chapter 31

Wires

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 hes in big trouble. They are totally unforgiving, and will

snatch an airplane out of the sky like a fly getting slapped with a fly

swatter.

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

 

the trees.

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

on-rushing obstacle.

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

they weren't.

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

 

directions.

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

pump.

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

me.

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

years ago.

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

tube.

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

laughing then.

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.

 

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