GREENWICH, N.Y. — It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… actually it is a plane! Not long after the advent of aviation, aircraft started being used in agriculture.
Flight captivated mankind for centuries. While human flight was made possible with the use of hot air balloons in the 18th century, flying with airplanes was not accomplished until 1903 when brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright invented a glider that allowed for the first self-propelled flight. After the Wright Brothers’ breakthrough improvements continued to be made to airplanes. A big jump in its progress was made during World War I as airplanes were adopted by the military as a new form of attack.
It was not long after WWI that the idea of using airplanes in agriculture took root in the United States. In 1921 the airplane’s most recognizable function in agriculture was first conceived.
At that time, parts of Ohio were having problems with the Catalpa sphinx moth. Catalpa trees were grown for their wood which would be turned into items like fence posts and railroad ties. However, the sphinx moths were destroying orchards. To combat this pest, state forester Charles R. Nellie and entomologist John Houser came up with the idea of dusting orchards with pesticides from the sky.
The pair contacted McCook Field in Dayton, Ohio about the idea and they agreed to help. Pilots and mechanics at McCook got to work modifying a Curtiss JN “Jenny” airplane attaching a hopper to the aircraft to spread a pesticide. On August 3, 1921 they made their first attempt. The plane was piloted by Army Air Corps pilot John Macready. In the rear seat was Army Signal Corps engineer Etienne Dormoy operating the hopper. The pair set out for a catalpa orchard in nearby Troy, Ohio that was owned by the local postmaster Harry Carver. The plane made six low-flying passes over the orchard with Dormoy hand cranking the metal hopper each time which spread powdered lead arsenate over the trees. The first ever “crop dusting” proved successful as the orchard was spared of the moths and the use of airplanes in agriculture was first realized. The event today is recognized as the birth of agricultural aviation in the United States.
Shown to be effective, farmers became more interested in using crop dusting, officially known as agricultural aviation or aerial application, for their fields. The term “crop dusting” came about because most chemicals at that time came in a powdered form as opposed to liquid which is seen today. In 1925 Huff-Daland, an aircraft company that made military planes, formed an agricultural division called Huff-Daland Dusters. The company introduced the first airplane specifically designed for crop dusting called The Puffer. The Puffers were more effective than other planes at the time which were military planes adapted to perform dusting capabilities. Huff-Daland built 18 Puffers which was the largest private fleet of aircraft in the world at the time. Huff-Daland later expanded into the passenger flight industry and would eventually become Delta Airlines. Delta continued offering dusting services until the 1960s.
The use of agricultural aviation remained limited in these early years as most farmers could not afford to buy planes or use dusting services. However, after World War II the industry grew greatly. The war trained thousands of men to be pilots giving them the skills to fly, and after the war a great number of airplanes were left over and no longer needed for military purposes. Ag pilots began using all kinds of WWII-era planes in their work from large, heavy bombers to smaller, one-man aircraft.
One type that was used frequently was the Stearman biplane. During the war Stearmans were used for training purposes. With a surplus of Stearmans at the war’s end crop dusting companies could purchase these planes cheaply. Many planes were in like-new condition and were sold anywhere from $250-$875. They were also easy to fly making them a popular choice amongst ag aviators. Planes required modifications to make them useable for agriculture uses, and soon specialized companies that converted planes for ag uses began popping up.
From the start agricultural aviation has been a dangerous profession. Application then and now requires planes to get very low, sometimes as low as 10 feet above fields, so that chemicals would land on their desired locations and not drift. After application pilots have to make a quick ascent from the field sometimes making for tricky maneuvers. Flying this low presents a number of obstacles including power lines, trees, fence posts, birds and other animals, vehicles, and more. Accidents and other incidents involving ag planes were frequent. Even today outside of military flying, agricultural aviation is considered the most dangerous form of aviation with incidents reported than in commercial flight.
On the ground a person called the “flagman” would stand in the field helping direct a pilot to the portions of fields that needed application. This job presented its own dangers including the risk of being hit by the low flying plane and the long-term effects of direct exposure to the chemicals being applied. The use of flagmen was phased out with the introduction of GPS later.
The 1950s brought much advancement with the development of several agricultural airplanes. Aviation engineer Fred Weick and a team at the Texas A&M Aircraft Research Center built the AG-1, a prototype monoplane crop sprayer. In 1951 Leland Snow, considered by some to be the godfather of ag aircraft, developed the S-1 which began use in Texas and later Central America. In 1953 Weick left Texas A&M to join Piper Aircraft and released the Piper PA-25 Pawnee. Each of these planes featured similar features including a raised cockpit, sloped front nose, and low wing. These features became standard in agriculture aircraft design and are still basics in today’s aircraft.
The 1940s and 1950s saw expanded use and development of ag aviation methods. Apart from crop dusting airplanes that spread pesticides or herbicides, aircraft were used for seeding purposes and firefighting. As early as the 1930s the U.S. Forest Service used airplanes to seed forests that were damaged by fire. In the mid-1950s firefighters in western states started using airplanes and helicopters to help fight wildfires from the skies.
The 1950s also saw the beginnings of nighttime flying in some areas. This was done mainly to protect bees. In places that grow much produce like the San Joaquin Valley of California, pilots discovered that spraying pesticides during the daytime ended up killing bees which are necessary to produce types of fruits. Spraying at night prevented this since the bees were not out pollinating.
The 1960s and 1970s brought changes to the industry. Greater restrictions were placed on ag aviation through federal policy. The growth of suburbs onto farmlands and more environmental consciousness from the general public harmed agriculture aviation. In 1966 the National Aerial Applicators Association (NAAA) was formed to be voice for aerial applicators in the policy making arena.
Despite the changes technologies continued to improve. Leland Snow founded Air Tractor in 1972 which is still a leader in agricultural aircraft production today. The development of turbine engines in the 1970s made ag aircraft faster and allowed for more carrying capacity. Into the 1980s and 1990s other technological advances like GPS triangulation, automatic flagmen, vortex generators, and more helped make aerial applications more accurate, increased safety, and limited crew members’ exposure to the hazardous materials with which they were working.
Agricultural aviation still takes place today, though not on as big of a scale as it once did. According to data compiled for ag aviation’s 100th anniversary in 2021 there are 1,560 aerial application businesses in the U.S. which employ around 3,400 total agricultural pilots that work in all fifty states. Each year, pilots treat around 127 million acres, which is about 28 percent of America’s cropland. In addition to crop dusting ag planes are used today to spread cover crops, apply fertilizer, fight fires, and provide irrigation in drought impacted areas. They are also vital to rice growing-regions of the south and California as they are needed in all parts of the rice growing process.
Chandler Hansen grew up and lives in Easton, NY. He is a graduate of Gordon College where he earned a bachelor’s degree in History. He serves as a writer and editor for Morning Ag Clips.