Crop dusting in Madera County: the early years

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webmaster | 07/19/05
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In the darkness, before the sun rose above the Sierras to bring the gift of another summer's day, the mechanic stepped onto the lower wing of the old Army Trainer and climbed into the open cockpit. He leaned over the edge to glimpse his cohort slowly turning the propeller that would push oil into the cylinders of the engine.

Several rotations later, the man called "contact."

In the cockpit, the mechanic switched the magneto to the "on" position. Raising his leg upward for leverage, the man on the ground pulled down hard on the propeller blade. In the twinkling between darkness and sunrise, orange, hot flames belched from the exhaust like a Roman candle on the Fourth of July.

An hour earlier, around 3:30 a.m., alarm clocks sounded across Madera. Men, young and old, found their way to places like the Fruit Basket, Walt's Truck Stop and Lee's Motel for a morning cup of coffee. On Highway 99 (no freeway, yet) they waited for oncoming traffic to clear before darting across the lanes to the road leading to the airport.

Pilots, mechanics, loaders and flaggers would arrive within minutes of each other. Each with an assignment. Flaggers would be off to their fields, mechanics and loaders, after warming up the Stearman biplanes, would head to landing strips or county roads that were closest to the fields that had to be dusted or sprayed. The pilots were briefed and memories refreshed as to the hazards, such as powerlines, standpipes and buildings.

World War II pilots yearned for the exploits that had earned them fame and notoriety in the skies over Europe and the Pacific. They longed for the speed and adventure only flight could give. As a generation before, after World War I, pilots achieved the same satisfaction with barnstorming. The pilots of the second World War envisioned crop dusting as a means to extend their time in the sky.

Madera saw many of these veterans. Pat Riley, a plumber during winters in the bay area, would arrive in early July and stay until October and sprayed mostly cotton. Before Riley, a couple of airmen would come down to fly over the fields. According to the late and former B-24 bomber and crop duster pilot George Williams, the two were killed while performing at an air show.

In 1947, former B-25 and B-29 pilot Leon Emo, and his brother Darryl started a business, Cal-Air Dusters. Along with veteran Denny Moore and, later, George Williams, their services were in constant demand by the farmers.

In an interview before he died, Williams recalled, "Cotton was king in Madera, but wheat on the east side and vineyards were beginning to occupy fertile soil. Cal-Air Dusters pioneered the art of vineyard spraying in Madera County."

The pilots did not have much time to admire the beauty of the early morning sky. Flying a few hundred feet off the ground, they spied their assigned field. The pilot lined up with the flagger and dove down, just over the top of the power lines. Flying less than eight feet off the tops of the plants, they crisscrossed the fields at 75 to 80 mph; barely above stall speed. At the end of a pass, room permitting, the skilled pilots sometimes found room between the power poles and the lines to speed through the narrow space under the surging electrical wires.

A mental lapse could lead to disaster and often did in those early days. In addition, flying converted military trainers, pieced together with spare parts or scrap metal, there was always the chance of engine failure.

Landing strips were spread throughout the county. Places like the Stage and Saulsbury Ranches, the Brown Strip, the Mott and El Pico ranches all provided runways of asphalt, dirt or grass. Later, Red Top, Berenda and county roads were used for landing, loading and take-offs.

As in the war, there was camaraderie among the pilots. Even during the busy days of summer, flying seven days a week, they could be seen together in the evenings. It was a nickel in the jukebox, dancing to Patsy Cline or Hank Williams and later Elvis and Holly, then a daredevil repeat performance in the skies the next day.

The pioneers of crop dusting in Madera County, among them, Ray Pool, are now retired. Most have gone to another place in the sky. Pat Riley, Walt Williford, Leon Emo, George Williams and the later ones, like Dick Perce, John Emo and others are no longer with us to tell the tales. However, they all share a common bond as forerunners with today's pilots, modern aircraft, aerial chemical application techniques and the passion of flight.

Today, the once clear skies over Madera are no longer home to daring aviators in powerful, yet antiquated airplanes. Their exploits are now only retold by the patriarchs of early farming and ranching families like the Loquaci's and McKinney's.

Over a half-century later, in the early dawn, half-awake, still in bed, with the sound of an engine in the sky, one can easily imagine men in leather jackets, helmets and goggles in an open cockpit biplane soaring above the skies of Madera to help farmers in their never-ending battle to produce better crops. To those pioneers of crop dusting and eulogized for the chief pilot of Cal-Air Dusters, poet Gill Wilson wrote a tribute to those early aviators so that they may never be forgotten:

Upon the canvas of the sky,
so many skies, so many years.
I've seen the restless trinity,
Of sun and cloud and wind combine.
As though in foreordained design,
Long bidden by a higher will,
To make a pilot's heart stand still.

 

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