Crop-duster pilots graying as airlines, technology thin ranks

Paul Gould, owner of AgraTech Inc. in Webbers Falls, Okla., took off on the runway to spray fields with one of his crop-duster planes. Gould, 49, says he can do his job for another 10 or 15 years, health permitting, buying time for him to find a successor to take over his business. (BRANDI SIMONS ~ Associated Press)

WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. -- Paul Gould is a pilot in a career that could be flying into the sunset.

His dad was a crop-duster; he didn't want the same for his son.

But Paul loved the work too much. Still does, but worries at 49 who will take over when his heart gets weak or eyesight fuzzy.

With the culture of the American family farm changing, and the next generation of crop-dusters reluctant to stay in a profession their fathers inherited from their grandfathers, the industry is at a crossroads.

Crop-dusting, a job that is so much a part of Americana, is graying. The average pilot age is about 60 and more than three-fourths of operators have 16 to 70 years of experience, according to a survey by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ten to 15 years ago, there were around 4,000 crop-dusting pilots. Today, the figure's declined by 20 percent.

"I'm one of the younger ones," Gould said, summing up the crisis.

As the decades-old industry takes stock of how it skipped a generation, it must compete for recruits with the commercial airlines, where the pay and hours are better.

Technology has become a foe, too. Million-dollar planes can fly farther and haul more chemicals but have priced some mom-and-pops out of the business, some pilots say.

Genetically modified crops, such as worm-resistant corn, are also cutting into business in several states.

A dangerous job

And there's crop-dusting's reputation as one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States because pilots must fly so low to the ground and navigate trees, power lines and other hazards.

"Right up there with rodeo bull-rider," said Glenda Gould, the other half of Paul's operation.

These days, "you've got to look twice before you get in the business," warned Jim Criswell, a professor in the department of entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State University.

This dirty, sweaty line of work began as an experiment 86 years ago in Ohio. Trying to get rid of pesky moth larvae, a two-seat plane called a Jenny dropped insecticide made with lead over the affected area. The environmental impact of using such toxins would not be realized until much later.

The industry flourished after World War II, as returning veterans found work during America's agricultural boom of the 1940s and 1950s. Surplus military planes were enlisted to do the jobs.

By the 1980s, most powdered chemicals were replaced with liquids, and the term "crop-duster" fell out of fashion, replaced by "aerial applicator." GPS systems in plane cockpits substituted for a pilot's guesswork.

Today, the greatest deterrent for a young pilot wanting to break into the business is how hard it is to get insured. You need 250 hours of flight time to get a commercial pilot's license, and up to 1,000 hours before a company insures you.

Enough claims can break a small business, since there's only a handful of companies in the U.S. that write policies for crop-dusters.

So pilots in training must start out with the tedious work on the ground -- cleaning and loading planes -- and work their way up into the air.

"That's probably where we've fallen down as much as anything, we have probably raised the entrance barriers high," said pilot Rod Thomas, who co-owns a helicopter spray business in Gooding, Idaho and has more than 30 years in the business. "It's a tough industry to get into. Equipment is expensive, insurance is expensive."

Once the newbies break in, keeping them in proves even tougher.

Gaylon Stamps took the reins of his dad's spray business in Panhandle, Texas 32 years ago, and trained his son in hopes he would take over for him. But he decided to go to work for Southwest Airlines after notching 1,000 hours of flight time.

"My son thought he wouldn't get nearly as sweaty in the cockpit of a 737," Stamps said.

Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association in Washington D.C., said when it comes to predicting how the industry will get its hooks into the next generation, he's "not totally void of hope."

"Our challenges in bringing in new folks are similar," Moore said. "The aviation industry has this challenge before them, agriculture has this challenge before them, we just happen to have components of both of those industries."