chapter 20

Nuts and Bolts

This chapter doesn't have anything to do with nuts and bolts.  The only reason I titled it "Nuts and Bolts" is that I didn't want to title it, "Additional Obscure Information of Little Interest to Anyone," which is a far more accurate title of what this chapter is all about.

            In this chapter I am going to try to explain some of the more technical aspects of the crop-dusting business.  It's a pretty boring subject.  If you're not interested in reading a lot of technical jargon, you might just want to skip this chapter. 

            On the other hand, if you really do intend to read all the stories in this book, you will find that they often make better sense if you understand the bare nuts and bolts of what crop-dusting is all about.  If you don't want to bother to understand the finer points, it won't hurt much if you just move ahead. 

            For that matter, you won't miss much if you never read this book in the first place.

            As far as "crop-dusting" went, I never put out a load of dust in my life.  I don't think I ever saw an airplane putting out dust.  Although I do seem to have vague memories from my boyhood about sitting in a parked car with my daddy, somewhere along the Texas Gulf Coast, and watching some kind of old airplane flying great billowing clouds of dust out across some field.  I must have been about six years old at the time, and if that experience somehow sparked my ambition to someday fly a crop-duster, I sure don't remember it. 

            I know that if my daddy had had even the slightest idea that someday I would grow up and take to flying those damn things, he would have dropped me off the nearest bridge right then. 

            By the time it came to be my turn to fly those airplanes, dusting was a thing of the past.  Mostly because DDT was no longer used, and DDT had been applied as a dust.  But the name "crop-duster" stuck to the profession, so that's what I was.  Technically, I suppose I was a "crop-sprayer," since that's what I did.

            Consequently, there was a whole generation of us "crop-dusters" who never dusted a crop.  In much the same way, Texas is covered with "windmills" that never milled anything.  All a windmill ever did was pump water out of the ground.  But who ever heard of a "wind pump"?

            Anyway, mostly what I did was spray crops.  The word "crop-duster" continued to be used to describe all airplanes that treated crops from the air.  For some reason, the word crop-duster has always been used interchangeably to designate the aircraft, as well as the idiot who flies it.

            For many years crop-duster airplanes were nothing more than standard production aircraft modified with hoppers, pumps, and booms so that chemicals could be sprayed from below the trailing edges of the wing.  During the early years of development of ag. aircraft many a monstrosity of a flying machine was put together and flown by shade-tree mechanics and plow-boy pilots.

            Following World War Two, aircraft engineers began to design aircraft specifically for agricultural application.  Over the years these designs evolved so that today most ag. aircraft are built to the same basic engineering plan.

            Most spray planes, regardless of the builder, are set up in pretty much the same way.  The hopper of the aircraft is positioned directly over the wing.  By having the load directly over the center of lift, the aerodynamic balance of the aircraft is not greatly altered as the load is dispensed.   The pilot is positioned directly behind the hopper.  By placing the cockpit high and toward the rear of the fuselage, the pilot has excellent visibility and is also positioned behind the mass of the aircraft in the event of a crash.  The nose of the aircraft is extended well forward to maintain proper weight and balance.

            The hopper has a large door in the top that can be opened for loading, cleaning, or just for the fun of gazing down into a stinking, chemical-stained fiberglass pit.  The bottom of the hopper is fitted with a dump door.  In an emergency, the pilot can pull his dump handle and the load will fall through this bottom door in a few seconds.  A frantic yank on the dump handle has kept more than one airplane from coming to a bad end, not to mention the fellow doing the yanking.

            To load a crop-duster with a load of chemicals, a "bottom loader" valve is provided at the rear of the fuselage.  This valve is connected to the hopper by about ten feet of pipe.  By hooking a hose to this valve, a load can quickly and easily be pumped on board.

            When the aircraft is actually flying over a field, the chemical is dispensed from booms mounted slightly behind the trailing edge of either wing.  These booms, as well as all the rest of the plumbing, are usually made from stainless steel.  Each boom is equipped with a line of nozzles that dispense the liquid in a fine spray.  I always set up my aircraft with 44 nozzles.  Pilots argued endlessly as to the best way to "set up" an airplane. 

            Of course, pilots argued endlessly about just about everything.

