We can always learn things from other pilots, even if the lessons aren’t obvious.
For me, one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of flying is the people I’ve met along the way. So it was with a pilot I’ll simply call Crop Duster.
I remember him from my student pilot days, when I also worked at the local airport, pumping gas. Crop Duster operated a Grumman Ag-Cat biplane from dawn to dusk in the summer, needing fuel three or four times a day, so I got to know him fairly well.
“Colorful,” in both language and deed, would be a good description, one with which I think he’d agree.
Overall, he seemed like a nice enough guy, just trying to make a buck for his crew and family, doing something he enjoyed and was good at.
Being at a non-towered airport, Crop Duster came and went as he needed. Traffic patterns were optional to him, and the Ag-Cat lacked a radio, so often the first sign of his approaching the airport would be the clattering of his radial engine as he steamed in for a landing at about 200 feet agl. That also was the cruising altitude he used to get to the fields he was working. Since the airport had little traffic, his (lack of) pattern discipline usually wasn’t an issue.
One day that changed when he approached from the south without flying a traditional pattern. (If you squinted real hard and gave him two or three benefits of the doubt, you could call his 45° tangent to the runway a straight-in. Just don’t try that kind of approach on a checkride.)
Meanwhile, the mid-day turboprop from Atlanta was arriving from the north. Yes, its crew transmitted position and intentions on the proper frequency and, yes, everyone in the area knew what was going on. Except Crop Duster, of course.
Someone transmitted a warning to the turboprop as it touched down, by which time it was too late for them to go around. Yes, both airplanes landed on the same runway at the same time, from different directions, aimed at each other. Crop Duster cleared the runway at the first taxiway and crisply rolled to his ramp as if nothing had happened. And as far as he probably was concerned, nothing had happened.
The turboprop crew didn’t make the first turnoff, but they got stopped in short order. They were…displeased.
I was on Crop Duster’s radar because I was the morning-shift line guy for a while one summer. Time is money, of course, and every minute he was on the ground waiting for fuel or a reloaded hopper was another minute he couldn’t bill a farmer. To say everyone around him and his operation was expected to share his sense of urgency would be accurate.
One day, I moved to the top of his hit list when the fuel truck I was using to top him off ran out of gas. Oh, there were 500 gallons or so of avgas aboard, but the tank feeding the truck’s engine was empty. Not only was he not topped off, the truck was parked in front of his Ag-Cat, preventing him from leaving. Engine exhaust was not the only thing turning the air blue.
Around this time, I had the opportunity to fly with Crop Duster. One afternoon, my instructor and I were taxiing in from a lesson when someone in the office called on Unicom to ask the instructor if he could fly Crop Duster to a nearby airport to pick up a part he needed. My instructor couldn’t do it, but asked if I wanted to.
Are you kidding? More flying time? Sign me up.
So Crop Duster climbed in the Cessna 150 I was renting and we taxied out. Crop Duster, of course, was a big boy. To say he was not comfortable in the 150’s right seat would be an understatement. And no, we didn’t run a weight-and-balance calculation. But his commercial ticket overrode my student-pilot status, and he had at least three recent landings in a single-engine airplane, so we were legal. Off we went.
I coaxed the 150 into the air and turned to a heading toward the nearby airport. At full throttle, I kept the small Cessna climbing, probably aiming for a 3,000-foot cruising altitude. At about 1,500 feet, though, Crop Duster gave a healthy push on his control yoke and leveled us off.
“That’s high enough!” he shouted over the mighty O-200’s roar. “I get a nosebleed if we keep climbing.”
This was a guy who logged engine overhauls, not flight hours, and I was a student still trying to figure out how to land a 150, so I didn’t argue with him.
Time marched on, and I soon earned my private certificate flying off the same airport in another Cessna 150. A couple of years later, I left town for college, but returned often and stopped by the airport on occasion to check in on friends and acquaintances.
For several years, Crop Duster kept plying his trade, even upgrading from what must have been a tired Ag-Cat to an Ayres Thrush, still powered by a radial engine. I managed to say “hello” to him a few times, but then lost track. He died a few years ago at the relatively young age of 61, from what I don’t know, but I’d guess it may have had something to do with his long-term exposure to agricultural chemicals.
Today, the ramp he used for his operation has been torn up and replaced with T-hangars, work that apparently was accomplished without the area being designated a Superfund site.
There’s always someone from whom pilots can learn things about flying. Among other things, Crop Duster taught me not everyone is where you think they’ll be, and that we all should keep our eyes open for an Ag-Cat approaching from the other end of the runway.