Time flies by for Louisiana cropduster as he joins local pilots in spraying crops

Time flies by for Louisiana cropduster as he joins local pilots in spraying crops

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2008 7:01 pm
By: John Brannon Messenger Staff Reporter

By JOHN BRANNON Messenger Staff Reporter In the course of a lifetime, most men find only one true love. Civilian aviator George Young found two — his wife and flying. He is deeply, passionately, still in love with both. Last week, he and the former Lillian Wilkerson observed their 32nd wedding anniversary. Not together were they, but miles and miles apart — she back home at Oak Ridge, La., and he at Everett-Stewart Regional Airport near Union City. Miss Lillian has been much on his mind since he arrived in Obion County on June 30. They have kept in touch by phone, usually twice a day calls. “She tells me she loves me, misses me. It keeps a man going,” he said wistfully. To this day he has a crystal-clear image of her as she was the day they met. She was a clerk at the International Harvester dealership in Rayville, La., he a young farmer. He went there to buy some parts for a tractor. “I met her right there at the parts counter,” he said. “I’ve laughed at folks who talk about love at first sight. But that’s what happened. I walked in the door of that place and she walked out of the office. She’s got green eyes. She was wearing a green dress. I was awe-struck; I was hooked.” The Youngs have a son, Jonathan, 28, a deputy sheriff of 10 years’ service, and a daughter, Anne Marie, 26, a registered nurse. “I am a happy family man,” Young said. “I love my home life. I love to go home.” And that’s just what he intends to do in a few days when his work here is finished. Swooping low George Young makes his living flying at the dangerous altitude of 10 feet at an air speed of about 130 miles an hour. George Young is a pilot. George Young is a cropduster. He pilots one of those small planes frequently seen in summer swooping low over row crops such as corn, cotton and soybeans, leaving streams of mist in its wake. His magnificent flying ma-chine is an Air Tractor Model 402A. It is his fifth such plane in the last 20 years. Blue and yellow of color and sleek of shape, it slips through the air with the greatest of ease, attractive in looks and efficient at what it does. If it were a car and if the car were owned by a teenage boy, it would be called a “chick magnet.” Just in case of a mishap, its cockpit is reinforced with a roll bar for protection of the single-seat cockpit. It has two tanks — a 160-gallon fuel tank and a 400-gallon chemical tank, or “hopper,” to transport liquid chemicals. As Young flies low over a field, he releases a barrage of chemical sprayed through 56 nozzles mounted under the wings. 40 years Young, owner of Colliston Air Services Inc., based in Oak Ridge, cannot say how many thousands of acres of crops he’s worked. He only knows he’s racked up between 20,000 and 25,000 flight hours. He has been a civilian pilot since age 19. He is now in his 39th year of the trade. “It has changed tremendously,” he said. “When I first started, you could get an airplane, get licensed and go out and spray. Now, these aircraft have GPS (global positioning system) and computers. High tech, even the nozzles, which are designed to put out a certain micron-size droplet to prevent drift and get maximum effect on the crop. It’s more of a really serious business than when I first started.” And, yes, it takes a lot of aviation gas to get him to and from his work place, so to speak. How much is much? An 18-wheel tractor trailer gets 10 to 12 miles a gallon. Young’s swift little aircraft gobbles up 50 gallons an hour. “When I bought this plane in 2002, I was paying 87 cents a gallon,” he said. “Now, it’s up to over $5 a gallon. As the price of fuel goes up, I have to charge the farmer more. In the end, the farmer is the one who pays the price.” Sprayer or duster? Perhaps a better name for what Young does for a living is “crop sprayer.” After all, there’s very little, if any, actual dusting done any more. The term, “crop duster,” dates back to Aug. 3, 1921, when pilot John MacReady flew a U.S. Army Air Service JN4 Jenny and spread lead arsenate on crops near Troy, Ohio, to kill catalpa sphinx caterpillars. Thus was born the term, “crop dusting.” And the brave souls who piloted the planes came to be known as “crop dusters.” Although the term “crop dusting” is part of the everyday lexicon of agricultural words, a polite and formal term — “aerial application” — has entered the scene. It is defined as the act of spraying crops with fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides from an agricultural aircraft. Helping hands On June 30, Young flew his Air Tractor from his base in Louisiana to Everett-Stewart Airport, where he set up temporary shop. He had learned through the business network of a need for more aerial applicators in northwest Tennessee. Jo