            As the spray was dispensed it had to be pumped out of the hopper into the booms.  The pump used for this was mounted in the slipstream directly below the hopper.  This was a centrifugal pump driven by a small, wooden propeller.  As the aircraft flew through the air the wooden propeller drove the pump, which pumped chemical into the booms and dispersed it through the 44 nozzles.            This was all one of those "and the engine in the Ford made the wheels go 'round" sort of things.  It all worked pretty well. 

            There was also a spray valve located immediately downstream from the centrifugal pump.  The pilot operated this spray valve by a handle on the left side of the cockpit directly in front of the throttle lever.  This was how he turned his spray on and off.  There was also a boom pressure gauge that allowed the pilot to control the pressure in the liquid going into the booms.  In this manner, he could control the rate of flow of the liquid being applied to the crop.  This allowed for application rates per acre that varied in accordance with the crop being sprayed, the particular chemical being applied, and the wishes of the farmer. 

A pilot soon learned the specific boom pressures that yielded a particular per acre rate on his aircraft.  All aircraft were different.  And most of the boom pressure gauges on most old crop dusters were inaccurate.  But the system worked.  A pilot just had to figure out the different quirks of the airplane he was flying.  They were all different.

            Does this sound confusing?  Well, it was.  But anyway, that's pretty much how the plumbing on a crop-duster airplane works.

            There's a lot more to be told about a crop-duster.  After all, it is an airplane.  And even simple airplanes are pretty complicated.  A crop-duster has a motor with all sorts of controls going to it, and all sorts of gauges coming from it.  It also had flight controls- ailerons, a rudder, an elevator, flaps, trim tabs. They are all tied together with cables.  All this Rube Goldberg mechanism requires pulleys, and levers, and adjusting devices, and pedals, and cranks, and all sorts of other odd-ball hardware.  There were cables, and cams, and switches, and handles, and knobs, and levers.  It was all a pretty big mess. 

            But a guy needed all that stuff to make the airplane go through the sky in the correct sort of fashion.  Once you got used to the whole setup, it got to be pretty simple.  As easy as running a sewing machine.  And lots more fun.  Scarier, too.

            Crop-dusting is a part of farming.  For a crop-duster pilot to be worth his salt, he needs to understand something about farming.  A crop-duster is just one more farming machine, like a tractor, or a four-bottom plow, or a hay baler.  This particular farm machine is used to spray chemicals onto crops to either kills bugs, kill weeds, kill fungus, or fertilize a crop.  There may be other reasons to fly an airplane over a crop, but these are the only ones I know anything about.

            There are lots of ways to kill bugs.  Most of them don't work.  Bugs are tough.  Mostly, the way I killed bugs was to poison them. These poisons are called insecticides.  Poisons work in a lot of different ways, most of which I don't understand.  But I do understand, more or less, three ways of killing bugs.  I am not counting the best way of all, which is squashing them.  This is hard to do with an airplane.  At least it's hard to do more than once. 

            The best way to kill a bug is to spray him with something that will give him a bellyache.  Just make him curl up and die.  Another best way is to paralyze his central nervous system so that he can't walk, or talk, or eat, or breathe.  The poisons used to accomplish this are known as organic phosphates.  They kill bugs good.  They also kill pilots, flagmen, farmers, and innocent bystanders, not to mention the birds and the bees.

            A third way to kill bugs is to get involved in their sex life. This means spraying a chemical on them that will make them uninterested in making love, or confuse them in some way about all this.  Or make it so they can't get pregnant. 

            This is all pretty complicated stuff, particularly for a guy who has spent most of his life trying to figure out his own sex life.

            There are other things to know about insecticides.  Some of them "break down" rapidly.  Some of them never "break down."  Most of the chemicals I used had the advantage of breaking down quickly. Twenty-four hours after a field was sprayed, it was perfectly safe to walk around in it. 

            But during the times that men worked with these chemicals they were highly dangerous.  Most of the chemicals I used were the most deadly of the organic phosphate compounds.  One of my most often used chemicals was methyl parathion.  This chemical would kill bugs like crazy.  Farmers loved it.  It could also kill a man if he got a few drops on his skin. 

            Care and discipline were required of all the men who worked with this stuff.  A pilot's greatest nightmare revolved around airplanes crashing and burning with a load of organic phosphates on board.

