Before dawn, Brian Jack hitches several tons of airplane fuel to his truck and heads out of town. His destination is the Omar N. Bradley Regional Airport, a rural airfield on the outskirts of Moberly, Mo., about three and a half hours away.
This is a typical day for Jack and the agricultural pilots who work for Lowry’s Flying Service based out of Grinnell, Iowa. Now that corn is tall and soybeans are canopied, making ground rigs unsuitable for applying fertilizer or crop protectants, it’s the busy season for crop dusters, more formally known as aerial applicators. Ron Lowry started his agricultural flying service in 1980, two years after getting his pilot’s license at age 28.
“Someone gave me a flight lesson, and four months later, I got my pilot’s license,” Lowry said. “I flew for a couple of years after that, and I also farmed. I started watching others spray seed corn crops, and I wanted to do the same, so I got into a spray plane and started spraying. Farming was in my family. Flying wasn’t.”
Jack, on the other hand, has been around the aerial application business most of his life. His father, Randy, was a pilot for Lowry in the company’s early years and later operated heavy equipment and farmed in addition to flying. One of Jack’s earliest memories places him in the passenger seat of his dad’s plane.
“I was probably 4 or 5 when I went for my first plane ride,” he said. “Some kids would probably be scared or get sick, but as the story goes, I curled up in the back seat and went to sleep.”
Though Jack doesn’t fly himself, he has other responsibilities—from loading the planes with fuel, fertilizer and crop protectants to clearing snow from runways of the Grinnell airport. Lowry’s Flying Service took over management of the airport eight years ago, and Jack handles many of the airport management duties during the winter, when Lowry spends time in Arizona.
“I guess you could call me a jack of all trades,” Jack said.
On this morning in mid-June, Jack arrives early at the airport in Moberly to begin the process of transferring into his truck the cerulean granules of SUPERU nitrogen fertilizer from the already waiting MFA tender. Jack will then load the product into a waiting crop duster.
Shortly after 8 a.m., two distinctive yellow-and-blue planes materialize on the horizon—flying in tight formation, conjuring the image of fighter pilots. The airstrip is surrounded by farmland. Nearby, red wing blackbirds squawk loudly, attempting to protect their ground nests as the aircraft descended.
Pilot Nathan Shaffer lands the first plane. Doug Cash’s wheels touch down mere seconds later.
Shaffer, now 30, began flying when he was just 18 years old.
“At that time, my dad told me I had to go to college,” Shaffer said. “The aviation college was the first to accept me, so that’s what I did.”
Shaffer recently arrived for the season from just outside Las Vegas, Nev., where he works in a welding shop during the off seasons. As spring approaches, he heads back to what are often called the flyover states—a term that takes on new meaning when you’re an agricultural pilot.
“Only experience can prepare you for the type of flying these guys do,” Lowry said. “Four out of our five pilots, we’ve started from scratch. They had their pilot’s license, but they didn’t spray. Not everyone makes it. They might fly one year. They might not make a season.”
It’s strenuous work that can also be dangerous. Pilots must swoop under power lines and dodge trees and towers as they fly low enough to make their applications, often at a height just 15 feet from the ground. Because aerial applicators fly by sightline, their only timeclock is the sun.
“During the busy season, our pilots often fly from dawn until dark,” said Lowry, who no longer flies crop dusters but does pilot other planes and helicopters recreationally. “Sometimes they eat lunch in the plane while they’re refueling. Other times they get a break and can go offsite, but it just depends on how many acres we have to spray or spread that day and how far behind we are.”
Cash began flying at age 30 after spending a few years as an aircraft mechanic. In the off season, he maintains his mechanic status and is a licensed flight instructor.
“I’ve always had an interest in aviation,” he said. “I had a friend who flew helicopters in the military but couldn’t drive a car with a manual transmission. I thought if he could fly helicopters, I could fly planes.”
During application, the pilots fly between 140 and 160 mph across the crop canopy, but as they gain experience, speed becomes relative, Shaffer said.
“When you first start flying one of these planes, it seems like everything is happening so fast you can hardly keep up,” Shaffer said. “As time goes on, you become more acclimated to it, and the speed becomes normal.”
