The Tobacco Fields:
Dusting in Southern Ontario
The Early Years
of a Bush Pilot
generations the farmers of southern Ontario have planted, cared for,
harvested and cured tobacco in a small area on the northern shores of Lake
Erie. Our part in this very lucrative cash crop was aerial application of
fertilizers and pesticides better known as Crop Dusting. At the end of the
twentieth century this form of farming is slowly dying due to the movement
of the anti smoking segment of society. Although few would argue the
health risks of smoking it is interesting that our government actively
supports both sides of this social problem.
Several times in the past ten or so years I
have rented a car and driven back to the tobacco farming area of Southern
Ontario, where over forty years ago I was part of that unique group of
pilots who earned their living flying the Crop Dusting planes. The narrow
old highways are still there, but like the tobacco farms they are slowly
fading into history as newer and more modern freeways are built.
The easiest way of finding tobacco country
is to drive highway 3, during the nineteen forties and early fifties this
winding narrow road was the main route from Windsor through the heart of
tobacco country and on to the Niagara district. Soon after leaving the
modern multi lane 401 to highway 3 you will begin to realize that although
it was only a short drive you have drifted back a long way in time.
Driving through the small villages and towns one notices that very little
has changed. Life seems to be as it was in the boom days of tobacco
farming, when transients came from all over the continent for the harvest.
They came by the hundreds to towns like Aylmer, Tillsonberg, Deli and
Simcoe. These towns that were synonymous with tobacco have changed so
little it is like going back in time.
Several of the airfields we flew our Cubs,
Super Cubs and Stearmans out of in the fifties and early sixties are still
there. Just outside of Simcoe highway 3 runs right past the airport and
even before turning into the driveway to the field I can see that after
all these years nothing seems to have changed. I could be in a time warp
and can imagine a Stearman or Cub landing with one of my old flying
friends getting out of his airplane after another morning killing tobacco
horn worms, and saying,” Come on Chuck lets walk down to the restaurant
and have breakfast.” The tobacco hornworm was a perennial pest but our
most important and profitable source of income.
Most of my old companions’ names have
faded from memory as the years have passed, we went our different ways but
some of them are easy to recall. Like Lorne Beacroft a really great crop
duster and Stearman pilot. Lorne and I shared many exciting adventures in
our airplanes working together from the row crop farms in Southern Ontario
to conifer release spraying all over Northern Ontario for the big pulp and
paper companies. Little did we know then that many years later I would
pick up a newspaper thousands of miles away and read about Lorne being
Canada’s first successful heart transplant. I wonder where he is today
and what he is doing? There are others, Tom Martindale, whom I talked to
just last year after over forty years, now retired having flown a long
career with Trans Canada Airlines, now named Air Canada. Then there was
Howard Zimmerman who went on to run his own helicopter company. Howard
still is in the aerial applicating business, the last I heard of him. And
who could forget Bud Boughner another character that just disappeared
whose probably still out there somewhere flying for someone.
I have been back to St. Thomas, another
tobacco farming town on highway 3, twice in the last several years to pick
up airplanes to move for people in my ferry business. The airport has
changed very little over the years. The hanger where I first learned to
fly crop dusters is still there with the same smell of chemicals that no
Ag Pilot can ever forget. It is now the home of Hicks and Lawrence who
were in the business in the fifties and are still at it, only the
airplanes have changed.
My first flying job started in this hangar,
right from a brand new commercial license to the greatest flying job that
any pilot could ever want. There were twenty-three of us who started the
crop dusting course early that spring, in the end only three were hired. I
was fortunate to have been one of them. With the grand total of 252 hours
in my log book I started my training with an old duster pilot named George
Walker. Right from the start he let me know that I was either going to fly
this damned thing right on its limits and be absolutely perfect in flying
crop spraying patterns or the training wouldn’t last long. It was
fantastic not only to learn how to really fly unusual attitudes but do it
right at ground level.
To become a good crop duster pilot required
that one accurately fly the airplane to evenly apply the chemicals over
the field being treated. We really had to be careful with our flying when
applying fertilizers in early spring as any error was there for all to see
as the crop started growing. This was achieved by starting on one side of
the field maintaining a constant height, airspeed and track over the crop.
