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Jims Last Flight


PT-13 0r PT-17 Stearman before conversion into a cropduster

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Jimmy Parks lived about a block up the street from me. He was a dark headed blue eyed boy just turned sixteen, four years younger than I was. He would ride out to the airport with me in the mornings. He was a loader; he loaded the powdered chemical insecticide "cropdust" into cropduster airplanes. As I once had done. And he wanted to become a pilot.

We were too late to have breakfast at Five Points Café, where the pilots and loaders would usually meet at three am to wake up, drink coffee and prepare themselves for a strenuous day in 110 to 120+ degrees heat.

We talked very little on the way to the airport, both of us tired and sleepy. The heat and long hours of the season were taking a toll on both of us; like everyone else in this country. In the summer the children didn't run and play, they moved slowly, like old people, the old people didn't move at all. Men in the field would take turns standing in the shade of a telephone pole. All the windows were down on my new black 1959 Chevrolet Impala Hardtop, the temperature was about 85 degrees, the coolest time of the day.

As we arrived at the airport there was a faint pale streak of light in the East. To the South the lights of Casa Grande twinkled softly, we mumbled, see-you-later we'll have breakfast when we get back. Jimmy met one of the pilots; they walked off toward the Spads.

Spads (a name given to cumbersome looking cropdusters by chief pilot Hinkey, because they looked like WWI fighters) were Boeing built Stearman Kaydet biplanes, (PT-13's). They were WWII trainers, modified for crop dusting, with extended wing and plates on the wing tips. They also had a large modified square rudder to compensate the increased wing span and an engine twice the size and power of the original engine.

The loader rode in the hopper in front of the pilot under the top wing. There was no seat belt because there was no seat. The loader placed his feet on the front of the hopper wall and pushed himself back against the back wall of the hopper, keeping himself in a semi sitting position while holding the open hopper lid down with the weight of his right arm. The alternate way a loader could ride would be for him to lie on the wing next to the fuselage. His head and shoulders extending just forward of the leading edge of the wing with his arms drooped down to the under side of the wings. A pilot could carry two loaders this way, one on each side of the fuselage.

As I walked down the flight line to my plane, I looked back, the silver-gray Spads highlighted in the early morning darkness by the lights of the hanger, the headlamps of the pickups and the gas trucks. Pilots and crew in white jump suits milling around. I could hear the low chugging staccato like bark of the 450 Pratt & Whitney engines being awakened from their silent sleep. A hot blue flame would be coming from their exhaust in a short time. A scene from: " The X Files".

Piper Colt

I found the plane I was to fly that day, a pretty new white and red Piper Colt. I would crash in this airplane later but not today. I taxied to the gas pumps with unknown thoughts. Life sometimes becomes a blur for a busy young man. My training flight would consist of tight turns, 360 right, recover due south, 360 left, recover due south, over and over again, keep doing it, feed in top rudder to turn tighter and tighter. If you can't fly back into your prop wash you can't fly a crop-duster.

As I gassed, I watched the dusters taxi out one by one, running up the big radial engines until you could see a flame from their stacks. The loaders ducking their heads down into the hoppers to avoid the slipstream, the pilots giving great consideration to the rev's as they checked the mags and cycled the props and mixture controls, making a sound that hurt my ears and was sure to wake the town people. They waved their rudders, fluttered their ailerons and taxied to the take off position.

As they roared past on take off, I could see, in the increasing daylight, on their fuselages, in large black block letters, "Koneing Aviation". A figure in one of the front hoppers gave me a thumbs up, it must have been Jim. I didn't know it would be his last flight and that he would never have breakfast.

I taxied to takeoff position in the pretty new airplane. It was no tail dragger "Drive it like a car" and you could see where you were going. One hundred and eight horsepower, a powerhouse compared to what I had been flying.

A quick mag check and a 360 to check traffic, -- scrambled by fighter control I jammed the throttle forward while buckling my harness. The big Merlin roared, hard rudder to counter the torque, full rich, full revs and pressure, stick forward to raise the tail, keep her straight while watching for strafing 109s. Goggles down in case my windscreen is blown away--, I made a standard left turn at four hundred feet and headed for the practice area.

As the earth fell away and the little Piper climbed into the cooler air it bounced and swayed, like a cork on a pond. Telltale puffs of blowing dust on plowed fields told the story of the wind. The sun was an angry red ball on a smoky horizon, the sky above was clear. The air was rough and uncomfortable, I returned to the field deciding that flying would be better another day.

Back on the ground I looked about for Jim. You can't apply cropdust when the wind is blowing. The best time is in the early hours just after daylight when the air is still and relative cool. I thought they'd be setting on the ground, on some dirt strip, for half the morning to see if the wind would let up.I couldn't wait, he could ride home with the pilot.

