Bobby Joe Wheat was born 2 July 1938 in Cooper, TX to D. Forrest Wheat and Juanita Bell Hooten. Bobby’s dad went to work as a first-class operator for Humble Oil at a gas plant at the end of WWII and in 1954 was transferred to Monroe City, TX to work in the Humble Field. A boy at the Humble Camp asked Bobby if he wanted a job working for the crop dusters. Bobby agreed and started working for John Tunze’s crop dusting service. He was told if he wanted to continue working through the wintertime, he could just go to school a half day. It was a special program they had back then. Bobby said. “Sure,” and began washing equipment, maintaining trucks, repairing and repainting equipment and whatever came up. Lloyd Stein, one of Tunze’s pilots made Bobby his wash boy. One day Stein told Bobby to get in the cockpit and he ran him through the basics of moving the plane. He said, “Okay, from now on you’ve got it from the time it lands until it’s put in the hanger.”
In the fall when crop dusting was over John Tunze took the day off on Thursdays to play golf. Bobby took advantage of this time to play around with the plane. He taxied it around getting more and more used to it every week. He finally started putting enough power to it to get the tail off the ground. After mastering this he decided one clear cool winter morning to lift off. He did three take- offs and landings without a problem and on the final landing he saw John Tunze standing at the office door with his arms crossed. He tied the plane down and headed to the office and Tunze said, “What in the #@** are you doing?” Bobby said, “Well. I’m going to be a crop duster.” Tunze said, “You don’t even have a license.” Bobby told him, “No, but I can get it!” John let him use his little cub plane allowing him to work for the fuel and set him up with Dick Swope, who was a flying instructor. Bobby was 17 when he got his private license and 19 when he acquired his commercial license. His mom told him she was not surprised, as he had begun his love affair with flying at the age of 3 when he would sit spellbound watching the World War II fighter pilots take off.
A.T. Morgan, out of Lake Charles, LA., flying out of a pasture in a Stearman airplane, behind the old Hamilton home in Stowell, Tx., planted the first rice by airplane in Texas in 1945.
Along with his Lake Charles air service, Morgan opened up a satellite base in Anahuac, the airport was called Sky Harbour. The flying service was called Anahuac Flyers and it was managed by John R. Tunze Jr., a World War II pilot, along with Tunze’s early pilots: Lloyd Stein, A. J. Harmon Jr., a World War II pilot, and Harold Jung. Later, other pilots added to the list were L. A. ‘Buster’ Penick, a World War II Navy pilot, C. D. Swope, and Bobby Wheat.
During the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s there were many thousands of acres planted in Chambers County. On a summer rice season nightly, after dark, many old Stearman airplanes were headed home. All you could see of them was the large
blue exhaust for those airplanes had no electrical system for lights.
Andy Franklin also had a small crop dusting service. Other air services sprang to life in Chambers County as time passed, Lester Ray Flying Service, Bill Brown Air Service, Jenkins Aerial, Coastal Air/Ag., Harmon Air Service, and Tri County Air Service.
With all the thousands of hours flown by the pilots, there were numerous accidents. Sadly, there was one of Tunze’s early pilots killed after hitting high line wires out on Highway 1941. His name was Harold Jung. A. J. Harmon Jr. was killed, along with his pilot, Floyd Walters when they collided in mid-air. (I had the sad task of identifying them at the crash site.)
As the years passed, many of these old-time crop duster pilots have passed away, but among folks who knew them and admired them as friends and pilots, they keep them in their memories, especially when a crop duster plane flies over.
Bobby is the Founder of International Crop Duster's Day which is celebrated on May 27, 2010. Bob chose this specific date, as it is the day his good friend, Rocky Daly was killed in a mid air collision. Bob said, "The day evolved to honor those pilots who were considered "Crop Duster Pilots." zin those bygone days, we wore our helmets and goggles, strap pulled down over the top of the helmet to the drug store when we had time for a cup of coffee. Folks grinned an in good natured fun called out to us, here comes the raccoon faced duster pilots."
As International Crop Duster’s Day is approaching, just thought I would share a few memories with you old Stearman Crop Duster Pilots of the days and years gone by.
