Reminiscing; behind the power curve

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

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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 5-cent RC Colas and 5-cent Moon Pies at their store. I don’t know if my hormones were just beginning to fire-up, or the fact that I 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 heat.  Whatever it was, I remember it made my heartbeat and my breathing pick up the pace a little bit. I dated her only once. For some reason, after driving out to pick her up in my daddy’s ’51 Ford, she just didn’t wind my clock quite as tight as she did when I was working at the flying service. I probably should have dated her again. Oh well…

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 $5,000 he made. He also bought a 1954 International ½ ton pickup truck with an automatic transmission and power steering. I loved to drive that truck, but didn’t get to very often, because I was low man on the totem pole. My one-year-older first cousin, Emmette Chassaniol, was working there when I started. He got me the job. Earlier that year, I had been working at the A & M Dairy in Greenwood, as a plumber’s assistant. I learned a lot while at the dairy, especially how to thread pipe, pack oakum and pour hot molting lead into the joints when joining black cast iron sewer pipe. That was before PVC; way before. I was making good money for that time; $35.00 per week, from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM and I got off Saturday at noon until the next Monday.

Then I got a chance to work for Jimmy Mac at the flying service. He 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 at a time. Toxaphene in any form is illegal today and if you were to ask for “Black Annie,” you would probably be arrested for soliciting prostitution or racial harassment. 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 (220 HP seven-cylinder Continental radial engine) and two “450” Stearmans (450 HP nine-cylinder Pratt & Whitney radial engines). Jimmy Mac flew one of the 450s and a dark complected, tattooed “Coon Ass” (first time I heard the term) 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 from Texas 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 airstrip. Then one day we heard a plane circling low overhead and 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 and skinny, snow white flattop haircut, a handlebar mustache and a sun-tanned, dark wrinkled face. Now, he did look the part! He brought his own airplanes to the strip; two white PA-18, cut-back 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 Mr. Betts took-off headed for an outlying strip and 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, as 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 the ground speed will vary.

But now I am a crop duster, OK, an agricultural aerial applicator and with the wisdom that comes with 26 ag-years, 16,000 hours and four months in the Fort Sam Houston Burn Ward (Pawnee-235, 1971), plus many, many “OH S–Ts!”, I’m here to say, if you get on the “back side of the power curve,” downwind, that an airplane will bust your butt in a heartbeat. But would 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.”

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