February of 1984 we were living in a rented house north of Paul Idaho when I loaded up a few days worth of clothes and headed west to Oregon and Washington searching for an early season flying job, crop dusting specifically. Their season started a few weeks to a month earlier than ours did here in Idaho.
It was the start of my second season flying for a living and although I had got my foot in the door, so to speak, the year before I had a long way to go to be a successful pilot.
Flying for Dick Kennett the previous year at the White Sands Missile Range at Alamogordo New Mexico in the spring and then going with his aircraft, that he sold to a guy in Petersburg Texas, and working there for the summer of 1983 into the fall, had been an adventurous first year but there wasn’t any future flying with Dick after that. He approached me about going to Klamath Falls Oregon and either buying a widow out of her business, her husband had been killed the year before in a helicopter crash, or setting up shop and be her new competition. It didn’t sound good to me so I passed and struck out on my own.
I started looking for work around Walla Walla Washington and worked my north from there stopping at any and every airport that had a spray plane sitting on the ramp.
The second day found me west of Spokane driving through Davenport Washington on highway 2 and there on the west side of town and north side of the road was an airport. I pulled in and big as you please walked into the hangar and introduced myself to Lee Swain. It was one of the boldest things I have ever done and one of the best things that I have ever done.
Lee didn’t hire me on the spot but called a few weeks later and told me to load up and come prepared to work for him for the next 3 months. Next to my dad’s influence I credit Lee for being a great friend and mentor, if you will, for not only a successful flying career but a safe one.
There is an old saying with aviation, ‘there’s old pilots and theirs bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots’. That’s not exactly true but is a quantitative statement. There are certain types of flying that requires boldness at times, not foolishness or false bravado but neither indecisive or timid decision making, fast reaction and good decisions; crop dusting is one of them.
Growing up on a farm in south central Idaho I had been exposed to a lot of machinery but also my dad had a huge passion for flying. There was never a time in my life that he was not a member of a flying club. The first flight that I can remember flying with him was out of the Rigby Idaho Airport in the back seat of an Aeronca Champ. I was too small to see out of the side of the aircraft as I was only 5 but the sensation and awe of flight never left me. Growing up I flew with him often enough to develop a passion for flying.
Along with flying with Lee that winter and spring I was privileged to fly with Bobby Barnes and Terry Hanes, both great pilots and long time friends of Lee’s.
Bobby Barnes was a military pilot and had flown in 3 Wars, WW2, Korea and Vietnam. He was a fighter pilot in the first 2 Wars and I don’t recall what aircraft he flew in Vietnam but he tried his best to get into the A1E Skyraider which was the same aircraft that Colonel Bernard Fisher rescued Jump Meyers off of an enemy airstrip in North Vietnam.
I’m not sure where Lee and Terry met but somewhere in the Columbia Basin and they had flown together for years. All 3 men brought a great deal of flying experience to the table and I was an eager student. Lee’s story was incredible in it’s own right but to be able to fly with the 3 of them my second year as a professional pilot was a blessing and a privilege.
Lee was a country boy from a small town in Iowa where his dad was a Veterinary. He was 8 years and few months older than me so a perfect age to be in the shit in Vietnam and he was. He was Green Beret/Special Forces and spent his time with the Mountain people of Cambodia. Basically 2 Green Berets and 10 locals setting ambushes for the enemy. It took me awhile to realize that he was walking around on a prosthetic, left leg, BTK; Below The Knee. He was a hell of a pilot and pretty unstoppable. As I write this he and his wife are on the Amazon exploring it.
Recently I was talking with my younger brother and the subject turned to, ‘what makes a good or great pilot’? Training and experience. Personalities have a good deal to do with it, bad decisions, weather and fate all have a part in ‘GOOD’ or ‘BAD’ pilots.
I’m not sure how big the cemetery would be if I was able to clump all of my aviation friends and acquaintances that are no longer amongst the living but it would make a small country cemetery plot. I flew for 27 years professionally and lost friends and pilots that I knew every year; sometimes several pilots in the same year.
Pride, vanity and arrogance have no place in aviation; let me qualify that statement just a bit. There is a place for ‘PROFESSIONAL PRIDE’ in aviation. Actually we should take pride in most of what we do but there is a huge difference in professional pride and personal vanity. Sometimes the difference looks subtle but in reality is huge.
I’ve logged over 12,000 hours flight time, that is not and exceptional amount in the number of years that I flew but I was a seasonal pilot and also my flying was what one would call, seat of the pants; Crop Dusting, Fire Bombing and flying the Wilderness airstrips of Idaho, Montana and Utah. Along with that all but a few hundred hours of my flight time was in tail dragger aircraft, which means the third wheel was on the tail of the aircraft and not the nose.
