Longtime aerial sprayer applies expertise to Palouse farmland
OAKESDALE, Wash. – If ag pilots must endure public misconceptions about their craft – and they do – Hollywood may be partly to blame.
Who could forget that iconic scene in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” where a malevolent crop-duster tries to give Cary Grant a buzz cut?
Or Han Solo’s dismissive comment to a precocious Luke Skywalker: “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy!”
Not much help is the Department of Labor’s annual list of America’s most dangerous jobs. (Pilots, including airline, rank third.)
But veteran aerial sprayer Darrell Fender knows better.
“I’ve broken in five pilots, and I’ve told them all the same thing: Any monkey can fly an airplane, but it takes an intelligent, good pilot to know what’s going on behind the airplane.”
Fender owns Colfax-based Fender Air Service with his wife, Linda. Last year, he and his three pilots treated 208,000 acres of Palouse farmland. Flying 6 to 10 feet off the ground at 100 mph, Fender consistently drops his payload within 2 feet of his mark.
“I’ve been spraying for 34 years, and I’ve never had a drift claim filed against me personally,” he said.
During a recent interview, Fender discussed what drew him to aerial spraying, how technology has made his job safer, and the interesting sights he sees from the cockpit.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Fender: In the Valley, just behind University City. I went to Opportunity Elementary and North Pines Junior High. When my dad retired from construction, he took a job as city maintenance man for Garfield. So when I was 15, we moved down here and I went to high school in Garfield.
S-R: What drew you to airplanes?
Fender: My dad was interested in aviation and took some flying lessons. But he never soloed because he’d lost sight in one eye and couldn’t pass the flight physical. When I was 8 or 9, he and I would go to Felts Field and watch airplanes take off and land.
S-R: Do you remember the first time you saw a crop-duster?
Fender: When I was 18, I answered an ad seeking someone to load airplanes in Colfax. I assumed I would be loading cargo for UPS or something. Instead, it was loading chemicals onto ag planes.
S-R: Did you have an idea then of what career you wanted to pursue?
Fender: Oh, yeah. I told my dad I wanted to be a pilot. And he always said, “Well, you’re going to have to get better grades.” But when I got that job, I dropped out of high school and never graduated.
S-R: Then what?
Fender: I stayed there for about six years. One of the pilots was a flight instructor. I worked hard to make his job easier, and in return he gave me free flying lessons.
S-R: When did you get your pilot’s license?
Fender: I got my private license when I was 22 and my commercial license at 23. I called all over the country trying to find a job, but there were more pilots than there were jobs, and it’s tougher to insure someone who’s new. It’s a lot easier for young pilots to get jobs now, because so many ag pilots today are nearing retirement age.
S-R: Do you recall your first flight spraying?
Fender: I remember it exactly. I was still working in Colfax, and we were pretty much done applying dry fertilizer. My boss said I could put on any late orders to get some experience. And this old guy came into the office and ordered fertilizer for his 20-acre pasture. I was so excited that I drove our truck to the fertilizer company, loaded the fertilizer, drove back to the airstrip, loaded the plane and beat the customer home. I was fertilizing his pasture as he pulled into his driveway.
S-R: What was your first pilot job?
Fender: I called a guy who had an airport in Caldwell, Idaho, and he said, “Why don’t you rent my airport and start your own business?” So I did.
S-R: How much did it cost to start your own business back in 1980?
Fender: Practically nothing. I owned a little airplane which I traded for an ag plane worth about $12,000. And I hand-dug a well so I’d have water. If someone were to start their own business today, they’d need at least $300,000, plus a lot of knowledge.
S-R: Once you’d launched a business in Caldwell, what brought you back?
Fender: After I flew one year in southern Idaho, it was a lot easier to find work. People here encouraged me to move my business, so I did.
S-R: How has the industry evolved since the early 1980s?
Fender: There’s a lot more youth. It doesn’t seem like that long ago when I was the youngest kid at all the meetings, and now I’m the oldest guy there.
S-R: Have the chemicals changed?
Fender: In the old days, we used a few basic chemicals for a broad range of applications. Now there are so many pest-specific products that it takes a lot more education to keep up.
S-R: How about GPS and Google Earth?
Fender: Both have saved us an amazing amount of time, and Google Earth shows us what structures to watch out for.
S-R: How accurate are aerial applications?
Fender: When we shut off one side of our spray system, the propeller’s rotation allows us to be accurate within 2 or 3 feet.
S-R: When do you spray in the Palouse?
Fender: We start in February and we’re pretty much done by September, although some years we’ve flown almost every month.
S-R: Do you hear inaccurate comments about aerial spraying?
Fender: Every day. People don’t realize how well we can manage our drift. Right now there are five or six crops I would damage if my spray drifted onto them, but it doesn’t.
S-R: What are perfect spraying conditions?
Fender: There are no set rules. That’s why it’s so difficult for pilots who don’t know what they’re doing.
S-R: What’s a typical workday this time of year?
Fender: Up at 3:30 a.m. and fly until it gets too warm. (Heat causes chemical evaporation and pilot fatigue, and affects airplane performance.) Take a nap, and then fly again until just before dark.
S-R: What attributes does it take to be a good aerial sprayer?
Fender: Someone who listens and takes instruction well.
S-R: How much can ag pilots earn?
Fender: Anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Fender: Find one of those first-hour-of-lessons-free offers and make sure you enjoy flying.
S-R: Do you have competition in the Palouse?
Fender: There are eight or nine other companies in this area.
S-R: What’s the outlook for the industry?
Fender: It will probably continue to evolve, but under certain conditions there’s no better, faster way to treat crops.
S-R: Besides ag spraying, any unusual requests?
Fender: Spreading people’s ashes. We have a special tube for that.
S-R: Have you ever had an accident?
Fender: When I was first learning, I had a couple of engine failures in less-than-ideal spots and ended up flipping the airplane, but I was never hurt. And today’s engines are much more reliable. But we also have more congested air space, with things like those 58 new wind turbines (southwest of Oakesdale).
S-R: Are ducks and geese a hazard?
Fender: They are, but once you learn the area you know where they hang out, and you investigate before you spray.
S-R: What fun things have you seen from the air?
Fender: Moose, elk, deer and lots of coyotes.
S-R: Anything else?
Fender: A few years back, a train started a fire along the Snake River, and they called us in because it was too steep for ground equipment. College kids along the river watched me fight the fire all weekend. When I was done, I did a fly by, and one of the girls lifted her top up and flashed me. Later, I told my brother about it, and he said, “Didn’t you go back around and see if she’d do it again?” And I said, “No, no, no, it was perfect just the way it was.”
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.