Just prior to reaching the end of a run full power was applied, and at the
last moment the spray booms were shut off while at the same time a forty-
five degree climb was initiated. As soon as one was clear of obstructions
a turn right or left was made using forty five to sixty degrees of
bank. After approximately three seconds a
very quick turn in the opposite direction was entered until a complete one
hundred and eighty degree change of direction had been completed. If done
properly you were now lined up exactly forty-five feet right or left of
the track you had just flown down the field. From that point a forty-five
degree dive was entered and with the use of power recovery to level flight
was made at the exact height above the crop and the exact airspeed
required for the next run down the field in the opposite direction to your
last pass. Speed was maintained from that point by reducing power.
To finish the course and be one of the three
finally hired was really hard to believe, being paid to do this was beyond
belief. When the season began we were each assigned an airplane, a crash
helmet, a tent and sleeping bag, then sent off to set up what was to be
our summer home on some farmer’s field. Mine was near Langdon just a few
miles from Lake Erie. Last year I tried without success to find the field
where my Cub and I spent most of that first summer. Time and change linked
with my memory of its location being from flying into it rather than
driving to it worked against me. I was unable to find it.
Remembering it, however, is easy. How could one
forget crawling out of one’s tent just before sunrise and begin to mix
the chemicals, pump them into the spray tank, hand start the cub to be in
the air just as it was getting light enough to see safely, get in as many
acres as possible before the wind came up shutting down our flying until
evening? With luck the wind would go down enough to allow us to resume
work before darkness would shut us down for the day.
The company had a very good method for
assuring we would spray the correct field. Each new job was given to us by
the salesman who after selling the farmer drew a map for the pilots with
the location of the farm with each building and its color plus all the
different crops written on the map and drawn to scale. As well as the
buildings all trees, fences and power lines were drawn to scale. It was
very easy for us to find and positively identify our field to be sprayed.
I can not remember us making any errors in that regard. Sadly there were
too many flying errors made.
During the first three years that I crop dusted
eight pilots died, in this very demanding type of flying, in our area.
Most of the accidents were due to stalling in turns, hitting power lines,
fences or trees. One new pilot, who had only been with us for two weeks,
died while doing a low level stall turn and spinning in. He was just too
low to recover from the loss of control. He had been on his way back from
a spraying mission when he decided to put on an air show at the farm of
his girlfriend of the moment. This particular accident was to be the last
for a long time as those of us who were flying for the different companies
in that area had by that time figured out what the limits were that we
could not go beyond.
Even though there were a lot of accidents
in the early years they at least gave the industry the motivation to keep
improving on flying safety, which made a great difference in the frequency
of pilot error accidents. Agricultural flying has improved in other areas
as well, especially in the use of toxic chemicals. In 1961 Rachel Carson
wrote a book called “The Silent Spring”. This book was the beginning
of public awareness to the danger of the wide area spraying of chemicals
especially the use of DDT to control Mosquitoes and black flies. For years
all over the world we had been using this chemical not really aware that
it had a very long-term residual life.
Rachel’s book pointed out that DDT had
begun to build up in the food chain in nature. She also showed that as a
result many of the birds and other species were in danger of being wiped
out due to DDT. Her book became a best seller. We in the aerial
application business were worried that it would drastically affect our
business, and it did.
The government agency in Ontario that regulated
pesticides and their use called a series of meetings with the industry.
From these meetings new laws were passed requiring us to attend Guelph
Agricultural College and receive a diploma in toxicology and entomology. I
attended these classes and in the spring of 1962 passed the exams
receiving Pest Control License Class 3 - Aerial Applicator. My license
number was 001. Now if nothing else I can say that I may not have been the
best but I was the first.
Without doubt the knowledge and understanding of
the relationship of these chemicals to the environment more than made up
for all the work that went into getting the license. From that point on
the industry went to great length to find and use chemicals less toxic to
our animal life and also to humans.
It would be easy to just keep right on
writing about aerial application and all the exciting and sometimes boring
experiences we had, however I will sum it all up with the observation that
crop dusting was not only my first flying job it was without doubt the
best. I flew seven seasons.
Note from the Editor.
Short Story by Chuck Ellsworth. Chuck now does operational and pilot
training for the PBY Catalina. You can contact him
directly at Chuck@pbyflighttraining.com
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Last modified on
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