I’m sure you older pilots will agree with how good (?) those days were. Well anyway:
Early morning comes, and the board is full of jobs as the season is in full swing. So, I began with removing the tie-down ropes from the old Stearman, checking the oil, wipe the dew from the small piece of plexi-glass that we call the windshield, and the cushions, and slide into the cockpit. After the loader truck driver clears the oil from the cylinders with a few spins of the prop, he calls for “contact” and I switch on both magnetos, push the mixture forward, give the old primer a couple of shots, and call back, “Contact.” With a hearty leg swinging pull, the prop swings, the old 450 fires and springs to life, coughing a little smoke, and roars to life.
After a few minutes of warming up, checking the array of instruments, (Tach, oil pressure, manifold pressure, and temp gauges,) I taxi over to the runway where the loader truck is set up beside a truck load of 80 lb. fertilizer sacks.
Dismounting from the Stearman, talking with the farmer, and getting the flagmen lined up on where I’ll start the application, we’re ready to begin the day’s work.
Wiping my green lens in my goggles (AN6140) of course, and putting on my old surplus WWII cloth helmet, tucking the powder puffs over my ears, and buckling the strap under my chin, crawl back in the cockpit, and taxi over so the loader truck can load my first load of the day.
Loading the old stock wing Stearman with 1200 lbs. of fertilizer, I swing around and line up with the runway. Running up to 1500 RPM, checking the mags, everything is set to go, as I open the throttle, I glance behind to see the prop blast covering the loaders with dust, grass, and empty
sacks. Boy, I knew I was getting a cussing, but that’s the way it was on some of those narrow strips.
Roaring down the short strip, the old Pratt & Whitney seemed anxious to get into the air. Pulling the nose up, I got airborne and quickly assumed the flying attitude of a loaded stock- winger. Sometimes you thought you might have to stand up in the seat to see over the nose, but that’s how the old Stearman’s flew.
Anyway, as I got airborne and leveled out, I began to reduce my RPM’s and manifold pressure, only to find the throttle linkage, (you old-timers will remember the tube & bell crank linkage arrangement on the Stearman throttles) jammed in full throttle position. Boy, what a way to start the day. I begin a gentle turn to get back to the strip and line up for a full-load landing, touch down, cut the mixture, and warm up the brakes bringing the Stearman to a stop. Taxiing back to the loader truck, I swing the plane around and cut the engine off.
My loader driver knows the routine well, bringing a screwdriver over and begins to unscrew the zeus fittings and opens the cowl.
Once inside the cowl, a few minor twists and turns and a little oil on the bearings, the linkage frees up and seems to work properly.
We button up the cowl, crank up once again, and blast off, somewhat ticked at the lost time. Anyway, everything goes good all day, until about 3:00 p.m. Weather is getting hot, strips seem shorter, loads seem heavier, and the sun is hot on my red nose and lips, cooked from the sun. About this time in the season, we Stearman pilots look like raccoons, white around the eyes where the goggles fit, face tanned deeply, blistered nose, and blisters on our lips.
Well anyway, about three o’clock, I prepare to take off with a fresh load of fertilizer for another customer. Flag boys are already in the field, I’m loaded with gas, oil, and fertilizer, and blast off down the dusty strip.
Everything goes well, off the ground and turning towards the field preparing to ease back on the throttle when, all of a sudden, the leather prop seal decides its time to be replaced. Oil sprays back from the prop, covering my face with hot oil. Again, a quick turn back to the strip, a hot landing and taxi back to the loader truck and shut her down with oil dripping off everything.
This time, I borrow the farmer’s pickup and go to my base, get the mechanic, and prop tools and a new leather prop seal, and back to the Stearman. Now, if you’ve ever experienced this situation, you know how oily the Stearman becomes from a blown prop seal. After a while, the seal is replaced, the oil wiped off as good as could be, and the operations began again and again, over and over.
But one day, some FINE fellow discovered the push-pull cables, and they were fitted to the Stearmans and the stuck, hung, throttle linkage problem was solved. Then, a new type of prop seal was developed, neoprene seals forever stopping the blown-out, oil in the face, leather seals of WWII design. Gone were the days of washing oil-soaked cloth helmets and goggles.
Now, weren’t those the good old days? What could be worse than that? Ever had a buzzard come through the prop?
Several years ago, well actually more years ago than I would like to admit, I was flying my old Stearman duster from Anahuac, Texas over to Vinton, Louisiana to apply fertilizer to some fall pastures.
That particular September morning began clear with a hint of coolness, a perfect day for a cross- country open-cockpit flight.
As I climbed into the calm morning sky, leveling off about 800 feet, I expected a normal one hour or so flight to Vinton. Just another flight, one of many I had done in past years.
