Wires? I've hit'em. More than once. More than twice. More than four
times, or five times. More than that.
Hitting wires is not something that a crop-duster pilot likes to admit.
It's always a sign of weakness. When a man hits wires, he did something
wrong. He did something dumb. There's no excuse for hitting wires. Wires
make pilots dead. But, I've hit'em, just the same. More than a few times.
More than I want to admit. And there just ain't no excuse for it. But I've
hit the damn things. More than I want to remember.
There are all kinds of myth involved with crop-dusters and wires. Just
about anybody who ever saw an ag-plane fly under a high-line wire thinks
he has seen something special. Well, not really. Not necessarily. Flying
under wires is no big deal. Any pilot who thinks that flying under wires is
some kind of a big deal has got no business flying under wires.
The trick to flying under wires is to exercise the same skills required in
sorting out potatoes. A man has to learn how to recognize the good ones
from the bad ones.
Since a crop-duster has to live every day of his life among the wires, it
is important that he get pretty good at making those choices. He has to
establish a grading system by which he can distinguish between the good
wires, and the bad wires. He must learn to recognize the difference
between a good potato, and a bad potato.
I had a set of rough guidelines to help me distinguish between good and
bad wires. My first rule was, "The bigger the better." Those great big
power transmission lines that march across the country on double poles
supporting cables the size of your arm are little more than part of the
scenery. They are easy to see, impossible to forget, high off the ground,
and usually planted on a right-of-way that is well-kept and free of brush.
Flying under these things is as easy as cruising down an interstate
highway and driving under an overpass.
The only way big power lines can get a man in trouble is if he does
something really dumb. And if a man ever does get tangled up in one of
those things he’s in big trouble. They are totally unforgiving, and will
snatch an airplane out of the sky like a fly getting slapped with a fly
But there is nothing devious about big power lines. They are big as life,
and right there to be seen by any man with even a little bit of gumption.
They can be avoided as easily as a motorist avoids driving into massive
concrete bridge support posts.
Wires that run in a straight line are good. Wires that follow clearly
defined patterns on the ground are good. Wires that follow roads, or fence
lines, or obvious separations between fields are good. Wires that progress
across the country in logical and easy to recognize patterns are good.
Wires that are arranged on horizontal crossbars are good. Wires that are
tight, and free of brush and trees, and are straight and clean and large
and obvious and well maintained are all good wires.
And what are bad wires? Bad wires are sneaky. Bad wires are the
sagging little wires that meander about on skinny little poles, and wander
across fields without regard to roads, or fences, or tree lines, or much of
anything else. Bad wires are draped out into fields and run to little sheds,
or pumps, or stagger about here and there for no logical reason at all. Bad
wires have been abandoned, and are allowed to sag and get all grown up
in brush and trees and vines. Bad wires intersect other lines of wires, and
are at their worst when there is no pole to mark the intersection.
Bad wires move out across rolling fields, and vary radically in height as
the terrain changes. Bad wires cannot be silhouetted against the sky due
to trees, or buildings, or hills. Bad wires come to a pole, and stop. Bad
wires have guy lines angling down to the ground. Bad wires advance from
pole to pole in a logical manner, and then "Y" off to another pole hidden in
Bad wires often disguise themselves as good wires. These malicious
wires will move across fields in a forthright and respectable way, but carry
one additional droopy little wire dangling along underneath the main set
of wires. Bad wires stand out just far enough from a line of obstacles, such
as a tree line, to tempt the pilot to try to go under the wire, and over the
And then there is the baddest of all the bad wires. This is the
"old-fashioned" telephone line. There are not many of these around
anymore, but they are the worst of the bunch. For some reason, these old
telephone lines don't snap, they stretch. One of these old wires will snag
an airplane and go stretching out across the fields in an attempt to "turn
it's head," just like a catfish caught on a trot line. Many of these telephone
lines were erected in the 1930s and tended to run here and there on
flimsy little poles. They are mean, and malicious, and devious, and evil.
They are old, and cynical, and bitter. They are the lost and lonely
left-overs of an earlier age, and know that there only chance for fame and
immortality is to snare some wild-eyed young fool from the air and bring
him crumpling to the earth.
