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Thursday, Sep. 18, 2014

No-fly rule affecting local crop dusters

Tuesday, September 25, 2001

CHARLESTON - Stephen Austin's job has been up and down since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

On Monday it was down. He and other Bootheel crop-dusters, along with their counterparts nationwide, weren't spraying anything after the Federal Aviation Administration grounded crop-dusting planes amid worries about terrorism.

Bootheel crop-dusters say the FAA's Sunday announcement was the third grounding since the hijacking of commercial airplanes that ended in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. They worry there may be more crop-duster groundings, which could further erode their business.

Austin, who operates Austin Ag Aviation at Charleston, says he understands the need for security but feels the government is overreacting. "I can't see how grounding us and keeping us on the ground is in any way affecting terrorist activity," he said.

"This is absolutely unprecedented," said Austin as he looked over his idled, yellow biplane outside his hangar Monday afternoon at the Mississippi County Airport near Charleston.

He doesn't believe slow-moving crop-dusting planes, which typically don't have navigational equipment and fly around 500 feet above the ground only in good weather, would be valuable to terrorists. Also, crop-dusting planes are only in rural areas, away from heavily populated cities that might be targets for terrorism, he said.

The latest grounding came amid reports that one of the suspected terrorists was among several Middle Eastern men who visited a crop-dusting business in Florida prior to the East Coast attacks.

J.D. "Will" Lee, 62, general manager of South Florida Crop Care in Belle Glade, Fla., said Monday that groups of two or three Middle Eastern men came by almost every weekend for six or eight weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Lee said a co-worker positively identified one of the hijacking suspects, Mohamed Atta.

FAA spokesman Scott Brenner said, "The intelligence community came to us and encouraged us to shut down the crop-dusters."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld outlined the potential threat on Sunday, telling CBS' "Face the Nation" that countries sponsoring terrorism have "active chemical and biological warfare programs."

The grounding has affected abut 3,500 crop-dusting businesses nationwide, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association. It hurt more than a dozen crop-dusters in the Missouri Bootheel.

Austin said it has cost him and other crop-dusters thousands of dollars in lost business, including spraying contracts to eradicate boll weevils.

It also has hurt farmers wanting to get their rice and cotton fields sprayed in advance of harvest, he said.

Crop-duster Dennis McGarity, who operates McGarity Flying Service west of Sikeston, Mo., said the groundings are coming near the end of the flying season, which runs roughly from March to mid-October.

"It would have been disastrous for this business if it had been in the summertime," said McGarity, who sows rice for farmers by plane in May and June.

But crop-dusters in other parts of the country, where growing seasons are different, aren't as lucky. McGarity said a crop-dusting friend in Arizona is estimating losses of $200,000 to $300,000 from the groundings this month.

If the flight ban continues, McGarity said the federal government may have to look at a financial bailout for crop-dusters.

McGarity doesn't believe crop-dusting planes could be used easily for chemical warfare. "We don't have anything on hand around here," he said.

Crop-duster Bruce Benthien, who operates Dudley Flying Service in Dudley, Mo., has taken the groundings in stride.

"Some of the work will go ahead and stack up," said Benthien, who is president of the Missouri Aerial Applicators Association, which has 28 members around the state.

Benthien said some crop-dusters in other parts of the country have been arrested for violating no-fly orders since the terrorist attacks.

Crop-dusters in this area have kept their planes on the ground.

"You have to look at it from the perspective of national defense," he said. "We all need to get on board and support the government."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.