FBI does not consider the planes a danger
SIKESTON - Area residents can expect to once again see the familiar yellow planes swooping low over crop fields as another season of cropdusting kicks off.
If they make you feel a bit nervous this year, you are not alone - but you can relax.
"I realize the general public is afraid of us," said Dennis McGarity of McGarity Flying Service. McGarity estimated he is one of about 30 cropdusters in Missouri. "Most of them are right here in the Bootheel."
McGarity, a 27-year veteran in the field, said he and his fellow cropdusters have been doing their best to keep the public informed about what they do so they're not so concerned about agricultural flying following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
While air security is tighter all around, the FBI does not consider cropdusters to be a threat, McGarity said.
Experts have said the spreaders used by cropdusters would be poor distributors of anthrax. Additionally, most cropdusters in operation today are turbo-prop tail-draggers with the torque of a World War II fighter plane. "The average guy is not capable of flying these airplanes," McGarity said.
McGarity said many of the private pilots he shares airports with are excellent pilots, "but they can't start to fly one of these spray planes." He compared it to an average car driver trying to operate an 18-wheeler.
Agricultural flying has changed a lot over the years, McGarity said, and requires a high level of skill and professionalism.
McGarity and his peers have tried to downplay the old "barnstormer" image of cropdusting that has followed them over the years. "We're just regular people," he said.
While somewhat more aerobatic than most other flying, the tight turns and low passes executed by cropdusters are all required for the job and are routine for the pilots who make their living flying them.
"We don't consider it to be any more dangerous than any other way of making a living," said McGarity, although "it's not for someone who's weak at heart."
But with modern spray planes costing approximately $1 million each, McGarity said, they can't afford to take unnecessary risks.
The name "cropduster" itself is not really even accurate anymore, McGarity said, as pesticides are delivered through different mediums in modern agriculture than in the days of early flight. "Now we don't do any dust," said McGarity.
"It's all granulated materials." Most working "cropdusters" have probably never even spread dust, McGarity said.
"For a while we tried to be called 'aerial applicators,'" McGarity recalled. They pretty much gave up that fight, however, when President Bush managed to call them cropdusters a half-dozen times in three minutes in one of his post-Sept. 11 speeches.
Additionally, spreading pesticides over fields are just one of several materials distributed by spray planes.
Using either a dry or liquid spreader, spray planes spread everything from seed to fertilizer faster than other methods and with incredible accuracy.
"The equipment is so much better than it used to be," said McGarity. "We have the best equipment on earth to ensure we do the very best job we can for area growers."
Using a small flat screened monitor and keypad in the cockpit, McGarity and other modern high-tech cropdusters are able to use Global Positioning Systems for precise positioning and computer-controlled flow to deliver exact amounts of their load on target. "We try to stay within about three feet," said McGarity.
McGarity and about a dozen pilots will check and calibrate their dry-spreading equipment Saturday at Malden "for the optimal spread and so it's a uniform spread," McGarity said.
Area spray pilots will gather again April 13 to set their liquid spreaders in warmer weather when there is no risk of lines freezing up.
"Every time we get new equipment we check this stuff out pretty close," McGarity explained. "It's a degree of professionalism on our part."