            "Fungicides" are used to kill fungus.  I never really figured out what "fungus" was.  Sometimes it was explained to me as being some kind of a creeping creature, like a jellyfish.  Other times I had the idea that it was a growth, like toadstools or Spanish moss. It went by names such as "rust," or "leaf spot," or "blight, or "rot."  I learned what it looked like when the crops had it, but I never figured out just exactly what it was. 

            Some fungus was "airborne."  It could drift from one field to another.  It was contagious, like tuberculosis.  A smart fellow from Texas A&M University once explained to me that every year a particular kind of fungus drifted into Texas from somewhere in South America.  He explained that it came clear across the Gulf of Mexico, like the hummingbirds.  A likely story.

            Anyway, I could kill fungus.  I killed lots of it.  I was famous for being able to kill fungus with an airplane.  I was a Top Gun at killing fungus.  Most of the chemicals used to kill fungus were pretty harmless.  They never hurt anybody.  I liked working with fungicides.  So did my crew.  We could be sloppy and get away with it.

            Weed killers are known as "herbicides."  I killed a many a weed in my day.  This general category also includes chemicals used to control brush.  I killed many a clump of brush in my day.  The most commonly used herbicide in South Texas during those years was either 2-4-D, or 2-4-5-T.  Generally, 2-4-D, simply called "D", was used to kill weeds, whereas 2-4-5-T, called "T", was used to kill brush.      That same smart fellow from Texas A&M also told me that 2-4-5-T was "essentially" the same thing as agent orange, at that time becoming famous for its application in other areas.  Well, I've put out truckloads of 2-4-5-T and it never affected me.  (I once told this to an old friend who only raised his eyebrows in a superior sort of way and said, "That's what you think!")

            But anyway, I put out a lot of "T."  I don't have any opinion about agent orange one way or the other.

            The biggest problem when spraying either "D" or "T" was that they had a tendency to drift.  If a guy wasn't careful, he could get in a lot of trouble by letting his spray drift onto the wrong crops. This could quickly result in a situation in which mad farmers and slick lawyers were running around everywhere.  Take it from me.

            I also used other herbicides, but not much.  I have sprayed on "acid" to kill Johnson grass.  It worked good, but I'm not really sure what it was.  I have also "burned down" grain fields using other chemicals that I now forget the names of. 

            Farmers liked to "burn down" milo or sorghum fields just before harvest so that the combines could more easily harvest the grain.  "Burning down" a field simply meant killing everything in it.  After a day or two, all the dried out grain stalks, as well as the weeds, would zip through the threshing machine lickety-split.  It didn't hurt the grain.  At least that's what they told me. 

            I have also used Paraquat to burn down grain fields.  I hated Paraquat.  I knew that Paraquat was one of those farm chemicals that, sooner or later, always caused trouble.

            Both "D" and "T" were selective.  They would only kill specific plants.  Others they wouldn't harm.  This made them real handy on crops and rangeland.  I've flown on "D" and "T" on many and many an acre south of San Antonio.

            In some farming areas a lot of fertilizer is flown onto crops. I've done a little of this, but not much.  In the rice country they do a lot of this type of work with an airplane.  This is because the fields are so muddy a tractor can't go across them without bogging down.  I never flew a rice field, and don't know anything about rice farming.

            To put out fertilizer, an airplane had to be rigged-up with a "spreader."  A spreader was a big, triangular-shaped wing sort of a thing.  It made an airplane fly funny and was a pain-in-the-neck to install.   

            About the only time I ever hung a spreader under an airplane was to apply a granular type of material called "terriclore".  Terriclore did something to the nematodes, whatever nematodes are.  It either made them extra healthy, or killed them.  I can't remember which.  I probably never knew to start with.  It's really not important what it did.  Both the farmers and the nematodes were well aware of the affect of terriclore, and I figured that as long as they understood, and I got paid, it was all for the best.

            The other big problem with putting out any kind of solids was that they had to be loaded, a bag at a time, by hand.  This was not only extra work, it also killed a lot of time.  There was very little requirement for this type of "solids" work in the areas I flew, and the less I had to do with spreaders and bags of fertilizer, the better I liked it.

