Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Air Force and was still a member of the reserve.

The planes to be sent were PT 17 Stearmans converted to ag-plane configuration, including a 450 hp Pratt Whitney engine. I might also add that none were equipped with a full panel of flight instruments, just the bare bones of a primary panel which had a magnetic compass, an altimeter, an airspeed indicator and engine instruments such as RPM gauge, manifold pressure gauge, oil pressure gauge and possibly a engine temperature gauge. If you were lucky some of these still worked. At cruise speed the Pratt Whitney burned around 20 gallons an hour and the gas tank held 46 gallons, which gave approximately two hours of safe flying between refills.

Plans were made, routes were selected, bags were packed, and one fine morning the intrepid gaggle of beetle battlers left Chickasaw for the great state of Maine. Oh, did I mention - the planes had no radios for communication. All would be following their fearless leader Mr. Bob. Oh, and did I also mention - the planes had no running lights or any other kind of lights either.

Of course many fuel stops were made along the way which made for slow progress across the country. Nevertheless they made their way without mishap to the state of Maine where weather began to be a factor. It was getting late in the day and the overcast was getting lower and lower. Their next gas stop was a small town airport. The pilots began to get uneasy because dark was fast approaching. Eventually the only way they could see each other was by keeping in sight of the long blue blaze of flame from the exhaust pipe. Of course they were over strange country and one could not even see their maps. They were just following Mr. Bob, who was reading his map by flash light.

Then when it seemed that disaster was steadily gaining on them they saw some very strong lights on the horizon. As they got nearer they could make out that it was runway lights at an airport. Each pilot was thinking, "I don’t care what Mr. Bob or any of the other pilots do, I am going to land at this airport, come hell or high water."

And so they did.

One by one, Mr. Bob and all the pilots landed on the big, wide, long runway and breathed a sigh of relief as they taxied into a tie-down area on one side of the field. It seemed there was a airport terminal on one side and what appeared to be a military base on the other side. Anyway, they all got out of their planes and were laughing and congratulating themselves on their good fortune as they strolled inside the terminal building.

When they entered the building the clerks behind the desk looked at them in surprise and then all hell broke loose, as one pilot told me later. A clerk picked up a telephone and they noticed he was wearing an Air Force uniform. 

Within minutes a military vehicle pulled up to the door and half a dozen soldiers with submachine guns came charging into the room. They were quickly hustled into an adjoining room, searched and told to stand against a wall. Of course this was all a big surprise and they could not imagine what was going on. Mr. Bob approached the officer in charge of the soldiers and demanded an explanation. When the officer heard that Mr. Bob was a reserve officer in Air Force his attitude immediately changed.

The officer explained that this was a SAC (Strategic Air Command) base and on this night they were on a practice high alert. Suddenly it all came clear. This group of cropdusters had inadvertently stumbled in to a bad situation. The base was on alert and yet six low-flying aircraft with no lights had managed to land unseen on the base. They were flying too low for the radar to pick them up. They had taxied in the dark to a tie-down area, parked their planes and entered the terminal - all totally unseen until the a clerk saw them and wondered what the sam hill was going on.

The men at the base knew that General Curtis Lemay, who was the overall commander of the Strategic Air Command, many times did such things as this to test the base’s security operations. They were sure this was another of those tests.

It took a lot of explaining but finally the officer in charge of security became convinced that it was just a weird happenstance. However, he knew that if the story got out that a flight of six airplanes had snuck into his base without detection, his job would be on the line. His main aim was to prevent this. 

Consequently he had the unlucky cropdusters placed in a military truck and escorted under guard to a hotel where they spent the night. No one was allowed to talk to them. The next morning they were returned to the airbase and their planes were fueled. The officer in charge said, "Now, you boys get in your planes and get the h--- out of here and DO NOT SAY A WORD ABOUT THIS TO ANYONE OR I WILL HAVE YOU UP ON MORE CHARGES THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE."

The American Dusting company pilots did as ordered and that was pretty much the end of the story, as far as the Air Force was concerned. The pilots proceeded on to New Brunswick and fought blister rust beetles until the outbreak was under control.

But there's no way a story like that can be kept completely secret. One of the pilots in this group was a friend I knew well and he was the first to tell me, under a request of secrecy of course. I've honored his request and changed the names to protect the "guilty."