With all of the summer pilots gone, there were only three of us left to help Dave, the owner of the joint. First was Dave’s son Danny (who is 49), who’s been working with him all his life. Then we had another helicopter pilot, jack-of-all-trades, great guy named Chris who’s in his 30’s and who happens to live in the area. Chris is a God-send. He’s been a “loader-boy” before and knows the business well. Finally there was me.
When a cropduster lands, it must be reloaded with product and refueled. Since the plane always flies low, it picks up a bunch of bugs and the windscreen must be cleaned each time. There is a “flagger” on the wing that must also be reloaded. The flagger is a device that shoots off toilet paper-like streamers that land and mark the row the plane just dusted, letting the pilot know where to come back into the field.
ABOVE: Here's our Grumman AgCat spray plane. Yes, it looks and sounds like something from WWII. It's a biplane with a big, honking 600 horsepower radial engine on the front. It can carry an amazing load and do an incredible amount of work in a day.
Between flights, all of these things must be done. It’s not exactly a NASCAR-style pit-stop, but as we get into Fall and the days get shorter we try to keep our ground-time to a minimum. Once the plane is gone out again for another run, there is a big metal hopper that must be reloaded with boron from 2,000-pound sacks. The tank has a chute that sticks out the bottom through which we transfer the boron to the plane.
Here we see our "extend-a-fork" loading a 2,000 pound bag of boron into the ground hopper which is itself held up by another forklift.
Finally, this front shot shows the chute. With the forklift, we raise the whole shebang high enough to position the chute above the plane's hopper. Then we pull that bucket off the bottom of the chute and let the boron drop.
Although there is a lot going on during the ground stops, it can be handled by just one person and the pilot. But the job goes MUCH easier and faster if there are at least two ground guys. Having three is an absolute luxury. And during the course of the job we did have three many times. But also sometimes it was just the boss and me.
I won’t lie: There is a lot going on with a spray job such as this. It can be hard work. There’s a lot of climbing on ladders, and climbing up on the airplane, lifting and carrying this or that. It’s fatiguing for an old guy like me who’s spent his life avoiding exactly this type of work. There is a reason that the job is called “loader-boy” and not “loader-old-guy” for it is really better done by young, strapping, energetic guys with strong backs. Not me, in other words for I am none of those things and my back has the strength of a string of warm Twizzler (or Red Vine if you prefer).
But hey, you do what has to be done and you don’t complain, right? When it was Danny, Chris and me, I was quite happy to let them handle the climbing and heavy-lifting if they chose (and they did). Not that I shirked those responsibilities mind you, but being the oldest of the group does get some slack cut, as it should. I act like one, but I’m not a kid anymore.
By the time the first snow fell we had sprayed about 9,000 acres with boron (which looks very much like white kitty litter). It all went very smoothly (surprisingly smoothly!), which is always good. We didn’t break anything and no blood was spilled. All in all, the boss was quite pleased.
While we were spraying, Fall progressed beautifully. The days never got really cold and/or windy. I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad!” But then the bottom fell out of the thermometer. And the wind picked up. It got COLD, man. Then the snow came. And once it did, the white boron blended in with the white snow in the orchards making it impossible for the pilot to determine where he’d already sprayed. The flag markers are also white, so they’re no help. So with a little over 1,000 acres to go, we were done.
The spraying was over until Spring when the snow melts, and so it was time for me to go “home.” But I had waited just a teensy bit too long. There was a lot of snow on the ground, AND we were under another winter storm warning. My ride home was a company car with no snow tires. There is no way out of Brewster, Washington that does not involve going over some very high, very snowy passes. I was not looking forward to the start of the trip.