As I flew along, I thought of how the past rice season had been good, and a fall pasture seeding and fertilizer run was shaping up to be very good
also. I had been busy seeding Rye grass seeds in many recently harvested fields and improved pastures, and fertilizing was just beginning.
Because I had been seeding a lot of Rye, and flying some long days, I had neglected to wash out the seeds that had accumulated in the belly of the Stearman, figuring that as fertilizing was beginning, I would assume my regular habit of daily evening wash-outs.
Flying along that early morning, I crossed the Texas border and headed over the marshes that covered southern Louisiana.
As was the usual this time of year, I looked down at the many large flocks of ducks and geese that had begun arriving from the North to their wintering grounds in the marshes and rice fields of Texas and Louisiana. Quite a sight to see as the flocks rose up at the sound and sight of the Stearman passing over them.
Shifting my gaze around, I glanced down into the belly of the plane below my feet, which were propped lazily on the rudder pedals, when I caught a flash of something vibrating and moving under my feet. Coming to a full alert, I looked intensely to see if I had lost something from my pocket when all of a sudden, this huge, fat, field rat came into view. Immediately raising my feet from the pedals, I began stuffing my pant legs into my boots. I could only imagine the sequences of that huge rat coming up my pants legs 800 feet in the air. As I watched this red eyed monster, which looked like it weighed four pounds, vibrating around twisting and clawing to get hold of anything, really put me in a defensive mood.
I knew the only thing I could do at this point was to do a series of violent, as near vertical as possible, stalls, hoping that sucker would fall out the back of the fuselage. After five of six stick shaking stalls, I leveled off and – “no rat!” I figured I had succeeded in shaking that sucker into a free fall and settled down to proceed to Vinton knowing I was safe from that huge, red- eyed rat.
Confident of my actions, I paid little attention to the cockpit floor, chuckling to myself of the size of that rat and how he had evidently gorged himself during the night on the rye grass seeds left in the belly of the Stearman, and what I would have done had he gotten on me in flight.
Glancing down at the floor as I laughed, I was horrified at the sight of a long black snake vibrating around under my feet. This sucker looked to be at least five feet long, and seemed to be curling and twisting around, trying to get hold of anything.
I immediately jerked both feet from the pedals and started more violent stalls.
After a series of intense stalls, the snake disappeared from sight!
Hoping that critter had followed the rat into a free fall, yet not knowing for sure, really made me uneasy. I could imagine that big old black snake wrapping around my leg when I least expected, which would produce some serious results.
The suspense got the better of me, and I immediately began looking for someplace to park the plane for a look see.
Spotting below me a circular knoll sticking up in the marsh, I wheeled around and prepared for a very short landing. Now this decision had some dire consequences should I flip over on landing, knowing I would be stranded for some time, at best, and would get a real a** chewing from the Flying Service owner.
However, I made a successful very short landing, and upon stopping, bailed out of the cockpit and began opening every panel on that fuselage, and for the next thirty minutes looked in every nook and cranny for that snake.
After determining that is was gone, I contemplated why the snake was in the belly.
Evidently, I assumed, the snake was on the prowl for food, and he had detected the scent of the rat in the belly of the airplane the night before and forged ahead into the Stearman for a meal of big, red-eyed, fat, rat full of rye grass seed. As I had left in a hurry that morning, he and the rat had no time to get out of the airplane’s belly. Maybe, the snake had a hold of the rat and couldn’t get out before I took off.
Finally, I buttoned up the Stearman, and made one of the shortest take-offs of my career, I got airborne from the marsh and proceeded on to my
destination. Upon landing at the strip, everyone questioned the mud and grass covering the bottom of the wings and fuselage. I related my story, and everyone got quite a big laugh; that is, everyone except me.
You know, my old Stearman was one of the cleanest airplanes to be put in the hanger every night from that day on.
Until next time, keep your goggles clean and your belt tight, and look down before take-off! ~~ Old Duster
On a cool early Spring morning, just as dawn begins to break, I sit on my front porch drinking a cup of coffee. Out of the early morning stillness, I notice, I no longer hear the sounds of crop- dusting airplane engines preparing for another long day of flying.