            Farm chemicals are made by many manufacturers for many different purposes.  The farm chemicals that arrived at my mixing vat came from several different sources.  Sometimes a chemical salesman would bring his product to my strip and make his pitch right there to the local farmers. 

            But most farmers already knew what chemical they wanted to use, and would usually show up at my strip with five gallon cans in the back of their pick-ups.  Many of my customers would just give me instructions as to the type of chemical they wanted to use, and authorize me to pick it up at a local farm and ranch store and charge it to their account.  Others would give me keys to their barns, as well as keys to their gates, and tell me to pick up whatever I needed.

            Sometimes I would buy a 55 gallon drum of one of the chemicals I used a lot and re-sell it to my customers.  But I tried to avoid this.  It was bad enough when I didn't paid for some of the flying I did, and on many jobs the chemical bill exceeded the charge for the flying.  I tried to avoid buying chemicals with real money, and attempting to get paid for them by sending out pieces of paper in the mail. 

            The men who worked for me had to learn how to do many different jobs.  Everyone learned to mix chemicals.  Everyone learned to flag fields.  Funny, looking back, flagging a field was something that I never did.  Now I wonder what it was like to have that airplane come screaming by your shoulder with lethal chemicals boiling out of it like crazy.  Now that I think about it, I'm glad that I never had to do a job like that.

            But we all worked, all the time.  We all loaded chemicals, fixed flats, worked on equipment, cleaned out spray booms, changed T-strainers, pumped gas, hauled water, and forty other jobs we were always behind on.

            Almost all the flying I did was with a flagman.  It is important that as an aircraft is flown back and forth across a field, no vacant strips are left untreated.  For a pilot, it is impossible to tell where the next pass should be made after he has climbed out, turned around, and lined up for his next trip across the field.  That would be like trying to paint a kitchen floor with a blindfold on.  You would skip a lot of places.

            In small fields, it is possible to judge where you have been by spacing your passes in relation to the size of the field.  This works okay when you only have to make five or six passes across a field, but on fields of any size the pilot has to have some way to know where he needs to make his next pass.     

            The most common way to solve this problem is to use a flagman.  The flagman has a very simple job.  He stands at the end of a field and waves his flag so that the pilot can line up on him to make his next pass across a field.  After the pilot has lined up for his pass and is diving into the field, the flagman lowers his flag and steps off the required number of paces to mark the position of the next pass.  The pilot maintains his spacing by sighting down the rows and running parallel to them.  When the pilot climbs out of the field and begins his turn at the far end, the flagman must again begin to vigorously wave his flag. 

            This is the most critical time for the pilot to be able to easily spot his flagman.  As the pilot is making his turn back into the field, he will be straining over his shoulder to spot the position of the flag at the far end of the field.  It is important that he be able to spot that flag early in his turn.  Once he spots the flag he can control his position in the turn and regulate his rate of heading change to roll out properly lined up for the return pass across the field.

            For work on brush or fields without rows, two flagmen were used, one at each end. It was critical that the pilot paid careful attention to the wind direction so that the spray would not drift onto his flagman.

            As a rule, the kind of fellows I hired for flagmen were not candidates for scholarships to Harvard School of Law.  Which was probably a blessing if I ever received one.  But my point here is that flagmen often took a fair bit of on-the-job training to get them qualified to do this work. 

            A flagman had to understand the basic concept of what we were trying to do.  He had to be able to count to at least 15, sometimes as high as 20.  He had to be able to drive a pick-up.  He had to know a little bit about the countryside, and be able to follow directions in those areas where he didn't.  He had to know a little bit about crops, hopefully, more than the pilot did, which with some pilots wasn't all that much. 

            Flagmen also had to be able to show up for work every morning, usually before sun up, and work to the very end of the day.  Every day.

            Basically, what I always looked for when recruiting a flagman was just a good old boy.  Sometimes they were hard to find.  Not that there aren't plenty of good old boys in South Texas, it's just that most good old boys already had a job when I showed up to do my seasonal work.

            You will recall that I said that I liked to work with herbicides and fungicides because they were usually harmless?  Well, I did, but there was another side of that story.  It was this: Both herbicides and fungicides left a very clear record of your work.  If you failed to get good coverage on a peanut field threatened with leaf blight, those areas that were missed were plain as day within a week. 

