Patricia Pearson looks forward to watching the departures of the crop-dusters she helps build. Each plane will most likely fight crop pests...

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ALBANY, Ga. — Patricia Pearson looks forward to watching the departures of the crop-dusters she helps build. Each plane will most likely fight crop pests, put out forest fires or kill plants used to make illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

“I enjoy knowing that I have a part in building an aircraft that may save lives,” said Pearson, a mechanic with Thrush Aircraft, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of crop-duster aircraft. “I enjoy seeing them fly off, knowing we had a part in building them.”

Thrush may not be as well-known as Boeing, Airbus and other aviation giants because airplanes built by the small, south Georgia company often fly in virtual obscurity, spraying pesticides on farm fields or herbicides in remote jungles around the world. After a brief slump in the past decade, agricultural aviation companies expect stronger sales in the future, thanks to an improved farm economy in the U.S. and expansion abroad.

A test pilot makes a low run near the Thrush Aircraft plant. Each plane must pass extensive tests before being certified for delivery.

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Thrush’s planes resemble the sleek, single-engine fighters of World War II, but instead of machine guns and cannons, they are armed with chemical tanks and nozzles for spraying pesticides, fertilizers and herbicides. The pilots who fly them are known officially as aerial applicators, but they’re commonly referred to as crop dusters — although they haven’t used dust in years.

“An agricultural airplane takes a lot of abuse,” said Ed Anthony, owner of Leesburg Spraying Service in Leesburg, Ga., who owns two Thrushes. “It does a lot of landings and takeoffs at maximum capacity.”

These flying farm implements, often equipped with satellite-navigation systems and powerful turbine engines, cost from $750,000 to $1.4 million each. The Thrush plant’s 150 employees produce three planes a month, and President Larry Bays plans to hire 30 additional workers to increase production.

“They protect us from bugs and drugs and put out fires,” said Bays, who added that Thrushes are being flown in 80 countries. “As long as they keep selling John Deeres, we’ll keep selling the Thrush.”

Crop-dusters are also used to fight crop-damaging locusts in North Africa, kill disease-carrying mosquitoes in Central America and fight fires in the Western United States. The U.S. State Department uses armored versions to eradicate plants that produce cocaine and heroin.

One of the Thrush drug planes, recently in the shop for maintenance, has patches over 100 bullet holes — hits it took while flying over coca fields in Colombia, Bays said.

“It’s pretty effective when they hit that coca with Roundup,” he said, referring to the popular herbicide glyphosate. “That’s when the farmers get mad and start shooting.”

The drug planes also may be sent to Afghanistan soon to spray poppy fields, a major source of opium, Bays said.

Thrush and its main competitor, Air Tractor of Olney, Texas, are the leading U.S. manufacturers of crop-dusting planes.

“It’s like Chevys and Fords,” said Kelly Wingate, owner of Wingate’s Flying Service in Camilla, Ga.

Thrush and Air Tractor have a common heritage — aircraft designer Leland Snow, who turns 75 this month.

In the 1950s, Snow designed the Thrush for Rockwell-Standard. When production was moved to Georgia in 1969, he stayed in Texas and formed Air Tractor, said his daughter, Kristin Edwards, the company’s vice president of sales.

Albany businessman Fred Ayres bought Rockwell’s agricultural plane business in the late 1970s, but ran into financial trouble in the late 1990s. Bays and a partner purchased Ayres Corp. in 2003, formed Thrush Aircraft and resumed production.

Air Tractor’s sales also slumped in the late 1990s. But the company sold 50 planes in 2002-03, another 75 last year and expects to sell 80 in 2005, Edwards said.

“The farm economy is a cycle of growth spurts and slowdowns,” she said. “It seems that we’re coming into one of the growth periods.”