Other pilots have their own lists of good wires. And bad wires.
For the most part, the wire that gets you is the one you didn't know
was there. Wires are hard to see. Pilots attempt to keep up with the wires
in a field by being aware of other things that mark the position of the
wires. Things like the edge of the field, or a road, or a line of trees, or a
fence, and always the line of poles. Commonly, a wire will not be actually
seen until the pilot is already committed to flying under it. Most wires are
only casually noted as they flash overhead. Sometimes never even seen.
By the time an aircraft actually passes beneath a wire, the pilot has very
little interest in it. By that time, his mind and his eyes are far out in front
of the aircraft dealing with other obstacles.
A mistake I made when I first started flying under wires was an
obsession to actually see the wires. I soon learned that this was a waste of
effort, and only made the passages more hazardous. I leaned to determine
where the wires ran before I climbed down into a field. I learned to make
a judgment as to the exact location of the wire, and to tuck that
information away in my mind.
The trick was to position the aircraft in such a way that you were
confident that it would pass safely beneath the wire, and then to direct
your attention to flying the airplane, rather than searching for wires that
you would probably not actually see until the last instant. By that time, it
was much too late to make up your mind about whether or not to fly
under them. Usually, by the time a set of wires actually flashed into my
peripheral vision, they were either in the right place, or too late to avoid if
The old crop-duster pilots who taught me the game were right when
they said, "There ain't no such things as bad wires, there are only bad
decisions." A hard lesson I soon learned was a simple one: If you don't like
a wire, just fly over it.
In some crop-dusting environments a pilot will seldom encounter
obstacles to flight. I have seen monster grain and cotton fields out in west
Texas, and also on the Gulf Coast that must have contained well over two
thousand acres. I would have loved to have sprayed one of those fields,
just to say I had. But I never did. The biggest acreage I ever worked was
when spraying large areas of range land to kill brush.
But most of my work was in fields of less than 100 acres. Many of my
customers had fields of 10 or 20 acres, or less, and seldom would these
little fields be in any sort of logical shape.
I have sprayed fields in every shape that can be imagined. I was
constantly diving off into some strange miserable little field that was
shaped like a lobster, or curved like a crowbar, and had trees sticking up
in the middle and high-line wires and fences running in 40 different
I once sprayed a tiny little peanut field a few miles out of Big Foot. It
was wired-up like a 12-string banjo and by the time I got through with it
my blood pressure had gone up 40 points. Later I talked about that
particular field with an old pilot out of Dilley and learned that he had been
refusing to fly it for years. "That ain't no peanut field," he explained.
"That's a graveyard."
I never sprayed it again either.
One of my most hated fields was a peanut field I had to spray six or
seven times a year. That field was in rough, rolling country, and in
addition to being ringed with high-line wires, it had one vicious little line
of poles stretching out into the middle of it to carry power to an irrigation
This power line was in a low part of the field between hills. In order to
get under those wires I had to fly down one slope with the pole line right
in front of me, but impossible to see. Just as I got to the bottom of the
slope, and started the abrupt climb out, those wires would suddenly rise
up above the horizon and stare me right in the face. A half an instant
later, they would flash over my forehead. There wasn't time to bat an
eyelash, much less make a correction before those wires flashed over.
I would force myself not to think about them, and just concentrate on
having the airplane glued right down into the bottom of that peanut patch
before I started the climb up that slope.
I hated that field. I started getting knots in my stomach the minute I
loaded up to fly it. That was one of the few fields I was afraid of. I should
have flown over that stinking little power line, but the farmer who owned
the field was one of my best customers and he insisted that that low spot
in the field wouldn't get good fungicide coverage unless I rolled the wheels
between the peanut vines.
One day I hit those wires. I was down in that low spot in the field with a
good breeze knocking me around, and when only the top wire suddenly
flashed on the horizon, I knew that I was too high. In the next instant I
tried to tuck under, but it was too late. I caught the lower wire on the
knife bar in front of my windshield, and cut it. The upper wire cleared the
knife bar and slid along the cable that ran from the top of the cockpit to
the top of the rudder. It should have deflected harmlessly off the rudder,
and not even have been broken, but it didn't.