As I sit back, my mind begins to wander back, 50 years ago, back when I was a young, bold, crop duster pilot. Back when I sat in the cockpit of a converted World War II Stearman Bi-Plane, and as dawn began to break, opening the throttle of that powerful old 450 HP Pratt & Whitney radial engine, ready to begin another long day of flying. As I opened the throttle, the engine roared to life, emitting the unmistakable sound that could be heard from a long way away in the quiet still dawn. Lifting into the cool morning air, the sensation of being free of the confines of the earthly bound creatures below, began to overwhelm me. A few loops and rolls in the heavens proclaimed silently from within, my thanks to the greater Being, of how thankful I was to be counted among those blessed to be a pilot. From landing on one of the many short, dusty, landing strips scattered across the country, my long day began. Short strips, heavily loaded, getting airborne in the nick of time, flying under power lines, skidding around trees and obstructions, the stifling heat, or fog, or heavy rains, was just another day in the life of a crop duster.
Finally, after a 16-hour day of flying, interrupted occasionally by one or two skipped heartbeats of a near miss, the last landing of the evening was made, just as the last vanishing rays of the light of day faded.
Hours and hours of boredom, interrupted by moments of stark terror, is often described as a normal flying day. But this was our chosen lot, and we savored every moment of it.
Sadly, no longer do I hear the roar and droning sounds of those old engines, nor see the swarms of aircraft crisscrossing the skies working the fields of rice that once numbered the many thousands of acres along the Texas Gulf Coast, looking at times as if a huge flood had descended upon the land, due to the many flooded fields. Acres and acres of green growing rice, then turning to golden ripening grain as far as the eye could see, swaying in the warm gulf breezes.
Now, most of the fields are barren. Just an occasional field is seen across the prairie.
Oh, the old days of open cockpit flying are all but gone, just a fading memory.
As I reflect on those bygone days, faces and names re-appear in my memory. Old bold pilots I’ve flown with or known, all attracted by the lure of freedom in the skies, flying those old biplanes. Were those times real? Did they really exist? Indeed, yes, they did. Logging those 19,865 hours of flying seemed to have passed ever so slowly, but actually flew by ever so quickly so long ago.
So, to all of you bold, brave (most of us growing old) special breed of pilots, this is your day. Savor and reflect upon your memories! ~~ Old Duster
If anyone knows who this pilot is, please get in touch with me.
The early crop dusting crews always included flagmen. They would work in pairs, one on either end of the field and wave the flags over their heads to let the pilot know what area to spray. Once that area was sprayed, the flaggers would quickly step off 20 paces to mark the next area to be sprayed.
Probably the biggest danger of being a flagger was the low-flying planes, as they liked to fly low in order to have more control when putting the spray where they needed it. Bob Perry said A. J. Harmon’s wheels would be in the rice when he sprayed, so you definitely had to get out of the way when he was coming in.
Bob Perry recalls his memories as a flagger from 1952-1955. Bob said he was from a family of eight and he and his brother had to help put food on the table. Their dad worked in the oil field and wasn’t always able to work, so they did what they could to take up the slack financially. His brother got a job delivering the Houston Press and Bob, who was 11 at the time, went to talk to John Tunze about a flagging job. John asked him what he wanted and Bob said he needed a job. John said, “#@&*&, son, you’re too young!” Bob told him he really needed the job to help feed his family and John looked at him and said, “Well, you’re pretty tall.” He took him outside and gave him a couple of flags. Bob’s height helped him secure the job as, he was tall enough for his flags to clear the rice and his long legs enabled him to step off the 20 paces to mark the area.
Bob said A. J. used to land on the road at the end of the shift and load the flaggers in the hopper for a ride back to the airport. There was just a bar across the middle to hold onto. Sam Hill as well as John Weaver said the pilots used to do dips and rolls while the flaggers were in there and they would fly low skimming the water to wash the bottom of the plane off. It could be quite a thrilling ride back to the airport. Sam said it was the best job he ever had!!
Bob said they would arrive at the airfield at 6:00 a. m. and work until evening. If you quit at noon, you were paid $3.50 and if you worked all day, you made $7.00. Sam said they were paid $1.60 an hour when he worked. He said they went on strike one time and almost defected from John Tunze to Bill Brown. John showed up just as Bill was going to hire them and told them, “You win, I’ll give you a raise!”
Bob said during the time he worked as a flagger his partner was Coy Witherspoon. The other pair that worked as partners in another field were Harold Lancon and Reggie Whitmire.
Sam Hill said he remembers John being really scared of snakes, so one day he and his buddies killed about a 4 foot black water snake that was about 3 inches around and put it in the trunk of John’s car. When he opened the trunk, they thought he was going to have a heart attack and it scared them enough that they didn’t do that again!