The first high-line wire I ever hit was late one evening about two
months after I first started flying crop-dusters. I came taxing back to the
hanger with about 200 feet of wire wrapped around my landing gear struts
and dragging out behind the airplane.
The first thing Bob said when I crawled out of the cockpit was, "That's
the quickest way I know to kill yourself."
Hitting a wire was a new experience for me. It was scary. I got down
from the airplane and inspected the damage. All I could think to mumble
was something about being more careful "tomorrow."
"Tomorrow," Bob yelled! "You're going to be careful tomorrow? Hell,
nobody ever killed himself tomorrow! When a man kills himself, it's always
today! It's always RIGHT NOW!"
I silently resolved that I would be more careful. Hitting that first wire
had been a down-right unpleasant experience, and I wasn't a bit
interested in going through it again. Besides, I didn't want to listen to any
more of Bob's lectures.
Not long after that Bob put me on a job down around San Ygnacio. It
was a simple one-day job and he decided to send me and a ground man
down to do it alone. Meanwhile, he and another pilot continued with a big
job up around Encinal.
That was my first experience of doing a spray job by myself. It was only
a couple of hundred acres to be sprayed with 2-4-D. It was an easy job.
Before we left to go south, Bob asked me if I was sure that I had not
forgotten anything, and if I had planned carefully just exactly how I was
going to do the job.
I was sure I had thought of everything.
I began a long explanation as to how I planned to do the job. I had
figured the amount of chemical required, the amount of water, the amount
of aircraft fuel and oil. I had talked with my helper about what stock tank
he was going to pump water from, and we had both checked to make sure
that we had all the chemicals, hoses, pumps, gasoline, tools, buckets, and
everything else we could possible need. I explained in detail how we
planned to mix the 2-4-D, which field I would fly first, and how the spray
would drift away from a field of cantaloupes a few miles down the river. I
explained how many loads I would fly, what time we would get started,
when we should get through, and everything else I could think of. I knew
that I had thought of everything.
But Bob just listened with that sour look on his face. He never made a
comment. He didn't agreed. He didn't disagreed. It was obvious that he
was unhappy about something.
When I finally ran out of anything else to say he kept right on looking
at me with that sour look of his. I knew that I had forgotten something
important, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what it was.
I knew I didn't want to stand there all day and puzzle it out, so I said,
"Okay, okay! So what am I forgetting? What's the big deal? If I forgot
something, just say so." I was starting to get mad.
Finally Bob nodded his head a time or two and said, "Yeah, yeah, sure.
You've thought of everything. Yeah, sure. You've thought of everything!"
And then his eyes got tight. "But will you bust your ass today", he
"What," I asked?
"Will you bust your ass today", he repeated?
"What do you mean", I asked?
But I knew just exactly what he meant. Among fliers of all stripes,
"busting your ass" was the accepted euphemism for getting killed. It had
been several years since I had been required to consider the distinct
possibility of getting killed "today". It was a sobering thought.
As it turned out, I didn't bust my ass that day. As a matter-of-fact, I
flew a crop-duster for many, many more days without busting my ass.
But I never forgot that question. In fact, that simple question became
my "Pre-Takeoff Check List". I printed it out with one of those tape-writer
guns and stuck it on the cowl of my airplane, directly above the
For several years after that, every dawn when I climbed into some old
crop-duster and fired up the motor, I would relax back into the seat and
prepare my mind for all the problems and decisions I would face before
that day came to an end. I would lean back in the cockpit, close my eyes,
and compose my thoughts. I would stretch my arms, flex my fingers, and
get a sort of sour look on my face. And I would ask myself that question.
"Will you bust your ass today?"