Cotton Kamikazes

Published 7:09 am Tuesday, July 8, 2003

By By Connie Nowlin
Managing Editor
Eddie Gideons is a hired killer, a paid assassin. But the law isn't looking for him.
That's because Gideons, 39, is an aerial applicator, once known as a crop duster. The term changed when the product used changed from dust to spray. But what he does is apply chemicals, generically called pesticides. They may be to kill weeds, or insects or fungus.
Gideons is in his first flying season, just gaining his commercial pilot's license in April. But he learned from a past master, J.W. Wallace.
He began when dusting was really dusting, when the planes used were converted military aircraft. It was a long time before he saw a plane built for agricultural use.
"When I first started, we would fly around and land in cow pastures," Wallace said. The farmer would meet us out there with the dust and load us up."
He got started in the business by loading planes for a crop duster when he was a young boy, then learned to fly when he was high school. After serving in the Army, he knew just what he wanted to do, and went into business with another crop duster. Later he bought a flying service at McCullough, where Gideons flies today. That service is one of the oldest continuous flying services in the state.
Often other dusters, both active and retired, will show up at the little airstrip to talk about the days when aerial application was in its heyday.
"I've seen the time when there was as high as five spray pilots in one field," said Billy Roy Parker. He flew for many years, but left the business and has become an inspector for Escambia County.
"There wasn't any work," he said. "I had gotten accustomed to eating and had to get a job."
Wallace and Parker told of the times when there was plenty of work to go around.
"We were just in the right spot at the right time, " Wallace said.
"We didn't think it would ever end," Parker said.
Those days were during the boll weevil eradication program.
"It was seven days a week, and even then we couldn't keep up. I ain't ever been so tired in my life. We went without haircuts, sometimes we would fly until we run out of fuel. I didn't want to land, I had to land," Parker said, laughing.
He and Wallace recalled when the Fourth of July meant cutting a watermelon and spraying cotton.
"And we never had a scratch (at Wallace Flying Service) until I crashed 12 years ago," Wallace added.
Since then, though, things have gotten a little more complicated.
Gideons had to be licensed by the state as a commercial applicator in order to get the chemicals he uses. He had to get the commercial pilots' license. He has to have an FAA agricultural operating license that allows him to fly low enough and close enough to buildings to apply the chemicals. He also has to have a medical exam and several other certificates, not to mention insurance.
He is quick to say he could not have gotten where he is without help, a lot of help.
Other people let him us their planes, and Wallace put in countless hours training him. It was that training that paid off when Gideons went to buy crop liability insurance. When the underwriter found out that Wallace had strictly supervised that training and the hours Gideons had spent in the air, the insurance was written. That was because the underwriter knew Wallace as a tough taskmaster.
If it is so difficult to earn the licensing, and there is limited work, why would anyone want to become a crop duster, or stay in the business?
"There is just nothing else like it," Parker said. "I miss my airplane worse than I'd miss my wife if she left me. But it has got so pricey now nobody can afford it."
He said a plane that sold for $500 when he started out in the 1960s will sell today for more than $38,000.
Gideons knows what he is facing, though.
"There is a need for it," he said. "Especially right now when it is so wet that you can't get in a field. Some farmers realize (the need) and will let you spray even when they could do it with ground equipment, just so you stay in business."
There are certainly easier ways to earn a living. And Gideons, who also works for Pepsi, repairing machines, knows that, too. It's the fringe benefits of flying that keep him up in the air.
"Jump in that hopper out there and I'll show you. It's just such an adreneline rush, three feet off the ground and 100 miles an hour."
He makes a few passes for the camera, but no camera could catch the exhilaration in his eyes when he lands.

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