BEAMAN, Iowa --- The risks are great. The job is seasonal, with this year's work basically finished.
But crop-dusters --- "aerial applicators" in the modern parlance --- will say there's a real "high" involved in doing what they do every summer.
"I like dealing with the farming community," said Glenn Speas, owner of Speas Aviation near Belle Plaine, which operates 12 planes and 12 helicopters.
"I've flown as an airline captain for about 10 years, flying commercial 727s, 737s, before I got out in 2000. With the way things are going, I'm glad I'm not with the airline industry anymore."
Speas and other crop-dusters acknowledge the hazards that come with their jobs.
On Aug. 1, Michael Mullenbach, 54, of St. Ansgar, was injured when the Bell 47 helicopter he was using to dust crops crashed near Charles City.
One day earlier, a crop-duster owned by Scott's Helicopter Service in Le Seuer, Minn., crashed near Joice. The pilot, Joseph Sailer, walked away with some scratches.
Hubert Dane Harris Jr., a 54-year-old crop-duster from Little Rock, Ark., was killed July 25 when his 1960s-era Sikorsky UH-34 helicopter, which had been refitted as a crop-duster, crashed into a cornfield near Wilton.
Safety is just one challenge crop-dusters face as they blanket Iowa fields over 12- and 13-hour daily shifts from June through August.
"It's always on your mind, but a good pilot always keeps that in mind," said Codie Steele, a 26-year-old pilot with Hoppe Airspray in Beaman.
The small planes are ubiquitous in the summer months, swooping down for one pass after another and darting across valuable Iowa acreage at low altitudes in the face of enemies like capricious winds and relentless summer heat.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, pilots have added security issues to their long checklist of things to do. They have to keep chemicals safe and assure the public their job won't harm them or their property. Instead of buying large quantities of chemicals, many crop dusters are ordering per job, so they're not responsible for long-term storage.
The business has changed, and needs for crop dusters have become more consistent year after year, Speas said. "In the past, crop dusting was sort of a feast-or-famine type of situation," Speas said. "We basically depended on insect runs."
However, farmers came to recognize the value of regular dusting applications to fight other problems, Speas said.
"It improved yields immensely," he said. "It has helped our industry out; it's good for the farmer and good for our aerial applications. Now, we can expect to have more of a steady business year after year, rather than real good one year and next year starve to death. So, now, it's evolved into a real big thing here in the Midwest, in the Corn Belt.
What hasn't changed much is the risk, pilots say.
"It's definitely in the back of your mind at all times," said Charlie Purvis, 25, a four-year pilot for Hoppe Airspray, who estimated he flies 20 to 30 jobs some days. "Definitely, the wind up here in Iowa is a big factor; it's always blowing so hard. When it's real hot, also, planes don't respond well or perform as well as they should.
"It's part of the business."
So is deciding when an application is needed, said Tom Smidt, a crop consultant with Smidt Crop Management of Greene.
"If issues were at a level sufficient to cause damage to a crop, we'd suggest to get sprayed somehow," Smidt said. "If the crops are smaller, shorter, so you could drive through them with a tractor or self-propelled sprayer, that would be our first choice, because it's a lot less expensive."
Most applicators charge between $9 and $10 per acre, plus fuel, "which is one of their major costs," Smidt said.
"The amount of water they have to carry influences cost and how far thy have to go," he said.
More calls for crop dusters today
Crop dusting was less prevalent 30 years ago, Smidt said.
"The value of our crops has increased so we have farmers who are a lot more willing to do these types of things than when corn was $2 (per bushel) and soybeans were $5."
Purvis, a resident of Tallulah, La., is like many crop dusters --- including Steele, who is from Lafayette, La. --- who cover the Iowa fields, flying in for the season and then heading back home when the season is done late in the summer.
Purvis said he has learned to deal with the high winds that whip the state.
"You always start downwind and work your way upwind, so your spray is always over," he said.
Purvis' boss, Hoppe co-owner Dan Tonner, said crop dusters have to multi-task constantly to survive, much less get the job done.
"It takes a very skilled pilot and a guy who's very aware of the environment he's operating in," said Tonner, himself a former crop-dusting pilot. "There's a lot of different hazards that can reach out and grab you. You're watching the GPS to stay on their swath. They also have to watch for obstacles, avoid drift and fly 130 to 150 mph."
They're also cognizant that they're carrying multiple responsibilities, Speas said.
"There's one thing about when you're in an airplane: If you make a mistake, it's your mistake," he said. "If you're driving a car, you can go down the road and an oncoming car can hit you and wipe you out and you have no control over it. Barring a mechanical failure, it's under our control. I feel as safe going back across the field as driving down the road."
As for the other perils of looping around farm fields, Purvis, a licensed pilot since age 19, said they're just part of the job, part of flying.
"My grandfather was a crop duster; I grew up at airports," he said.
That --- not age --- is a key to success in crop dusting, Tonner said.
"It really depends on the individual," he said. "Some guys, when they start can have more trouble. It also depends on if they've had a good mentor, an older ag pilot they've worked with. That makes them a safer ag pilot."
Technology boosts safety
Speas said safety has improved with technology.
"They used to fly by the seat of their pants; now everything is high-tech," he said. "We use GPS. We have computerized programs and upload maps into the GPS and can download it at end of day for the farmers."
Crop dusting requires some financial risk, as well, Speas said.
"A new 500-gallon airplane will cost you right in the neighborhood of $750,000-plus," he said. "Years ago, a crop duster, if he had $10,000 in an airplane, (that was) a lot of money. It's not a fly-by-night deal by any means."
Making a profit, of course, is another concern, and that's tough to do for some crop-dusting operations, Speas said.
"For your larger operators it's profitable; for smaller operators, it's like farmers --- the larger ones make a decent living, and the smaller ones are barely existing," he said. "It's the volume of the work that makes the difference."
Pilots also have to keep up with the latest advancements, Speas noted.
"We go to our convention on a yearly basis and keep up with trends going on in the industry on chemicals and all aspects of flying, safety and everything involved," he said. "It's a very modernized industry."
Purvis flies a 600 Ag Cat B Model on his rounds.
"It handles very well," he said. "It's a double-wing airplane, and you have a lot of lift. It's not real fast, but it's the safest ag plane you can fly."
What of the future? Are there new pilots entering the business?
Speas said no.
"There's not that many younger guys getting into the business because of insurance requirements. Because an aircraft costs so much, it's hard to find younger pilots qualified as far as insurance is concerned."
That didn't dissuade Purvis, although he acknowledged it isn't an easy line of work to choose.
"It's very hard to get started," Purvis said. "If you get your foot in the door, you won't have any trouble coming. But, you have to love it. If you don't love it, you'll hurt yourself."