            There is nothing more difficult than to stand at the edge of a peanut field with acres of healthy peanuts, and have the farmer point out to you a ten-row wide strip of peanuts right in the middle of his field that was brown and withered because your flagman had counted 25 rows between passes, instead of 15.  

            It was hard to collect money for work in a situation like that, and it was hard for me to ask to be paid.  There were times -not many of them- when I took a look at the results of my work and told the farmer that he didn't owe me anything.                  

Brush work was the same way.  It would take longer for missed strips to show up, and usually they were not as evident, but more than once I have flown over a section of Texas brush land and looked down to see where I had failed to trim up a fence line correctly, or where I had made a wrong pass because I could not see my flagman due to trees or the glare of the sun.

            Insecticides were far more forgiving in this respect.  True, they'd kill you deader'n hell, but they didn't leave stark evidence of your minor little errors for all the world to see.  Insecticides were normally applied with a lesser volume of water, and flown in wider swath widths.  It was much more difficult, and often impossible, to verify missed areas of a field that had been sprayed for armyworms, or boll weevils, or aphids.

            I will admit there were those times I "stretched" a load of insecticide to cover some field.  When a man was miles from his airstrip, hundreds of acres behind, thousands of dollars in debt, and months away from his next square meal in a round plate, it was just natural to stretch that last load to cover the last little ragged end of some cotton field, rather than make another round trip just to haul back a measly 20 gallons.

            A lot about flying a spray plane had to do with numbers.  Just simple mathematics- about seventh grade level.  A man had to know how to add, subtract, count, multiply, divide.  Easy stuff.  With small numbers.

            Here is some of the math a guy had to deal with: A farmer would want to put a specified amount of insecticide on a crop.  This was usually specified as pints-per-acre.  Right off the bat, a guy needed to know how many pints were in a quart, quarts in a gallon, etc.  This could be a real stumper for the guy who had missed that particular day of school back when he was 13 years old.     

            Also, there were those times when the pilot had to know how to figure an acre of land.  Not often, but sometimes.  Usually, the farmer knew just exactly the size of a particular field, but not always.  Sometimes you would have to step it off, convert paces to feet, and figure out the number of acres in the field.

            And just try to figure out the area of some hard-scrabble little grain field that looked like it had been gerrymandered by some good old-fashioned Yellow-Dog-Democrat-choked state legislature. 

            And did you know that there are 43,560 square feet in an acre?  Well, you better remember that, just in case you ever have to fly a  crop-duster for a living.

            Any chemical sprayed on a field had to be diluted in water.  This introduced a third specification into the mix.  For example, a mix would call for "3/4 pint of Lanate to the acre at a 2.5 gallon rate."  If the job was to spray a 170 acre cotton field, the math would go like this:  2.5 gallons of water to the acre totaled 425 gallons of water.  This could be hauled in three airplane loads of 141 gallons each. 

            To mix this load, the open mixing vat would be filled with 150 gallons of water and the mixing valves set so that the 150 gallons would be put into agitation.  The 150 gallons was an arbitrary figure that could easily be divided into three loads.  My vat was designed so that a long spreader bar in the bottom of the vat, which had a round bottom, would blast the water into the bottom of the vat and set up a rapid circulation.  At the same time, the water would be sucked out of the bottom of the vat, back through the pump, and pumped right back into the vat through the spreader bar. 

            Once all this agitation was under way the poison could be poured into the vat and thoroughly mixed into the water.  For this 170 acre cotton field we would pour in 3/4 pint of chemical times 170 acres.  This is 127.5 pints, or 15.9 gallons of Lanate.  For practical purposes, the farmer would simply be instructed to show up at the airfield with 16 gallons of insecticide.

            The 150 gallon mix in the hopper now represented three airplane loads.  The two inch hose would then be hooked to the aircraft and one-third of the mix, 50 gallons, would be pumped onto the airplane. The mixing vat had a measuring scale at one end, and when the mixer man had pumped his vat down to the 100 gallon mark he would change his valves so that the pump sucked fresh water from the storage tank rather than from the vat.