A quick lesson in the dynamics of tail draggers verses nose wheel aircraft. In flight the difference is not always noticeable with the exception being that tail draggers have a sleeker design and less drag when airborne. On the ground the handling during taxing to take off and take off and landing are very distinct. The center of gravity in the nose wheel aircraft or tricycle gear aircraft is in front of the main wheels. The center of gravity in the tail dragger or conventional geared aircraft, is behind the main wheels. So any momentum from side to side in the tri-geared or nose wheel aircraft continues to pull the aircraft straight down the runway or at least very manageable in keeping the airplane on the center line for take off and landing.
Tail wheel aircraft with the center of gravity behind the main wheels accentuates any side to side momentum causing the aircraft to veer out of control if the pilot gets behind the aircraft. Cross winds are tricky in any aircraft but more so in tail draggers.
The 660 Thrush; a tail dragger
So with that quick lesson in tail draggers verses nose wheel aircraft guess which type are Crop Dusters? Yep, you are correct, tail draggers. How to handle a tail dragger on the ground was my first lesson at Lee’s. I had flown one the year before but it was a rather docile tail dragger if there is such a thing.
The aircraft that Lee assigned me to fly was a Cessna Ag Husky, a sleek aircraft with a bit of dihedral to the wings, not flat, that in its self added to the complex ground handling as any crosswind got under the wing of the aircraft quicker on take off. Most of the aircraft that I flew in my career had a certain amount of dihedral to the wings as it gave them better stability in flight.
I have another blog post in mind about dicey take offs to write so I’ll save most of my stories concerning wild take offs for that but because of Lee, Bobby Barnes and Terry Hanes influence I learned a great deal about flying or rather taxing for take off and take off in a tail dragger and landing one.
I don’t know how many times Lee reminded me to keep my wing down on take off or landing so the cross wind wouldn’t get under it and ground loop the aircraft and there was a few times that I wanted to say ‘I go it’ but I never did, because I hadn’t got it but I would eventually.
Him and Bobby use to amuse me as they talked about tail wheel or 3 point landings verses wheel landings and keeping my mouth shut and listening was smart on my behalf. Both techniques have a place landing a tail dragger but after a few years of experience I preferred the 3 point over wheel landings in almost any weather conditions. Tail draggers were designed for 3 point landings, which means the tail wheel touches the ground at the same time as the main wheels or slightly before.
There is a transition period on take off were the surface controls, rudder, ailerons and elevator, don’t have enough airflow to effectively control the aircraft especially in a cross wind environment so you are still relying on the tail wheel control to help you stay in line with the runway. As the tail wheel comes off of the ground you have your up wind wing down to keep the cross wind from getting under it and ground looping the aircraft; this is important on take off or landings.
On heavy aircraft the tail wheel has a manual lock that you secure on take off after you line up with the center line of the runway and release after your landing just prior turning onto the taxi way. It is a critical piece of equipment as the momentum of a heavy tail dragger slowing down on landing will make the tail wheel want to pass you causing a ground loop. The number of pilots that have ground looped tail draggers is astonishing.
One quick story of a take off from a county road in an M18 Dromader then I’ll close this post.
The M18 Dromader that I was using that day had a jump seat so a passenger, if they were willing to ride looking where you had been and not where you were going, was perfectly legal as long as you were not actually spraying chemicals.
We had been flying dry fertilizer on potato crops and were taking off to the east with a quartering tail wind out of the Northwest, landing to the west with a quartering head wind. Something you get use to after awhile in working a spray plane for a living.
That set up was the fastest way to get our work done as all of the fields were to our east and after take off I would be on a field in a few minutes if not seconds and when done with that load would be headed back to reload; less turning around and more efficient.
Sometime in the afternoon the quartering tail wind was starting to push the limits of being able to control the aircraft on take off so I shut the crew down and sent everyone to our base airport. My oldest daughter Misty had been helping me that day and she climbed in the jump seat for an airplane ride home. Some where in my take off roll a gust of wind from my quartering tail wind blew us off of the road; sort of. Our salvation, so to speak, was that I had enough surface control and I had my up wind wing down and was able to fly the aircraft down the road with the left wheel on the road and the right wheel flying above the crops under it; flying and taxiing at the same time.
Misty had flown enough to know that this wasn’t a normal take off but as she was passenger only, panic would do her no good. It was only a few seconds and we were airborne and headed to our base airport. All of Lee’s influence as well as Terry Hanes and Bobby Barnes paid off in that moment. Yes I did my part but it was years of experience and training that helped me out that day. All of the arrogance and vanity in the world would not have made that aircraft stay stable for take off.
Did I ever screw up a take off? probably, but not bad enough to wreck an aircraft.
Thank you Lee, Bobby and Terry along with my dad; good aviators and good mentors.
Featured image is a radial engine M18 Dromader, close in size to the WW2 fighters; the 660 Thrush was about the same size as the M18 Dromader but had a turbo prop motor, sleeker and a bit faster than the M18.