That wire managed to catch under the head of the little 3/16 inch bolt
that held the cable clevis to the tip of the rudder. The wire broke, but not
before it completely tore off my rudder and sent it sailing out across that
peanut field. When the rudder was torn off it broke loose the upper attach
point on the rudder post, and bent my tail-wheel steering yoke when it
tore loose from the rudder horn.
The airplane still flew more or less okay. It was just a little bit sloppy
about directional control, and tended to wallow around a bit while I flew it
back to the airstrip.
It took me two days to get a replacement rudder and get it all put back
together. By the time I was back flying, the power company had already
replaced that set of high-line wires. But I never flew under them again,
even though the line foreman assured me that they had raised them up a
good two feet higher than the old set. I didn't care. I was scared of those
wires, and I intended to stay scared.
I kept on spraying that field, but from then on I just sailed over that set
of wires and smiled every time they slipped beneath my wheels. The
farmer, who was a good fellow and a good friend, didn't like that a bit. But
he got over it. When I refused to go under that line anymore I tried to be
diplomatic about it.
"I ain't never gonna fly under that son-of-a-bitch again," I said.
"Well, okay, " he said.
I never again let anybody, friend or foe, pressure me into flying under a
wire I didn't like.
But all farmers weren't as understanding as my friend was. More than
once I have had someone demand that I go under a particular set of wires
I didn't like, and when I refused, threaten to find another pilot who would
fly under them.
"Well, okay," I would say.
Some wire strikes are more memorable than others. But a guy
remembers ever one of them in one way or another. I once hit a set of
wires that I knew were there but I had forgotten about. It was a little set
of wires running to a well house. I remembered them an instant before I
slapped through them. That incident didn't scare me a bit. It just made me
mad as hell. Mad at myself for being so careless and forgetful.
Other wire strikes weren't like that at all. They were terrifying when
they occurred, and they were terrifying for years and years after that.
Some of my worst experiences with wires were not the ones I hit, but the
ones I missed. Nothing is as scary as having a wire appear right out of
nowhere, instinctively making some violent evasive maneuver, and
missing it by inches. When this happens, your guts coil into position to
experience the strike, and when it fails to occur, they stay coiled up. More
than once I have gone around for hours with my guts knotted up inside
I once missed a set of wires by inches, and I still get tensed up thinking
about it all these years later. I was flying an old "C" Model Snow with a
600 h.p. engine. It was a monster old airplane, but nice and comfortable
to fly. I was new to that airplane, and when I slipped into a little field a set
of high-line wires suddenly appeared right square in front of my nose. I
reacted instinctively, tucked the nose down and slipped right under those
wires. Later, I realized that I didn't have any idea in the world how that
big Snow was going to react. In that split second my mind had gone right
back to flying the lighter and quicker Pawnee that I had so much time in.
It still bothers me today when I happen to remember it.
But the wire that gave me my worst scare ever, and came closest to
crashing me without actually doing it, was one of those old-fashioned
telephone wires I mentioned earlier. I got involved with that wire the third
year I flew crop-dusters. How I got into that wire, and how I got out of it,
is one of the wonders of my life. If there was ever a 30 second period in
my life when I did everything wrong, that was it.
I started out by diving into the narrow little neck of a watermelon field I
didn't know a thing in the world about. I just came wheeling up out of one
little field, saw the next one on my list, and using no more brains than a
chicken, kicked the tail around in a hammer-head turn and dove straight
up the end of that narrow little neck. An instant after I got flat in that
narrow little watermelon field, my prop chewed right square through the
middle of three cables carrying 440 volt, 3-phase power to a 60
horsepower irrigation pump.
I tore through those wires with arcs of flame flashing everywhere.
Although my aircraft had experienced extensive battle damage, I was free
and still flying. Everything would have worked out fine from that point on,
except that my entrails were stretched between my throat and tailbone
like a wet towel wrung hard dry, and my brain had turned to concrete. In
the second and a half interval during which I failed to get my airplane
back up out of that narrow little neck, I managed to drag a wing-tip
through another high-line wire 50 yards away. That wire happened to be
one of those old-fashioned telephone wires.
