J.D. Scarborough, a crop duster for 41 years, says that although the profession is not as dangerous as it used to be, he sometimes wonders why some of those he’s known have been killed rather than him.
DAWSON -- American agriculture took a positive turn in August, 1921, when Lt. John A Macready sailed over an Ohio catalpa grove to dump a load of powdered lead arsenate on invading Catalpa Sphinx Moths.
By the end of his six-acre journey, Macready had become the world's first crop duster -- sometime know in modern times as aerial applicators. Among the early followers in this pioneer's dust trail would be a company called the Delta Dusters in Louisiana, later to become Delta Airlines.
The profession has come a long way since the early days of flight, as evidenced by larger, more powerful and efficient aircraft and computerized delivery systems. Despite the technical advancements, though, the planes continue to be flown by human pilots.
If you think you may be interested in a career as an aerial applicator look for a thrill park featuring rides imposing up to six intermittent "G's," or multiples of your own weight. There should be alternating short runs across uncertain terrain, eight to ten feet from the ground at speeds of 150 miles per hour. No tracks, no suspension cables. If you enjoy the ride, make sure your pilot's license is up to date then ask for an application.
J.D. Scarborough, 66, the sole aerial applicator for Ronnie Lee's RCL Flying Service in Dawson, has managed to survive his profession for 41 years, describing the work as "long periods of total boredom, sprinkled with periods of absolute terror." He was 25 when he started, he said, convinced by his uncle that flying was the way to go.
"I was a crane operator in Brunswick at the time," Scarborough said, "and I told (my uncle) I wasn't interested in flying. He finally got me to go out with him over the water to see some whales that were out there. I though that was just the coolest thing and it wasn't long before I was taking lessons."
It was about a year after that Scarborough's uncle was killed in a crop dusting accident," Scarborough said. There were others.
"This boy that was working with me -- I saw him when he went down," Scarborough said. "I got in the truck and ran over as quick as I could get there but he was completely burned up. It made me a lot more careful. It sure did."
Scarborough himself has crashed -- or nearly so "a few times," he said, from running out of gas (just once), engine failure or snagging power lines.
"I flipped a Cessna upside-down in a creek one time," said Scarborough, chuckling, "I couldn't get over the trees so I hit the dump lever to drop my chemicals, but I still couldn't get over. When I put myself on the ground and hit the brakes I flipped over into the water."
Scarborough was able to disengage his harness and free himself from the plane, but he had to walk back to the airport. He said that during his adventure his friend flew over the same spot several times but never noticed him. Despite a cavalier attitude, Scarborough thinks about his own death or injury.
"All that's in the back of your mind the whole time," Scarborough said. "When things have happened to other people and not to you, you have to wonder 'why them and not me."
While the loss of life is possible on any given day, Scarborough says it's not as dangerous as it used to be. He flies a near $1 million turbo-jet aircraft made in Albany by Thrush Aircraft.
According to Scarborough, the plane does a lot the work for him. An advanced GPS system, coupled with computer programing gives latitude and longitude of fields. In the interest of efficiency, the pilot is guided swath by swath which path to take over a field.
Applied chemicals are much safer now, said Scarborough, who has worked with some really toxic substances, including the infamous "agent orange," because they're designed to "do what they're going to do" in the first few hours of application, before becoming perfectly safe with exposure to sunlight.
A computer controls how many gallons of insecticide are applied to each swath or acre, even in the presence of a headwind or tailwind. At any given moment Scarborough knows heading, speed and altitude above sea level. When the application is finished he can provide the client with most of the same information, accounting for every second of the job.
"I enjoy working and I got no day set to retire," Scarborough said. "As long as I can do a good job I'll be right here."