"Doubles" is the term used when two airplanes fly together in the same
field. I have flown doubles with several different pilots. I have even flown
triples on a few occasions. I have seen other outfits fly four airplanes in
the same field, but I never did it myself.
For the most part, I didn't like flying with other aircraft in the same
field. It could be dangerous, and not always all that efficient. Any time I
flew doubles with another pilot, I wanted to be sure that I knew him well
and that we both agreed on the procedures we would use.
Generally, it went like this: One aircraft was designated as "lead"
aircraft. This airplane would begin by making a normal pass into a field.
The second pilot would then dive into the field behind the first aircraft
after waiting for the correct interval.
Judging the correct interval between airplanes was the key to a good
doubles operation. If the aircraft were spaced correctly, the first pilot
would make his normal pull-out and begin his turn while the second pilot
was still spraying in the field. Just as the first aircraft completed its turn
and began his dive back into the field, the second airplane would be
making his pull-out and starting to turn away from the entering airplane.
If two pilots flew with one another often enough, they could get this
spacing down perfectly.
The advantage of flying doubles was that a field could be sprayed
without the use of a flagman. When the lead pilot completed his first turn
and re-entered the field, he would simply base his entry point on the
position of his wing man, who, if spacing was correct, would just be exiting
the field and breaking away into his own turn. When the wing man
completed his turn, he simply re-entered the field properly spaced behind
the lead, and followed him back across the field.
If both pilots knew exactly what they were doing, and closely
coordinated their flight patterns, flying doubles could be a very efficient
way to accomplish a job. But it was a teamwork operation, and if both
pilots didn't do everything just exactly right, the job could get completely
My reluctance to fly doubles was based primarily on the screw-up
factor, not on the danger factor. But that was probably just poor judgment
on my part. The danger factor was real, and that truth was vividly driven
home one summer afternoon in a grain field in The Rio Grande Valley.
I was flying doubles with a man I didn't like. He didn't like me either. I
really didn't want to fly doubles with that guy, but he insisted. He was a
younger man than I was, but with more experience flying crop-dusters. He
had started flying them when he was a teen-ager, and had never done
anything else. His uncle owned the operation and he had been
home-grown to be an ag. pilot.
He was a darn good pilot, in the ways a healthy, quick-witted young
man can be a good pilot. But he was sorely lacking in judgment and
common sense. He had never been stomped on by life, never been
tempered, never been tried
He had never been out of the state of Texas, never had a broken bone,
never been shot at, never been jilted. He was an innocent to the bitter
side of life, but he was a mighty good crop-duster pilot. I secretly
suspected that he didn't have enough sense to operate a self-service
elevator, but he could fly an airplane like there was no tomorrow.
I really could have gotten along fine with that young fellow, if he had
let me. But it quickly became evident that he wanted to prove to me and
everyone else connected with that operation that he could fly rings around
me. That's why he insisted that we fly doubles.
We were flying identical aircraft, almost new 300 horsepower Cessna
Ag Trucks. I didn't have a whole lot of time in that airplane, but I figured
that I could fly it good enough to keep one step ahead of that smart-aleck
kid. My primary reason for believing this was my conviction at that time in
my life that there wasn't any man on earth who could out-fly me in a
crop-duster. I should have known better.
I had been flying for that operation about a week when we were both
put on the same job of spraying Disiston on a big grain field. Actually,
there were several fields, all linked together in one way or another. The
young fellow immediately informed me that he would fly "lead," and
inquired of me, and half-a-dozen other men standing on the airport, if I
thought I would be able to "keep up."
I just shrugged. I was pretty good at shrugging, one of the finer points
of human interaction I had picked up from having worked with Santos for
a couple of years up in the Atascosa Country.
Things started off okay. For the first several loads I stayed up just fine.
But I knew I was hanging on by my fingertips. That young fellow was
And after about four or five loads, he started getting better!
I soon realized that I was falling behind a few seconds in every turn. I
eased my throttle forward and raised the manifold pressure an extra inch.
That got me back into position, and maybe I even gained a little bit back,
but then it seemed that every time I started my pull-up out of the field he
was coming at me head-on by a progressively smaller margin. I eased on
another inch of manifold pressure and flexed my fingers around the flight
controls. I also torqued up my mental discipline a couple of notches.
I gritted my teeth, narrowed my eyes, and started putting everything I
had into flying that airplane. I was determined not to miss a trick, not to
drop a stitch, not to give an inch.
I drove that airplane right up to the very edge. I wrung out the last
single degree of every turn I made. I pulled the airplane tighter and
tighter. I nailed the ball dead in the center, and never let it slip away a
hair's width as I slammed the flight controls from one side of the cockpit to
the other. With every pound of weight that bled from those spray-booms, I
drew the turns tighter. I pulled the "G's" until I thought the bottom was
going to fall out of that airplane.
And for a few passes there was a subtle change in our relationship. I
had become the hunter. He, the prey. Instead of rolling into a field and
meeting me clawing my way out a second too late, he found that I was
gaining on him in the turns and threatening to climb right up his
backbone. That's just exactly what I intended to do.
But then the got better.