Days later I laughed about that 30-second period of my life. But it was
nervous laughter. I laughed about the way that old airplane skewed
around into a sudden lurching turn, that wire stretched out between my
right wing-tip and the glass insulator on one end of an oak cross-bar. That
wire was embedded into my main spar, out beyond the wing struts almost
to the tip of the wing, and was stretching out across the countryside.
I laughed when I told that story. "That wire stretched out like a fiddle
string," I said. "And I didn't like the tune it was humming," I said. I was
laughing then, and I am laughing now, now that I am telling this story. I
am laughing because it does not seem that this story is about me. It is like
a story about somebody else. A story that I heard, somewhere, many
But I was not laughing when I hit those wires. No, Sir. I was not
laughing then. I was not laughing when that propeller chopped through
those three cables, with sounds like shotgun blasts and blue flame arcing
across my fuel tank. With wires slashing like blacksnake whips across my
windshield and against the fuselage, cutting into fabric, slicing into steel
I was not laughing as that airplane bounced its tires into the sand, and
jerked up flopping like a fish, and lurched, and staggered, and dipped its
wing into that nasty little old-fashioned telephone wire that had been
waiting 40 years for just such an opportunity. I was not laughing when
that airplane jerked into that wing, and slid into a terrifying skid, with the
airspeed falling to nothing, grabbing at a stall, with the engine screaming.
The airplane was dying, and my brain knew it, and I was not laughing,
not then. And I was not laughing when that wire let go, a bare little sliver
of an instant before the end, before the airplane died, let go in a terrifying
instant, and let the dying airplane claw, screaming, back into the air.
I was not laughing as I sat in that cockpit on the way back to the Dilley
Airport, wires and cables hanging from my airplane like cobwebs. I was not
But laughing was a very good thing to do, and I did a great deal of it
during those long seasons. It relieved the tensions from my mind. It
soothed away the fears, it composed my spirit. For there were worse wires
than those that came into my life.
These were the secret wires. I never talked about the secret wires. I
never told another pilot, or another man. I do not know if others shared
that same secret, and also chose not to speak of it. I just never knew. But
the secret wires came into my life, and they were the worst wires of all.
They were the wires that came at me in the night. In the cold night,
stark upright in my bed. Stark upright, gasping for air, my mind frozen,
my muscles drawn like steel. The wires that came at me at night, they
were the worst wires of all.
They came at night, and interfered with other dreams. They moved into
my other dreams, and confused them. They flashed into other dreams
where they had no business. Dreams from other lands, other times, other
lives. Those other dreams that would not go away.
The wires would come into those dreams, and confuse them. Confuse
the noise, and the smell, and the memories. Confuse the smoke, and the
flame, and the tracers in the night, and the smell of burning hair. And now
there were wires in those dreams, those dreams that would not go away.
Dreams of hot sweat, and orange flame, in my bed in the Speckled Dog
Inn, muscles drawn like steel.
But that was only for a few years. And then the dreams became vague,
and they came less often. Till at last, after a time, they did not come at
all. Well, sometimes they still came back, but not as often. Sometimes
they still come back. But the muscles are not as tight. The smells not as
strong. The flames not as bright. The cold sweats little more than thin
patches on my skin.
I think that every pilot I ever knew had his own secret fears, and
perhaps, every man. And each dealt with those fears in his own way. But I
am not real sure about this. These are only things that I think are true.
I know that I have had my own secret fears, gathered from here and
there along the way. And some of those fears passed away with the years,
while others burned their way into my heart. And I have always tried to
meet those fears face-to-face. To confront them deep within their lair,
deep within my soul. And I have learned that victory over one fear would
often, unexpectedly, render another harmless.
And my victory over the fear of wires, those wires that came at me in
the night, wiped away other fears that had haunted me from an earlier
chapter of my life.
And it was the wires that took away those fears. The wires that should
not have been in those other dreams. That confused those dreams. The
wires that should not have been in the noise, and the orange flames, and
the G-forces, and the smells, and the muscles drawn like steel. It was the
wires that took the dreams away, finally.
But not always. But the dreams are softer now. And years between.
And not as cold, in the cold nights.