LOUISVILLE, Ga. (AP) — After 46 seasons of dive-bombing insects, weeds and fungi that threaten the livelihoods of area farmers, Pierre Smith is coming in for a landing.
Smith will be 73 this July, and has decided it’s time to retire from crop dusting, The Augusta Chronicle reported .
It’s a demanding career that every year costs several experienced pilots their lives.
Smith’s near half-century view from the cockpit has afforded him a unique perspective on both the profession and the evolution of farming in east central Georgia.
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In his bumblebee-yellow Air Tractor, he circles his contracted field, scoping out hazards, towers, power lines, dead trees with their leafless limbs – harder to see and able to snatch a plane out of the sky.
“You’ve got to look for power lines, look for towers, dodge deer. They lay down in the rows and then jump up in front of you. Talk about (messing) your pants,” Smith said.
“Buzzards, some feed lots I avoid. Running out of gas is a danger. Irrigation pivots, you have to jump over them. Then there are cross-country high-tension lines. Some places you can go under, but in the summer time when it’s 90 degrees they’ll sag 3 or 4 feet. It can be a tight fit,” he said.
He plans his approach and descends on the downwind side of the crop.
He drops in until he skims the swatch of green. He hits the lever, and nozzles along the wings spray the chemicals, trailing white stripes that disappear into a killing fog that swirls and billows as it settles on the plants.
Then he pulls up, the horizon tilts and the world leans as he turns, preparing for his next pass.
Smith grew up in Rhodesia, Africa, but moved to the U.S. just a week after graduating from high school and shortly before the Zimbabwe War for Liberation began, the Augusta newspaper reported.
He was drafted in 1966 and ended up at Fort Gordon, where he joined a flying club and earned his commercial, instrument, multi-engine and flight instructor licenses. Like many agricultural pilots, he started out loading chemicals and fueling planes for a veteran in the field, Jack Sliker of Louisville.
“I thought, boy this is the way to live, flying airplanes and getting paid for it,” Smith said.
His first real gig was flying for Sliker, who had an Army Corps of Engineers contract to spray mosquitoes at Clark Hill and Lake Hartwell.
“I made $300 a week and that was good money back then,” he said. “Plus I made money on the weekends as a flight instructor.”
The next year Sliker moved him to row crops, and in 1972 Smith bought a house in Louisville, Georgia.
Smith guesses that he must have sprayed 1.5 million to 2 million acres, mostly within a 30-mile (48-kilometer) radius of his hangar at the Louisville airport. Louisville is about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southwest of Augusta.
Smith is proud of the fact that he has never wrecked an airplane and never gotten hurt in one. He’s known far too many other agriculture pilots who have not been as fortunate.
“I’m not physically able to work that hard anymore,” he said, remembering the years he worked 12-plus hour days, landing by the runway lights. “My wife says it’s time for me to get out.”
Information from: The Augusta Chronicle , http://www.augustachronicle.com