QUINCY, Wash. — Randy Ferguson had only a couple more passes along the borders of a field he’d sprayed hundreds of times, just a mile and a half from his airfield.
Climbing to about 40 feet from a mere 4 feet or so above the ground, he banked his turbine-powered 1983 Schweizer Ag-Cat in a 270-degree turn and zoomed down on the field’s north end to spray herbicide on winter wheat.
Thinking ahead, he eyed his next pass at the southern end when he remembered — “The trees! The TREES!!”
He yanked back hard on the stick. The single-seat biplane, now going 107 mph, climbed but not quickly enough.
“All of a sudden, it sounded like I was in the middle of a sawmill and the plane took a hard yaw to the right,” he recalled in a 2005 interview.
Crackling. Wood splitting. Metal ripping. The right wings sheared the top one-quarter off two 30- to 40-foot-tall poplar trees behind the home of Ron and Michelle Moss.
“My stick locked. I had no control. There was a couple of seconds right there when I went, “This is the day!’” Ferguson said.
Using both hands, he wrestled the stick free and regained control as the plane headed toward the ground.
He managed to keep it in the air. His right window was caved in. The one to his left had blown out. The canopy above him had flipped open.
“I’m in deep trouble. Don’t know if I’ll make it. Stay the hell out of my way,” Ferguson radioed to Steve Wirt, the pilot of Ferguson’s other plane who was spraying a nearby field.
Ferguson was concentrating so much on his flying that he didn’t look at his right wings before landing on his runway, midway between Quincy and George, Wash., and just east of Highway 281.
“It was a two-handed, all-I-needed, all-I-wanted thing to get it back here to the ground.”
The badly mangled wings had large tears and pieces missing “like someone had taken a large can opener to them.”
That was March 29, 2005, and it served as a stark reminder of the perils that can await the thousands of pilots who fly crop dusting planes, streaking across 127 million acres of farmland in 45 states every year. In the process, they fertilize billions of dollars of crops and protect them against pests.
Ferguson kept flying another 12 years before retiring in 2017. Now, at age 64, he still lives in Quincy and works in construction, which he did years ago before flying.
He sold his best plane to his competitor, Mark Brown II, owner of Quincy Flying Service, now the only crop duster in town.
Brown, 50, admires Ferguson.
“He was a very conscientious operator. He had a top notch operation for a lot of years,” Brown said. “He’s a straight shooter. People respected him.”
They were friendly competitors, each with their own customers. They helped each other out in a pinch.
The plane Brown bought from Ferguson, a 1987 Super B turbine Ag-Cat, needed an engine overhaul. Brown had that done and just this spring began flying it again.
“People remember it and say it’s great to have it back,” Brown said. “It’s an icon. It’s the only biplane in this area still crop dusting.”
Brown grew up on Whidbey Island and had an early interest in flying.
“Every kid wants to be an airline pilot, but when I came over here to Big Bend Community College (in Moses Lake) for aviation school, it got me interested in agriculture and the aviation that went with it,” Brown said.
After his schooling, Brown worked for crop dusters in Okanogan, Granger, Connell and Ephrata before signing on with Quincy Flying Service in 2002. He bought the business in 2012.
Brown flies and has two other pilots and three ground crew members. His wife, Tara, is the bookkeeper and handles orders, most of which come in online in a program growers can track.
The season starts around the first of February or whenever the weather clears and snow melts from the wheat fields.
For a month, they apply fertilizer to winter wheat. Then it’s two months of applying herbicide to control weeds in wheat and peas.
Herbicide spraying challenges pilots’ skills to maneuver around obstacles to get at every nook and cranny for weeds.
It’s full throttle at the first of June, with long days spraying fertilizer, fungicide and insecticides on potatoes, sweet corn, lima beans, pinto beans, black beans, sugar snap peas, green peas, wheat, hay and other crops.
Brown has also done weed control in sage brush, seeding after wildfires and fish dumps stocking mountain lakes.
But “bread and butter time” is fighting fungi, bugs and weeds in summer crops.
He describes the season as a “very thought-through and choreographed process.”
But it’s flexible each day. Weather changes things. It can get too windy to fly or spray, particularly in afternoons.
The flying winds down in September. There’s stop-drop spray on apples and mouse baiting until Thanksgiving and then the hangar door closes on another season.
“When you think of crop dusters, you think of old biplanes, open cockpits, no windows, leather helmets, goggles and dust because a lot of what was put on the fields was in the form of powder,” Brown says.
“Now we’re aerial applicators with $1.5 million planes that aren’t held together with baling wire and duct tape. There’s a lot of technology.”
Very few piston-engine crop dusting planes are left. For years, most have been turbo-props with a turbine engine turning the propeller, making it much safer and more reliable.
Brown has six aircraft, three of which are spray planes. The workhorse is a 2014 Air Tractor 802, which is so large it doesn’t fit in his hangar. It has a 1,400-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine, an 800-gallon tank and weighs 16,000 pounds when loaded. It’s well-suited for longer runs and can carry twice as much as the smaller Ag-Cats, doing the same amount of work in half the time.
“It’s the largest spray plane manufactured. It’s fuel-efficient and the computer equipment, spray systems and GPS controllers are more accurate and precise,” Brown said.
Nozzle development continues to be a big deal in the industry to control droplet size and spray drift. Nozzles are tested in wind tunnels.
The Association of Washington Aerial Applicators and the Pacific Northwest Aerial Applicators Alliance, both of which Brown is a past president, test nozzles at spray performance fly-ins to verify that nozzles do what manufacturers say.
“With fungicide you want small droplets to float around under the leaves for more uniform coverage. With herbicides we’re required to have bigger droplets to control drift,” Brown said. “A lot of what we do depends on what we’re spraying and what’s next door. Off target drift is the biggest thing. You don’t want to sacrifice performance of product and you need it to hit the target.”
Brown remains active in both associations, and Tara is executive secretary of the Pacific Northwest organization.
Brown is also a commercial drone operator and says they’re valuable for performing crop surveys but doesn’t see them replacing crop dusters. Drones simply can’t carry enough product to be efficient but can be useful in tight spaces.
Thrill of it all
Aside from the technical aspects, crop dusters simply enjoy the love of flying. At 114 mph and at times as low as 3 to 6 feet above the ground, flying is an adrenaline rush like few others.
“It takes the right kind of person. It’s a personality thing,” Brown says, “and special concentration to think ahead of what can I do in the next minute to reduce risk.”
And then there are those golden moments in the air.
“Like the first load on a quiet spring morning,” Ferguson recalled. “There’s hardly any air movement and the air is just silk.”
Like a snow skier in the lightest of powder or a water skier on the glassiest of water, his plane becomes one with the air.
After witnessing the first crop duster he worked for and an aviation school classmate die in separate crashes, Ferguson said he learned “flying can bite you” and that “if you’re not paying attention you can be in trouble in a matter of seconds.”
A common mistake, he said, is that some pilots focus on what goes wrong and forget “the first thing is to fly the plane.”
In his 25 years of flying, Brown has only had one close call. His engine quit and he landed on the edge of an orchard in the Okanogan. He was not injured.
“Now you don’t hear as many stories of crashes,” Brown says. “Newer equipment is better and insurance companies demand more maintenance and less risk. The industry has been taken to a different standard. The playing field isn’t the same.”