I left the airport and went directly to my office in Casa Grande. I was employed by the USDA Plant Pest Control Division as a work area supervisor. I dispatched my survey crews to various locations then left the office myself for an all-day trip to the eastern part of the county.

I returned to the office about four thirty that afternoon to take the reports from the crews and to close the office. On the street in front of the office people were suprised to see me. The story on the street that day was that a young Koeing Aviation pilot had been killed that morning and everyone assumed that it had been me.

Jim's pilot had encountered the same wind and rough air as the rest of us that morning. They had tried to work at two previous airstrips but were unable to do so. They then flew to Standfield, AZ. fourteen miles west of Casa Grande, AZ. The strip ran at an angle from the highway it was rough and sandy I guess that, the weather, and unknown factors caused the Stearman to nose-over onto its back, as Stearmans were prone to do. Jim was dead.

Jim was no Icarus who had flown to close to the sun. He was just a young man doing a job. People would ask? Why would a person do a job like that? These people had never chopped a half-mile row of cotton in the blinding Arizona heat for twenty cents and then be charged ten cents for a five-cent soda at the end of the row. They gave no thought of the government policy of paying a farmer for not growing his crops while paying nothing to the people whom relied on working these crops for their livelihood.

Arrogant farmers would set around in the air conditioned cafes and say "I pay'd the son-of-a-bitch a dollar an hour gave him Thanksgiving and Christmas off, let his wife and kids chop and pick my cotton, and the bastard still quit me".
Then they would go out and get into their air conditioned Cadillac and ride around the farm checking on, "the hired help".

The small town talk turned to other things in a day or so, the Mother's and friends dried their tears and things returned to normal.To most there the death of another cropduster was no big deal. Marty Robins was still singing El Paso on the jukebox in Five Points and the waitresses all had their same painted smiles. No one ever said, "sorry 'bout Jim".

I never went to see Jim's mother up the street. I had started flying at fourteen. Picking cotton, chopping cotton, irrigating and driving tractors and loading cropdust to pay for my flying time. At twenty this "Okie Boy" had eleven years around the Labor Camps, Field Crews and Cropdusters, I knew that those there in the morning might not be there that afternoon and that some things are best unsaid, and some things can't be said.

N3N Biplane For the years to come I would see much more of the same.
Virgil G. Dotson 17 July 1999

Hi Virgil

I did go a take a look at your web page, and I like it. I am also learning HTML and am working on a couple pages just for fun.

I asked about the N3N because, I too was a crop dust loader. In the Summer of 1950, Jim Stevens and Billy John Glass and, I think Lou Ross, worked for Marsh Aviation and they talked me in to going to work.

Just as on your page about Jim's last flight, we met every morning at Five Points Cafe at 3 am. Marsh's planes had a little drop seat in the hopper so that two loaders could ride in the hopper. On my first day we flew out the other side of Stanfield and dusted from a strip out three, Jim Stevens would drive a pickup out with two 55 gal drums of Petrol and then we would all load the Stearmans.

On the flight back to CG we approached the "Parker line" one of those monstrous metal power lines. Billy turned around and motioned to the pilot (Max Palmer), with a downward motion, the next thing I knew we were in a power dive and he flew right under that damn power line and climbed back up. That was my initiation into the world of crop dusting.

Another morning, we were dusting out near 11 mile corner, and as you mention on you page, this best mornings for dusting are cool and calm and we had one of those. The pilots, there were two, of course had made lot's of money as we had laid on a lot of dust, so they were extra happy. On the trip back to Casa Grande Airport we flew with the wheels skimming rows of cotton and as we approached regular phone or power lines they would either fly under them or barely over them, with us not knowing til the last minute. Being young and all, I can't even remember being scared, we laughed a all this.

On of the neatest things was when we dusted out near Picacho Peak and on the way home, Max got right on top of the peak, real close and banked real sharp and circled the peak, it was breathtakingly beautiful.

Needless to say, your web page brought back some real memories. I did, later in life, know Virgil Koenig, fairly well, but, I vaguely remember that plane crash.

Also, your tales of the dust b owl hit home, as my wife's family was part of it, having migrated from Eufaula, OK to Bakersfield, California during this time, later ending up in Casa Grande,Arizona her family picked and chopped cotton, with her dad becoming a cotton contractor with a couple of crews and they lived in Stanfield.

In January, it will be 48 years wt. the Okie. I ended up in Michigan, as this is were I was born and lived in my younger years, I moved back here in 1964 to work for an Uncle in the Electric business. but that's another story. Well, talk about rambling, I just did. Good hearing from you again, How did you end up in Vegas?

Later---

Jack Kingsbury
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