Q & A with a crop duster

Dan Rafter

Danny Tinnes, one of the owners of Lamar, Colo.-based Air Care Inc., has worked as an aerial applicator, aka crop duster, for nearly two decades. And he’s been active in the industry even longer. He recently spoke about how his business has changed over the years.

“Crop duster” is an archaic term, right?

We’ve definitely changed our tune. We don’t really do much dusting at all anymore. That was done in the old days. Now we do what are called aerial applications. Most of us in this business now do liquid aerial sprayings of chemicals designed to protect crops. An aerial application will do more acres per hour in a timely fashion than will any other method of application. We’ll fly by at 130 miles an hour across a field. That may seem fast at the lower altitudes at which we spray at. But most of the people in aviation are used to flying that way. You need good reflexes and good eyesight, just like any other pilot.

What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in this industry?

I grew up in this business, so I’ve seen a lot. Our business is a family-owned one. My father started it, and he still flies with us at times. But he’s sort of left the business to me and my brother. We started helping out at a young age around the airport, fueling airplanes, that kind of thing. Ever since I was in college, I started spraying, too. The biggest change is that we mostly do aerial applications now, and very little dusting. There is still a little dusting of sulfur on some specialty crops, but 99 percent of what we do is aerial applications. It’s the most efficient way to treat crops, and the most professional, in my opinion. We also do some aerial seeding. I’d guess that 90 percent of the rice grown in the United States is seeded by air. We do re-seeding after forest fires, too.

What is life like for a pilot in this business?

It’s kind of turned back to the old days of following business. I’ve personally been to seven or eight different states recently to do aerial applications. I’ve gone from Colorado to Illinois to New Mexico, Texas and Kansas. I do enjoy this work, though. I think part of it is the people. Isn’t it always the people that are the reason we stay in a job? This is a small industry. There is a lot of camaraderie. In the evening, we’ll all go out to eat together. It reminds me of the cafe where the fighter pilots ate dinner. We’re always sitting around talking about flying and spraying. We talk about our families, too, because you are away from home at times.

What do you enjoy most about this business?

I guess I don’t know any better. This is what I’ve been doing for a long time. I can’t think of a job I’d rather have, except maybe president of the United States. I’m happy doing just what I’m doing.


Just call them ‘aerial applicators’

It’s not technically correct to use the words “crop duster” to describe those who work in the field of agricultural aviation.

Most of today’s aerial applications are in liquid form rather than the dust, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association.

In addition to applying liquid chemicals that control insects, weeds and diseases, aerial applicators also plant seed into flooded rice fields, re-seed scorched forests after severe fires and spread rye grass seed into cornfields to prevent erosion.

The planes these pilots use are sophisticated pieces of equipment. Today’s operators fly both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft designed specifically for aerial applications, according to the National Agricultural Aviation Association. The aircraft cost from $100,000 to $1.4 million, and they are built to handle the stress of having to make 30 to 100 take-offs and landings daily.

The pilots themselves are a largely veteran group. The average aerial applicator has logged more than 20 years in the industry, according to the trade association.