Once fresh water was being pumped onto the airplane the pilot would watch the level in his hopper until it rose to the 141 gallon mark.  Then he would signal the mixer man to shut down the pump.  The fresh water boiling into the airplane hopper easily mixed with the 50 gallons that already had the chemical in solution so that the whole load was uniformly mixed.

            Once a pilot and a ground crewman learned to work together an airplane could land (normally, downwind), swing around precisely adjacent to the mixing rig, pump on a load, and take off directly into the wind in little more than three minutes. 

            Within that time span a good mix man could pump on the initial mix carrying the insecticide, swap valves to fresh water, hop up on the aircraft wing and hand the pilot a bottle of fresh water, clean the aircraft windshield, jump back on the ground just in time to get the pilot's signal to shut down the pump, unhook the hose from the bottom loader, and step back a few paces to clear the tail as the pilot brought on full power and headed off down the airstrip.

            Fifteen seconds of the pilot's break time would be used to pull out his spiral notebook and record the load being pumped into his aircraft.

            Every man who was ever in the crop-dusting business had his own way of keeping records.  Every pilot I ever knew was dead sure that his way was the only smart way to keep up with the work he did, and just as sure that the way any other pilot did it was stupid.  I had my own way of keeping records, which, I might add, was the only smart way for a man to keep up with the work he did.

            My way of keeping records was pretty involved.  I was a compulsive record-keeper and note-taker.  I had things written down everywhere.  My key device for record-keeping was a stack of pieces of cardboard about a foot square.  One of the mix man's jobs was to cut these squares out of the cardboard boxes that many of our chemicals were packed in.  We always kept a big stack on hand.  These cards were used as "job orders."  Every job I did was written down on a separate piece of cardboard.

            Having these instructions written on a piece of cardboard made them much easier to keep track of than paper.  The cardboard could be placed anywhere handy with a rock or wrench on it to keep it from blowing away.  After they were used, the mix man would stack them up under another rock, and when I had the time I could look them over to confirm that the log I kept in the airplane was correct. 

            All my billing was done from the log book I kept in the airplane.  I always forced myself to do my billing at least every three or four days.  This meant an extra hour of paperwork twice a week after I got home at night.  I had to constantly remind myself that the way I made money was not by flying an airplane.  It was by filling out bills, addressing envelopes, licking stamps, and going to the post office.

            My paperwork trail involved several steps.  I carried a small notebook in my shirt pocket on which I would take orders from farmers who showed up during the day.  I also had a big calendar on which I scheduled work several days, sometimes weeks, ahead. 

            Each morning I would write orders on the pieces of cardboard, and as the day progressed I would record what actually happened in the spiral notebook I kept in the cockpit.  As a day unfolded, it seldom followed the calendar schedule, and often superseded the orders given on the pieces of cardboard.  One nice thing about the pieces of cardboard was that they could easily be shuffled around as the tactical situation changed during the day.  It was common that a particular job was put off until a later hour, or a later day, for any number of reasons.  When this happened, that particular piece of cardboard was just reshuffled lower in the deck and dealt with when it came up again. 

One of my rules was that nobody but me was ever allowed to write on the cardboard job orders, and nobody but me could discard the orders after the job was completed.  Sometimes I would keep the completed cardboard job orders for months after they had taken place.  They were a good way for me to go back and check my records, and anytime I had a disagreement with some ornery farmer about getting paid for some work I did, I could go back and consult my stack of cardboard work-orders. 

I would dig out the dirty, chemical-stained piece of cardboard and refer to it as undeniable evidence that I had completed the job as instructed.  I would swear to its infallibility with the same fervor as a Jewish Rabbi declaring the historical validity of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and wave it in his face like a bloody shirt.  Such low-brow tactics often made the difference between getting paid, and not getting paid.

            All this accounting information was derived from the spiral notebook kept in my aircraft, from the mix man's stack of dirty cardboard, from notes on my calendar, from loose-end pieces of paper that could be stuffed into the glove compartments of any one of my trucks, from notes discovered in one of my shirt pockets, usually by whatever lady I was currently paying to wash my clothes, from old bills, from chemical invoices, and finally, from anybody present who could assert with the most convincing authority that he absolutely, positively remembered just exactly what had occurred.

            I really did need a secretary during these years.  But I never had one.  You know how secretaries are, they invariably expect you to either pay them, or marry them.




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