The morning of June 25, 1994, was exceptionally clear and pleasant in central Arkansas and found me sitting at the end of a very scarce asphalt runway in my robust, aerodynamic Ag Cat. It was 85 degrees F and the winds were calm. I was ready to roll with half a tank of gas and a hopper crammed full with 1,800 pounds of dry fertilizer (urea), waiting to hear that the flaggers were set up and ready in the rice field needing to be fertilized. The location of the field in relation to the runway was such that I decided to take off in the direction heading away from the field. This is very unusual.
While fertilizing earlier that morning, I had come to one familiar conclusion: “It’s going to be a good day.”
The takeoff storm is always a rush. The tight shoulder and lap straps holding me firmly against the seat inside the small cockpit give me the sensation of wearing the very loud machine, which smells of old chemicals and vibrates throughout from the explosive reactions within the nine supercharged cylinders and from the large two-blade prop spinning at 2,250 rpm, churning out 600 willing ponies. When the mood is right, so very right, pilot and machine meld together and become one heart light.
Getting the word over the radio, I cracked the throttle to alert the ponies. The relaxed herd appeared all present and accounted for. The day’s mood was about to change dramatically. With a final, commanding push on the throttle to spin the needles around their arc to the red lines, the ponies snapped to attention — their eyes and ears forward as their nostrils flared and lungs opened wide to gulp and consume their supercharged breath. I released the brakes and the ponies started stampeding down the runway. In no time, with a little coordinated forward stick and right rudder pressure, we were tail up and rolling on the main gear. A brief moment later, I applied backpressure on the stick, and away we went into the element for which we were made.
Crop-dusting is very much a seat-of-the-pants affair. While working the fields, I’m normally too close to the ground to divert my attention away from looking out the windshield to have an intelligible look at the few gauges inside the cockpit. The airspeed indicator and altimeter come to mind, but they aren’t of much practical use in a crop-duster. So the seat-of-the-pants nature of crop-dusting combined with the flight control demands of low-level flying and things being what they are in the cockpit of this Ag Cat, my attention is focused outside the cockpit in a large effort to maintain my line across the field and avoid running into something. There’s a truism among crop-dusters: What you don’t see, you’ll hit.
Time being money, “Charge for the guns!” was the standing work order. Very shortly after we broke ground I rolled quickly into a shallow-climbing, 40- to 50-degree bank to get turned around about 150 degrees to head for the rice field. I had the stampeding herd firmly in hand in the turn when it suddenly and unexpectedly hesitated. The initial fading of the forward momentum of the machine was rather subtle, but something was definitely amiss. I quickly rolled the wings level and eased the backpressure on the stick to allow the machine to gather itself up and get back to our purpose in life. I gave it a few seconds to allow it to straighten itself out. “C’mon, girl ... ” It wasn’t happening. For some mysterious reason, some of the ponies had decided to abandon the air ballet. And me.
Within seconds, I knew I was in trouble. Really big trouble. The turn was so quickly executed, or perhaps — though unlikely — not executed quickly enough, that when I rolled wings level I was headed in the general direction of the rice field 20 to 30 feet off the ground. But, as fate would have it, there was a house directly in front of me. Just beyond the house was a bayou. With little room or airspeed for maneuvering, I had few options. I pulled the emergency hopper dump handle and felt it go slack, indicating either the cable had broken or the large door at the bottom of the hopper had opened, allowing the fertilizer to dump. I didn’t have time to concern myself with which scenario was in play. That’s all I could do in this regard — pull handle, move on. I quickly went back to concentrating on flying for all I was worth in my efforts to keep the airplane in the air and get it over the house.
I focused on the technical problem and existential situation I was convinced would finish me. “Just keep it off the house,” I told myself. “Don’t make this situation anyone else’s problem and everything will be all right. You knew this could happen. Time to ante up. The world is in order. Now fly like you know how.”