Reminiscing (Downwind Turns)

I was fifteen years old and had my driver’s license for three, maybe four months. It was summertime, 1955. I was a loader boy for Mr. Jimmy MacPherson (Jimmy Mac) owner of Mac’s Flying Service, a crop dusting service, not an aerial application business. We were located at Huggins Corner on Highway 82 across from Mississippi Valley A&M College, as it was then known, about three miles west of Itta Bena, Mississippi.

The Huggins family had a small general store across the street from the flying service. I remember them as a couple noticeably older than my own parents, but they had a fifteen-year-old daughter, Lois, who was rather mature for her age. She got my attention. I bought a lot of five-cent RC Colas and five-cent Moon Pies at their store. The colored folks were not the only ones to partake of this traditional southern delicacy. Anyway, I don’t know if my hormones were just beginning to fire-up, or the fact that we never saw any females out there in the middle of nowhere. Or, maybe I had been sniffing too much malathion. But for some reason I fell into something; love, infatuation, or just lust. Whatever it was, I remember it made my heart beat faster and my breathing pick-up the pace a little bit.

I used to drive Jimmy Mac’s 1949 Chevrolet two-ton truck, with a one thousand-gallon water tank on the bed, towing a trailer with another one thousand-gallon water tank to the volunteer fire department each morning for our water supply. Jimmy Mac bought a new Cadillac that year with the first $5000 he made. He also bought a 1954 International ton pick-up truck with an automatic transmission and power steering. I loved to drive that fancy truck, but didn’t get to very often, because I was low man on the loader-boy totem pole. Jimmy Mac paid me $15.00 per week and I had every-other Sunday off. But I didn’t care. I loved crawling all over those nasty, smelly, oily, old Stearmans. We loaded “Black Annie” defoliant and toxaphene insecticide dust from 50-pound sacks by hand, one sack at a time. Toxaphene in any form is illegal today. God only knows how much of that stuff we breathed. If the truth be known, that’s probably why I rarely get sick today!

Jimmy Mac had a “220” Stearman and two “450” Stearmans. Jimmy Mac flew one of the 450s and a gentleman from south Louisiana flew the other 450. He didn’t talk much and I generally stayed away from him. He made me real uncomfortable for some reason.

Jimmy Mac had another pilot who came from Texas later to fly the 220. He was a kind-of “chubsy” fellow that in my mind did not fit the mold of a salty, wind-wrinkled, crop duster. I remember watching him practice spraying water up and down the strip. Then one day we heard a plane circling low over head. We ran outside to see the 220 at about 100 feet with only one landing gear. He had hit a cotton shack out in the field. When he eventually landed, that Stearman spun like a top out into the adjacent field. I don’t remember if Jimmy Mac ran him off or if he left on his own, but I do know he was gone before we got the plane out of the field.

Jimmy Mac had another pilot from Texas. I remember him simply as Mr. Betts. He was about 65 years old, tall, skinny, snow white, flattop haircut, a handlebar mustache and a dark wrinkled face. He brought his own airplanes to the strip; two white, PA-18 Super Cubs. One was rigged for spraying and the other for dusting. He was the only one to fly them and he could do wonders in those two little airplanes. I remember one day he took off headed for an outlying strip. He had forgotten to take his cooler, lunch or whatever. He circled over the office shack at probably 75 feet, turned into the wind, throttled-back, extended the flaps and hovered. He just stayed there, and yelled down to us exactly what he wanted us to do, then he added power, raised the flaps and left.

Now- a-days, like in 1955, during the summer months, it gets so hot and humid you can hardly breathe. People and airplanes don’t perform very well. Mr. Betts would come in some days and say, “Thar ain’t no lift in the arr.” Of course I had no idea why the airplane wouldn’t fly, there just wasn’t any “lift” in the air that day. That’s what Mr. Betts said… so, it must be true. But then ten years later, with a college education, and after studying meteorology and aerodynamics in the US Navy’s flight training program, I learned just how ignorant Mr. Betts really was. He just did not understand. Uncle Sam taught me an airplane doesn’t know which way the wind is blowing, and a downwind turn is exactly the same as an upwind turn. The only difference, of course, is that the ground speed will vary. But now I am a crop duster: OK, an agricultural aerial applicator, and with the wisdom that comes with 37 ag flying years and four months in the Fort San Houston Burn Ward (Pawnee-235, 1971), plus many, many “OH S- – – -s”, I’m here to say an airplane will bust your butt in a heartbeat when she’s heavy in a downwind turn and then be solid as a rock with that same load in an upwind turn. Also, I’m here to testify that Mr. Betts knew exactly what he was talking about. Some days there simply, “ain’t no lift in the arr.”

Be safe, have fun, and make money.



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