August marks the 100th anniversary of what is considered the first successful flight of a “crop duster” plane, which applied arsenate to control caterpillars in a catalpa tree grove in Ohio. Since then, agricultural aviation has evolved and advanced into an important part of crop production. Growers rely on aerial applications to deliver plant nutrients, seed cover crops and spray crop protection products.During peak summer months, agriculture pilots (commonly referred to as “crop dusters”) are often seen flying over corn and soybean fields, applying fertilizers and crop protection products. In row-crop country, this familiar practice serves an invaluable purpose for farmers. It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that agricultural aviation has been around for nearly a century, reaching its 100-year milestone this August.
In 1921, the Ohio Department of Agriculture developed an aerial crop-dusting experiment designed to prevent sphinx moth caterpillars from damaging a valuable crop of catalpa, medium-sized, flowering trees known for their distinctive fruit that resembles long, thin bean pods. On Aug. 3, U.S. Army test pilot Lieutenant John Macready applied arsenate dust from a World War I plane over an Ohio catalpa grove. The technique worked wonders. The pests were removed, the crop was saved and the agricultural aviation industry was born.
Macready’s flight paved the way for future advancements and innovation within the industry. Today, 1,200-horsepower, turbine-engine planes and high-performance helicopters treat more than 125 million acres of U.S. cropland each year.
Producers utilize aerial application for a multitude of reasons. A few of the most common are to protect crops from disease, weed and pest damage; deliver much-needed plant nutrients; and seed cover crops. The practice is used to treat larger, more distant areas with less disturbance or fields where conditions aren’t conducive for ground rigs.
“Farming in the 21st century is a complex balance of maximizing yields while protecting the environment and preserving overall sustainability,” said Andrew Moore, CEO of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA). “Aerial applicators’ efficiency and ability to apply fertilizer or attack pests at just the right time play a key role in helping farmers meet those demands.”
In addition to serving an essential role within agriculture, aerial application is an important tool used in managing forests, fighting wildfires and controlling mosquitoes, Moore added. Looking ahead, this technology may also be used to address challenges related to climate change and the rapidly increasing global population.
To commemorate the centennial anniversary of the first aerial application flight, NAAA launched an outreach campaign that includes documentary videos, a history book and timeline, as well as celebratory events held throughout the country. To learn more, visit www.agaviation.org/100anniversary.