When demand for their services is at its peak, an aerial applicator may take off and land 30 or more times a day. Both Shaffer and Cash fly AirTractor 502s, which hold somewhere between 2,300 and 2,800 pounds of dry fertilizer or cover crop seed or 500 gallons of fungicide. Depending on the application rate, the plane may need to be reloaded four times to cover an 85-acre field. That’s four takeoffs, four landings for one field.
For a new pilot, those maneuvers alone can be intimidating, not to mention the challenges of navigating around obstacles and accurately applying agricultural inputs. The risks evoke an old flying idiom: “Every takeoff is optional. Every landing is mandatory.”
“We thought we were going to lose Nathan the first day he started,” Lowry said wryly.
Shaffer nodded and explained, much to his chagrin.
“I lost control and almost ran off the runway in the morning and then clipped a powerline with the tail wing later that day,” Shaffer said. “I was a little nervous getting back in the plane the next day.”
When flying by sight, gauging distance is a lesson learned with time. Learning to fly 3 to 5 feet over the crop canopy takes practice, Cash said.
“You’re going to get too close sometime,” he added. “When you’re flying that low, you don’t have a lot of options if you get in trouble.”
According to Lowry, there are a few qualities that make a good agricultural pilot. Love of aviation and dedication to fly a lot of hours are two such qualities. Fearlessness is not.
“There are no old bold pilots,” Shaffer added.
On this cloudless summer day, everything goes smoothly—albeit quickly. Jack moves perpetually between trucks and planes, loading, refueling and answering calls. While most of Lowry’s business is spraying fungicides this time of year, the season starts with dry fertilizer application in the spring and continues all the way into November with pilots flying on cover crop seed.
“When people start to see the planes flying over and know we’re here, we always get more acreage,” Jack said. “We have 700 acres to do today, but I’m willing to bet we’ll have more tomorrow.”
By the end of the day, he’s added 1,000 more acres to the total. The crew plans to stay overnight to finish those orders the next day. The following morning starts the same, with a pre-flight check and new GPS coordinates, which Jack hands to the pilots before each takeoff.
“We usually don’t know where we’re going until we come back and get the next set of maps,” Cash said. “There’s really not much to it—just look at what you’re doing, go do the job and come back and get another load.”
Onlookers seem to find the process entrancing. As Jack continues to load the plane, a man leans on the chain-link fence separating public and restricted areas of the Moberly airport. The sun sets slowly behind him.
Earlier in the day, a farmer commented that he’d stepped out on his porch to watch the vivid planes fly.
“Sometimes we have kids come out and watch, too,” Jack said.
Likewise, back at the airport in Grinnell, Lowry describes how he hosts a fly-in, drive-in breakfast once a year, usually in September, and gives plane rides circling the town to anyone who wants to participate.
In this community, interest in flying isn’t surprising. Grinnell has a history in aviation. Memorabilia honoring Billy Robinson, an early American pilot, is displayed around the airport. Robinson founded the Grinnell Aeroplane Company and later set a record for non-stop flight in 1914 when he carried mail from Des Moines, Iowa, to Kentland, Ind. He died while attempting to set an altitude record in 1916 in his biplane. Robinson likely succumbed to hypoxia, an insufficient concentration of oxygen in the blood.
“At that time, I don’t think he realized there wasn’t oxygen above 12,500 feet,” Lowry said.
While he’s sharing this story, another call comes in. This time, it’s from MFA Agri Services in Lancaster, Mo. There’s talk of a grass runway. All the pilots in the room know what this means. Grass runways are generally half the length of a normal small-town runway and can be slick, depending on conditions. Lowry suggests Queen City, a nearby airport with short but adequate runways.
While Lowry finishes that conversation, Jack answers another call regarding a job later that day. The highway en route is flooded. Lowry references an alternate detour. That’s flooded, too. He suggests another. It’s almost as if he has maps printed on the inside of his eyelids, but it’s just 40 years of experience and dedication to aviation.
“I’ve retired from spraying,” Lowry said. “But I probably won’t stop flying until they take my license.”