I don't know how he did it. I just don't know how that kid was able to
get anything else out of that airplane, but he did. He would bring it up into
the turn like a boomerang and plunge it back across the fields in violation
of every law of physics that ever was. Of course, I was pretty good at that
same game, but the laws of physics seemed to be holding me to a closer
But I didn't fold my hand. I just got tougher. I started to fly that
airplane tighter and tighter against the edge. I should have known better.
In fact, I did. But that kid had gotten under my skin. I had gone from
being annoyed to getting mad. Always a mistake. I decided that I would
just find out how tight that airplane could be flown before gravity reached
out and snatched her home.
For the next half-hour things were hot and fast. From one field to the
next we tore, engines screaming, airframes racked to their very limits,
each man intent on devouring the other. In every turn he made he was
determined to force me into an early exit from the field. In every turn I
made I was determined to gain a two-second advantage and come sliding
up on his tail to nip his heels. The battle raged from one man's favor to
the other's, neither being forced into defeat, neither gaining a clear
The thing that probably saved me from killing myself that day was that
that young man crowded fate one time too often. He pulled an
unpardonable blunder. We had just careened over into another field. We
were both light and flying like madmen. Like two rabid dogs slashing at
one another's jugular.
He entered that field pivoting on a wing tip and slicing down between
two tall palm trees, with me not 15 seconds behind him. He pulled off that
first pass into a high hammerhead turn, determined to shake me once and
for all. I was still in the field, and I could clearly see that he had pushed
himself too far.
As the airplane pivoted around in the high hammerhead, I could see
that he had run out of rudder. I could see that his airplane had not swung
clean. I knew his right rudder pedal was hard on the floor, his hands in a
death grip on the flight controls. Instantly, my heart turned to stone. I
knew that man had allowed himself to slip across the edge. And I knew
that he had done it because I had been trying with all my might to fly up
His airplane slipped a little into the lower wing, the nose tucked and
began a sickening rotation deeper into the turn. I knew his stall warning
horn was blaring at full blast. I knew he had his throttle nailed against the
fire-wall. I knew his guts were knotted, his mind fighting off the terror. I
knew that I was witnessing an aircraft entering a classic stall and spin, and
beginning its final plunge against the earth.
But fate only grinned that day. That airplane made a sudden, awkward
little twist, gulped a great gulp of airspeed, and in an instant, was diving
straight back into the field with me.
In a way, I can't blame him for what happened next. I had sat through
one or two of those final moments myself, and I knew that a man's mind
doesn't immediately go back to functioning the way it really ought to.
But he shouldn't have come right back into that field right on top of me,
head on, with me just starting to make my pull to clear a set of high line
wires. He just shouldn't have come back into that field with me like that.
But he did.
A split second after that aircraft shaved the edge of death, my position
changed from that of a horrified witness to that of a man in peril.
"Break it off!" my mind screamed, but I knew he wasn't going to. I
wanted to yank out over that oncoming high-line wire and break away into
a steep turn, but I wasn't sure how much room he was going to leave me.
In fact, he wasn't going to leave me any room at all.
And then he slammed on his spray valve. Just as I pulled to clear that
wire. The spray boiling from the trailing edge of his wing swelled and
blossomed directly across my flight path. I made my pull-up over that wire
strictly on dead reckoning, the wet, stinking Disiston spray inundating my
complete aircraft and leaving a wet, sticky coating on my windshield that
rendered it entirely opaque.
I flew directly back to the airport. I was in a rage. I knew I was going to
confront that pilot once we were on the ground, but I didn't know what I
was going to do. I knew I had just come within a hair's breadth of seeing a
man die, but I also knew that that same man had come within a hair's
breadth of getting me killed. Subconsciously, I knew that my reaction
would be based on his response when we came face to face. Consciously, I
wanted to get in a good old-fashioned fistfight.
I was waiting for him when he got out of his airplane. I noticed that his
face was pale, his hands unsteady. I blocked his way and looked him
straight in the eye. "You know better than to come into a field on a man
like that," I said evenly.
"Hey, you were running behind," he said, his voice shrill and wavering.
The anger took over. I clinched my fists and took a step toward him.
He turned away. "Hey, I'm sorry," he said. "I'm sorry." His eyes
returned to mine for a moment, and I saw the fear there. It suddenly
came home to me that I was confronting a young man who had just looked
death right square in the face. I knew how hard that could be, particularly
for the first time.
I turned away. I was suddenly overcome with a sense of shame. I felt
shocked at my actions over the past hour. Had I learned nothing over
many years of flight? How could I have succumbed to such actions and
jeopardized the lives of two men?
I knew too well the answer. Pride. I had been goaded by a foolish young
man. And I had let him prick my pride. What had I been trying to prove, I
wondered? What difference did it really make who could turn an airplane
the tightest? Who really cared? I knew too well that the lion's share of the
responsibility for that encounter lay on my shoulders. The other man had
only begun to learn the harsh lessons of flight, much less the harsh
lessons of life. I had already encountered those truths. Yet I had let it all
melt away before a little anger, a little pride.
I remembered something I had read long ago. Many years before, from
a time when I had regularly read the Bible. "Pride goeth before a fall."
I wanted to put my arm around that young man's shoulders. I wanted
to say something that would make it easier for him. But I didn't know
what to say.
I went to the office and drew my pay. I got in my pickup and headed
north to Laredo.
I never again flew in the Rio Grande Valley.