Crop-dusters are unpretentious aircraft. They are workhorses, and don't
try to be anything else. If a man climbs onto the wing of a crop-duster and
looks into the cockpit, he can see directly into the bowels of the craft. The
structure is undisguised, it is all steel skeleton and fabric skin. There is no
cushioned paneling in this airplane. There are no surfaces of rolled
leather, no pleated upholstery, no plastic veneer.
Right off the assembly line, a crop-duster smells just like any other
airplane. It smells nice. But within its first year on the line it takes on a
special smell. It starts to smell bad, and as the years go by that smell
permeates deep into the very bones of the aircraft. Most people don't like
the caustic smell of an old crop-duster airplane. But the men who fly them
sometimes grow nostalgic for that distinct aroma.
A crop-duster is built for action. It is an aircraft designed for combat.
The pilot sits high in the fuselage and far back along the spine of the
aircraft. The hopper is built directly over the wings, directly over the
center of lift. The landing gear is extra rugged, in anticipation of a life of
heavy loads and rough runways.
Welded to the leading edge of each landing gear strut are long steel
knife blades. These are the wire-cutters, designed to shear through the
high-line wires that sooner or later the aircraft is likely to come into
contact with. Another long knife blade is bolted vertically directly in front
of the windshield. This wire cutter is so positioned in hopes that it will
shear the wire before the wire comes into contact with the Adam's apple of
the man flying the airplane. A steel cable runs from the top of this knife
blade to the highest point of the tail. This cable's job is to deflect any wire
that grazes over the pilot's head with the intent of tearing off the tail of
In the bottom of the chemical hopper is a trap door, a dump gate. A
long handle just to the left of the pilot's seat actuates this door. This is the
emergency dump handle. This dump gate is provided by the manufacturer
in subtle recognition of the fact that, from time to time, there will be those
instances when a heavy load of chemicals is absolutely determined to
descend from its in-flight location and splatter itself against the surface of
the earth. The emergency dump handle gives the pilot the option of
allowing this splattering to occur without the load of chemicals still being
contained within the belly of the aircraft. An emergency dump handle can
be a handy thing to have.
Crop-dusters seldom have radios, and are even less likely to have
sophisticated flying instruments. Flying instruments mean little to the
crop-duster pilot. Airspeed indicators, turn and bank indicators, altimeters,
and compasses, even if installed and working, are seldom consulted. The
crop-duster pilot has no time to be gazing at needles on an instrument
panel. He is too busy flying an airplane. He flies by the feel of his body, as
a man must ride a spirited horse. He flies by the sounds of his engine, and
the sound of the wind across his aircraft. He flies by the feel of the flight
controls within his hands, and the way the earth turns and wheels before
his field of vision.
The crop-duster pilot concerns himself primarily with engine gauges- oil
pressure, oil temperature, r.p.m., and manifold pressure. He also checks
his boom pressure gauge regularly. This is the gauge that tells him the
dispersal rate of the chemicals being sprayed.
Gazing into the belly of this machine, the naked control cables can be
seen working across the barren pulleys. There is no mistaking how the
aerodynamic surfaces of this aircraft are controlled. The rods and bell
cranks, the turnbuckles and cables, the horns and clevises. They are all
there to be seen. It is all vibrant steel, and breathing fabric skin.
And it is soaked with the heat of the day, and the heat of the bellowing
engine that is bolted to the extreme end of the structure. Surrounding the
heat-soaked structure, the pliant skin keeps the heat contained within the
belly of the beast. The skin shimmers with the vibration of the engine, and
pulses like a drumbeat as it slides the steel skeleton through the air at
100 miles per hour. The whole machine shakes and trembles and smokes
and growls and twists and roars and heaves. A cramped little oven
propelling its occupant through a heat-and-sweat-drenched world.
And inside this howling man-made demon, the madman pilot works
hour after hour in a heat-soaked frenzy of slashing arms and legs, and
twisting head, and squinting eyes, and ringing ears, with his heat-soaked
brain banging around inside his heat-soaked skull.