Anne Speer, fixed base operator, said it was a case of a lot of work that needed to be done and a short time to do it. “All the farmers wanted their crops sprayed at the same time,” she said. “There are two such services permanently operating in our county — (Larry) Russell’s Flying Service and (Scott) Rainey’s Aerial Applicators. Russell’s is based here at the airport. Scott has his own grass strip.” University of Tennessee Ex-tension office director Tim Smith said Obion County has 65,000 acres of corn this year, and the county is always in the Top 10 corn producers in the state. “Tennessee produces well over a million bushels of corn a year. That’s a lot of corn,” Smith said. “It will be enough for our area, but the shortfall will result from flooding in Iowa and Illinois.” Smith said local farmers have been much concerned lately with a fungus known as “gray-leaf spot,” and it’s the main target of crop dusters such as Young and Russell and Rainey. “What they’re spraying is totally safe for all vegetation,” he said. “At times, both Larry and Scott have subcontracted work out to guys from other areas. I call it helping hands. There’s a very limited window of days during which to spray. For about three weeks they go from daylight to dark and stand down only at night and when the weather’s bad.” A different landscape “I started crop dusting by aerial application when I was 19,” Young said. “We’d always start in May. Cotton was our main crop. There was a few acres of beans and rice, but primarily it was cotton. We’d start in May, put out a little Treflan or pre-plant herbicide. We’d spray cotton. Then about the first of November, we’d be done for the year. “Boll weevils were a big problem. Later, it got to be worms. Boll worms, bud worms, then plant bugs.” Crop dusting in northwest Tennessee is far different from what it is down around Monroe in north central Louisiana. “There is so much corn in this area and it is in small fields,” Young said. “It is physically impossible for one operator to get around to do it all. There is such a narrow window of time to get it done. When corn starts topping out, as it is now, about 50 percent tasseled, you start applying a fungicide. That’s what we’re doing now. You’ve got all these acres of corn to do. There’s so much corn, the local operators can’t get it all done. So we come in and give them a little help.” But it’s not a Saturday afternoon picnic, by any means. “During the busy time, you get to the airfield early, you get the plane ready and the load ready. You figure whose farm you’re going to do and where, and you go do it,” he said. “Then when you get through in the evening, you’ve got to do your paperwork. “I’ve spent my entire life flying no more than 25 miles from home, doing the cotton fields and soybeans. Coming up here was an opportunity and it is different from back home.” Power line perils What about those power lines? How do fliers such as Young know where they are, know just when to pull up and away just in time? Young said you look for them. “If you come to a field and there’s a road and house nearby, there’s generally a power line,” he said. “Up here, the landscape is so different from what it is back home. Where I’m from, it’s flat. There’s liable to be a thousand acres in one plot and not a power line in it. Just clear sailing. “Up here, the fields are smaller and there are trees and more power lines. What I do is, once I find a field, I’ll circle to be sure I’m at the right field, then I’ll drop down and make a couple of passes looking for power lines.” Smash-up Young said that in his 39 years of crop dusting, he’s crashed twice. The first time, an engine caught fire. “I crashed and burned. I had third degree burns on my legs and arms,” he said. “I crashed in the woods. These planes we fly now are designed for crashes, just like race cars. They have a roll cage built in. So you’re pretty well protected. When it crashed, I undid my seat belt and harness and opened the door and kind of got out.” He was out of commission two or three months. “It was at the end of the season, anyway, so I just laid off. I had third-degree burns, and when they got well, I got back in the cockpit,” he said. And the second crash? Young doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Pilot error. I made a mistake,” he said. No regrets In spite of the hazards of the job, Young says he loves it and can’t imagine not being in the crop dusting business. He says he loves his home life and he loves his work. “I’ll keep it up as long as my health holds,” he said. “Why do I do it? It’s just something I like. As far as flying across country, I don’t care anything about that. But going out here and doing these crops and working for these farmers, I look forward to it. I have always looked forward to it. “And I’m looking forward to going home in a few days to see Lillian and the family.” Published in The Messenger 7.17.08

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