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Wanted: New crop of crop duster pilots

The industry is graying , and stuck competing for recruits with higher-paying airlines. Average age of a crop duster? About 60.

Associated Press
Published September 6, 2007


WEBBERS FALLS, Okla. - Paul Gould is a pilot in a career that could be flying into the sunset.

His dad was a crop duster; he didn't want the same for his son.

But Paul loved the work too much. Still does, but worries at 49 who will take over when his heart gets weak or eyesight fuzzy.

With the culture of the American family farm changing, and the next generation of crop dusters reluctant to stay in a profession their fathers inherited from their grandfathers, the industry is at a crossroads.

Crop dusting, a job that is so much a part of Americana, is graying. The average pilot age is about 60 and more than three-fourths of operators have 16 to 70 years of experience, according to a survey by the Environmental Protection Agency. Ten to 15 years ago, there were about 4,000 crop dusting pilots. Today, the figure has declined by 20 percent.

"I'm one of the younger ones," Gould said, summing up the crisis.

As the decades-old industry takes stock of how it skipped a generation, it must compete for recruits with commercial airlines, where the pay and hours are better.

Technology has become a foe, too. Million-dollar planes can fly farther and haul more chemicals, but have priced some mom-and-pops out of the business, some pilots say.

Genetically modified crops, such as worm-resistant corn, are cutting into business in several states.

And there's crop dusting's reputation as one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States because pilots must fly so low to the ground and navigate trees, power lines and other hazards.

"Right up there with rodeo bull-rider," said Glenda Gould, the other half of Paul's operation.

It's 4:30 a.m. and Paul's out of bed.

Fast, but not like it used to be, when a seven-day work week didn't ache as much and the jobs weren't so big.

Minutes later, he's behind the controls of the 1980 Piper Brave, the yellow beauty nicknamed the "Dump Truck."

Then, the ritual: swooping insanely low to the ground, spraying, pulling up over acres of shoulder-high corn. An aerial ballet at 130 mph that makes his wife cringe to watch it.

There's been a crop dusting business in Webbers Falls, an eastern Oklahoma town of 720, since 1949, and Gould's is the only operation for 100 miles.

But it's not a question of the work. It's how long can he - and hundreds like him in the business - hold out until the next wave comes up. Five years? Ten?

He figures he can fly well into his 60s, maybe even 70, if he has to.

Fast, but not like it used to be.

[Last modified September 6, 2007, 00:24:11]

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