Dustin’ Loose

Hopefully if you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ve figured out that I was raised in Texas, mostly in the central area, but we did move around quite a bit, though not very much so in the far fringes. Considering that those fringes are pretty far from each other, we covered a lot of ground in the middle because of our Dad’s work as a heavy equipment operator.

My brother and I spent a good part of our early years in the small town of Littlefield where our mother had grown up. Bo’s favorite thing to do was torment the livestock that my grandmother kept and mine was to watch the crop dusters spray the neighbor’s fields. That instilled a passion that has me in its clutches to this day. I have the aviation bug so bad that one of the first things I do when I’m passing through a new town or moving in is to find the local airport so I can just hang out like some adolescent kid looking to cage rides by washing a guy’s plane.

My mother taught me to read at the age of four so I was ripe to be enthralled by adventures I found in books and comics. Bo was the cowboys and Indians type and there are not too many bounding mains for me to be fancy myself as a pirate near Lubbock. So that was just about the time my interest turned to those bellowing brightly colored planes that would swoop hardly as high as a telephone pole loosing the insecticide to combat cotton boll weevils. Somehow I managed to equate those low passes as strafing runs against the enemy before they overran our position. I was running desperately low on ammunition (dried dirt clods, if you know what those are) so air support was essential to our survival and the cotton’s survival as well.

The first plane I remember was the Stearman; a big (to me) biplane with a round engine.

The Stearman “Kaydet” was developed in 1934 by the Stearman Aircraft Corporation (later acquired by Boeing) to provide the U.S. Army Air Corps and the U.S. Navy with a primary trainer in order to train future military pilots in both services. Even though by some standards an obsolescent design with wire-braced fabric covered wings and fuselage, the plane was remarkably strong and stood up well to the rigors of rough landings and the not-so-gentle handling of future fighter, bomber and transport pilots who would thank the simple plane for the lessons learned. Power was supplied by an air cooled 225 horsepower Lycoming radial engine. As a side note, that same aircraft engine powered the M-1 Sherman tank in WW-II!

More than 8600 Kaydets in all versions were built plus enough spares to build 2000 more. Some have been upgraded for more than twice the horsepower they were designed for; respectfully known as the “Bull” Stearman. You can still see them at air shows these days and I promise you will not forget them.

Army

Airshow "Bull"

After the military had exhausted its need for the Stearman, most of the remaining lanes made it into the private sector, just as their forefathers the Curtiss “Jenny” had after WW-I. Because of its ruggedness and dependability, plus the capability to lift a substantial payload, it was easily converted to an aerial dump truck. With the front cockpit replaced by a chemical hopper, the Stearman could effectively apply the chemicals necessary to foil the insects and disease which ravaged the crops of a post-war nation.

The other plane that dusted the crops and caught my eye was the much more modern and purpose built Piper Pawnee. Designed in 1957 (I was all of two years old!) by Fred Weick, one of the most notable light aircraft designers and pilots of the time. All the Pawnees were built for one thing only, to put chemicals on crops and to ensure the safety of the pilot as much as possible. The cockpit was placed high for visibility and the fuselage was built to collapse in such a fashion as to protect the flyer, much as today’s crumple-body cars. The strut-braced wing was placed under the pilot and carried the spray bar extending a swath of chemical to nearly thirty-six feet, the full span of the wing. Variants were powered by an air-cooled engine, ranging from 150 horsepower to 260HP.

OK, so far I’ve talked a bit of technical stuff, but that’s not really what this post is about. Simply put, watching those fellows in their fabric-covered planes with snarling engines and swooping low-level runs made up a huge part of my early years that extended right into my middle age (no, better said, “middle awakening”) years.

I drew airplanes in the dirt, on scrap paper and anything else I could find; which of course did not look all that pleasing to my folks when done on the dusty windshield of our cars and trucks. Our car did double duty for me as either a fighter or bomber and I’d move the RC cola bottle between my knees as a joystick and press my feet to the floor mat as rudders for each turn, pulling back on the upslope of the hills and nosing down the other side for the dive-bomb run into the target. (West Texas roadkill)

My father taught me how to make paper airplanes and mom taught me kite-building with the Sunday comics, string, cane sticks and egg-white glue. My grandfather let me use his tools and scrap wood to make rough model planes to run around the yard with, held high overhead and making “vroooom” noises. Bo would have his cowboys and Indians all set up in the bare dirt yard and playing quietly when I’d divebomb them with the dirt clods from above. (Yes, I made my brother cry tears through dust covered cheeks even then.) My grandmother even contributed to what would become an obsession, if not a full-blown addiction to all things that fly. She gave me my very first model airplane kit and helped me put it together, teaching me how to read the instructions, keep from getting glue globs on the furniture and how to get the decals on straight. Over the years, I have built no fewer than five Monogram “Helldiver” dive bombers. In short, my entire family contributed to my fantasies.

I went on to build hundreds of models, read countless magazines and books and even learned how to fly that Stearman. When I suffered a personal setback some years ago, I started recovering with my first love, aviation. The days of hanging out at the local airport with an anxious “Hey mister, wash for a ride” look are past, but I still look up to see the plane that goes with the engine, particularly if it’s the throaty rumble of a big round radial.

Most of the other planes are, for the most part, just a means of transportation for those who can afford them and certainly not just for fun anymore. It’s a pity, but flying simply isn’t what it used to be. Or is it? On my travels back west maybe I’ll see a duster and pull over. That kind of flying is more important than ever, but the methods are still the same…low, dangerous and a hell of a lot of fun for a young kid of fifty-four to watch.

Times "Are" Hard!

Check out the links below and come back for some more from time to time. See you!

Dustin for Dollars!

More information about crop dusting…


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