chapter 8

Flying Machine

    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

the aircraft.

    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.

 

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