Crop dusters a thing of the past?

Crop dusters are literally a dying breed.  They're aging and dying off and no one wants to take their places.  Crop dusting is a profession that was once a big part of American history.  Planes flying in the early hours of the morning, buzzing under power lines and spraying acres of land below.  Ten to fifteen years ago there were around 4,000 crop dusting pilots and the Environmental Protection Agency says the average age for these flyers is now about 60.

Today, crop dusting pilot numbers are down by twenty percent.  Why are these pilots being put out to pasture?  Are they becoming obsolete?  The answer is both yes and no.  New technology is making the need for aero-spraying less frequent.  However some farmers say there will always be a need for them.

"Seeing the sun rise in the early morning hours, I get a view that very few people get to see. To see a beautiful sunset every evening when you're flying home is a sight that not very many people get to see from that particular angle," says Gerald Schultz.  His father started the Snyder Spraying Service in 1959 and Schultz followed in his footsteps.  He's been an AG Pilot for over twenty years and says he still loves it.

"It's a thrill-seeking occupation that can be very hazardous but very enjoyable at the same time," said Schultz.  According to numbers, though, crop dusting seems like it may be a thing of the past with only around 3,200 crop dusting pilots left in the country.  "Probably the main deterrent is the money aspect of how much money it would take to get started," said Schultz

The planes alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not to mention the cost of insurance, licensing, fuel and chemicals; "So it's hard to maintain an operation with the overhead that we have.  It's just not something that you gonna run out over the weekend and decide you're going to get in the spray business," said Roy Lee Scott.

Scott's family has been flying for farmers for over sixty years and says the business has changed with the times, but it may not be enough.  "The technology for our business has increased tremendously, but also the technology in the crops has changed significantly," he said.  For instance, cotton that has been genetically grown to be boll worm resistant means there isn't a need for pesticide treatment.

But, farmer Clint Abernathy says the crop dusters are still important.  "There are times when we just have to have our crops sprayed and it needs to be done in a timely manner," he says.  "We do some with a ground-rig, but sometimes that's not possible."

It's also hard to become insured.  Pilots need 250 hours of flight time to get a commercial pilots license and up to 1,000 hours before a company will insure anyone.  AG Pilot recruitment is also in competition with commercial airlines where the pay, hours and benefits are better.  Even though it's a tough market to get into, it's a job farmers say isn't going anywhere.