The pine trees in south Georgia sure grow tall. This was the singular thought that kept racing through my mind as we blasted across the open peanut field at 145 miles per hour five feet off the ground before pitching up at the last instant to skim over the tops of the 90-foot-tall trees, missing their outstretched boughs by a few feet.
With each pass, Thrush test pilot Terry Humphrey would put the airplane into a 60-degree climbing turn, unload the wing and slice an arc back toward the tree line, barely avoiding the pines before aggressively jabbing forward on the stick to get us back down on the deck — the sprayers coming on — as we’d tear across the field in the opposite direction.
Our airplane’s 800 shp General Electric H80 turbine engine did easy work as the speed again increased to 145 mph. Then we were pointing skyward once more, sprayers off, slicing another arc up and over and back toward the field to hit a corner we’d missed. The nose of the Thrush 510G agplane pointed sharply at the earth on the return path, little other than the dusty ground and lush, leafy rows of peanut plants visible until, mercifully, the nose came up, the wings leveled and, with an almost imperceptible pop, the sprayers came back on for another pass.
Throughout this dizzying roller-coaster ride, Humphrey deftly handled the controls in the front seat while I observed from the back, bracing myself for something bad that might happen at any moment as we barely cleared the trees or dove back toward the ground at angles reserved for hard-core aerobatics, dogfighting and, of course, “aerial application” — what most people think of as crop-dusting, and a misnomer since the majority of spraying done nowadays is with liquid insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers rather than the powdered chemicals commonly used in the past.
Rebirth of a Brand
The Thrush 510G is the latest product from Thrush Aircraft, the Albany, Georgia, maker of spray agplanes reborn under new ownership a decade ago. Amazingly, the Thrush model we flew traces its roots to 1956, when aircraft designer Leland Snow built the prototype of what would become the Snow S-2 crop-duster. The Aero Commander division of Rockwell International bought the design in 1965 and built a factory at the Albany airport five years later to produce the airplane. The name changed to the Rockwell Thrush, and then again to the Ayres Thrush when Fred Ayres, a top Rockwell International dealer and airplane designer in his own right, bought the company in 1977. Snow had designed the original airplane with an open cockpit and 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial engine. Rockwell substantially redesigned and improved the S-2, flying it for the first time in 1966 and fitting it with the more powerful Wright R-1300 Cyclone seven-cylinder radial engine.
In 2003, Georgia businessman Payne Hughes bought the struggling Ayres operation and renamed it Thrush Aircraft. He has spent a good deal of money since then upgrading the factory and improving the Pratt & Whitney PT6-powered 510P, 550P and 710P (the numbers represent the total gallons the airplanes’ hoppers can accommodate).
The company’s most ambitious plans to date are revolving around the certification effort for the GE-powered 510G, an airplane featuring far more than a different engine under the cowl.