The Van Trump Report

Looking Back at Our First Crop Dusters

Today, the agricultural and aviation communities quietly celebrate the 102nd anniversary of the first use of the airplane for crop dusting. On this day in 1921, Army Air Corps pilot Lieutenant John A. Macready, piloting a specially modified Curtiss JN4 Jenny, spread lead arsenate over a six-acre grove of 6,000 catalpa trees at Postmaster Harry Carver’s farm in Troy, Ohio. In case you are wondering, catalpa trees were harvested for their hardwood used for railroad ties and fence posts.

The plane was fitted with a small makeshift hopper and a release mechanism that was attached to the side. Flying at around 20 to 35 feet over the orchard, Macready spread the powdered insecticide and relied on the wind and currents from the propeller to carry the poisonous powder to the rear of the plane and then down to the grove. It would take five refills to cover the acres but the dusting proved successful and demonstrated that a plane could do in minutes what it would take ground-based workers days to complete.

It turns out that the first crop duster was one of the Army’s best pilots. As chief of the Engineering Division’s Flight Test Section at McCook Field near Dayton, Ohio, in the 1920s, Macready led America’s first military test pilots. He not only set a world altitude record of 40,800 feet in 1922, but also made the first crop dusting flights, and participated in the first aerial survey of the United States in 1924. I should also note, that in 1923, flying a T-2, Macready and Lt. Oakley Kelly became the first to cross the United States nonstop from coast to coast by airplane, a trip that took almost 27 hours.

Although early trials using planes as crop dusters showed good results, the practice was not quickly adopted as most farmers could not afford to purchase a plane or pay for the service. On top of that, the plane models at the time could not be easily adapted for farm use. At the same time, the US was beginning to prepare for possible entry into the European war in the 1930s, meaning plane manufacturers were gearing production more toward military use.

After the war things changed dramatically as a surplus of planes became more readily available and agricultural use of aircraft saw a rapid expansion. By the early 1950s, the Civil Aeronautics Administration listed over +5,000 aircraft in agricultural use. The innovation was saving an incredible amount of time for farmers as it was found that aircraft could spray +60 to +70 acres an hour compared with 100 acres a day for a tractor-drawn ground sprayer. Interestingly, the airplanes used by farmers ranged from heavy World War II bombers to light, personal aircraft, most of which had to be adapted for agricultural use by the individual operator.

Unfortunately, aircraft adapted for aerial spraying had a high accident rate, so hoping to develop a safe crop dusting plane, in 1949 the CAA contracted with the Aircraft Research Center at Texas A&M to build an airplane specifically designed for agricultural use. Under the $50,000 contract, the college built the “AG-1 prototype”, a single-seat low-wing agricultural plane with an open cockpit and 225 horse-powered Continental E-225 engine. Over the course of three years, the CAA held demonstration flights across the country and allowed scores of aerial applicator pilots to fly the plane for evaluation purposes. In the southwestern part of the country, for example, the airplane flew 4,180 miles and 147 pilots tested the aircraft. 

It’s worth mentioning that around this same time and before becoming a powerhouse in commercial aviation, Delta Air Lines began operations as a crop-dusting business. The firm traces its roots back to Huff Daland Dusters, which was incorporated on March 2nd, 1925, and acquired its first-ever aircraft just over two weeks later. Subsequently, the company operated the largest privately-owned fleet of crop dusters across the globe with 18 dusters, which helped it become an international outfit. During the winter months of 1927 and 1928, the aircraft worked on fields in Perú and started to haul some commercial passengers. During the summer months, the planes served domestically across the US’s southern areas, covering Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. From what I understand, even after Delta was formed and passenger services were introduced, it still conducted crop-dusting operations for many more years.  

The Huff Daland Duster story should be a reminder to companies that they can continue to evolve and pivot as they try to grow their businesses, you never know where it might take you. Even though Delta doesn’t provide crop-dusting services anymore, I’m sure its crop-dusting pilots helped make them one of the best in the business during its early days. (,,

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