Aerial daredevil in agriculture

After 16 years of flying Wade Porter says crop dusting still hasn’t lost its thrill

Wade Porter flies both helicopters and airplanes. Here he’s shown with one of his two Bell UH-1H (Huey) choppers, capable of carrying 430 gallons of whatever he’s spraying on a field.

Wade Porter flies both helicopters and airplanes. Here he’s shown with one of his two Bell UH-1H (Huey) choppers, capable of carrying 430 gallons of whatever he’s spraying on a field.

Photo By Nick Dobis

For some people, the most dangerous part of the day is the drive to work. Not Wade Porter. He’s a crop duster.

That means he spends his days dodging power lines and windmills while flying four feet off the ground at 60 mph.

Porter, 43, is the owner of PM Dusters, a Durham-based aerial-application business that caters to the needs of a large number of farmers in the North State area.

“It’s usually a mixed reaction when I tell people I am a crop duster,” Porter said. “Some look at me weird. Occasionally people think I’m doing harm to the environment. But most people are simply fascinated by what I do.”

Porter became a crop duster in 1994, but before that he worked as an auto mechanic for several businesses in the Bay Area. During this time he had a private-pilot’s license and knew flying was his true passion. Not wanting to fly commercial airliners or live the city life, Porter moved his family to Durham. In 1997, he bought PM Dusters from its original owners after they retired. Besides dusting, Porter grows almonds on 47 acres he owns.

PM Dusters operates with two Bell UH-1H (Huey) helicopters, which can each carry a load of 430 gallons, and three G10 Thrush airplanes that carry a load of 500 gallons. All of the aircraft are equipped with GPS systems to ensure their drops are on target.

Porter and his three pilots fly just three feet over the tops of trees and four feet from the ground over crops, delivering everything from fungicide to rice seeds.

Porter also owns three G10 Thrush airplanes, including the one shown here.

Photo By Nick Dobis

Even though Porter has flown countless times, he still recalls how nerve wracking his first crop-dusting run was in a G-164 Ag-cat airplane.

“I can still remember that feeling at the pit of my stomach and how nail-biting it was,” Porter said. “But I remember pulling up the plane and having a big smile on my face. It is such a powerful feeling. Going from flying planes with 150 horsepower to being in control of a plane with 600 horsepower [like his current Thrushes] is very empowering.”

Though some may think crop dusters are a dying breed, there are still some 300 licensed agricultural pilots throughout the state of California, according to the California Agricultural Aircraft Association’s Web site. During the height of the dusting season, which runs from April to the end of August, Porter and his crew will service about 200 farms, playing a vital role for the local industry.

“Porter’s work is extremely important; we use him on a regular basis,” said Rocque Merlo, head of the Merlo Farming Group. Merlo owns multiple ranches in Butte, Tehama, Glenn and Colusa counties. He has used Porter not only for routine dusting, but for urgent situations as well.

“We have used his helicopters at night for frost protection to push warmer air down on the crops,” Merlo said. “They also help spray when the ground is too wet for tractors. There will always be a need for crop dusters.”

Porter admits that the high-octane occupation can be fun, but emphasizes there are many concerns he has to address before stepping into the cockpit.

“A typical day usually starts at around 4:30 a.m., when I arrive at the office,” Porter said. “Then comes the checklist: aircraft inspection, briefing with the pilots, making sure the load is right, confirming with the farmer and making sure the weather is right. The most important thing is making sure the aircraft is in good condition, making sure there are no odd vibrations and the foot pedals are good to go.”

But even after Porter takes off from his airstrip in Durham, there are still plenty of variables he and his pilots have to keep in mind during their flight.

Porter at work. Notice the power lines lower right. He has to be hyper-vigilant to avoid such obstacles.

Photo courtesy of PM Dusters

“It seems simple, but making sure you hit the right field is very important,” Porter said. “Before we even start a run, we have to double-check our maps, plan a route in case of an emergency and always be aware of where the other pilots are and of hazards like power lines.”

Power lines have been a hazard for crop dusters for years, but the growing number of wind-powered turbines on farms has become a growing concern among some crop dusters, not only in California, but also around the country.

“I am never a fan of potential objects that I can fly into, but there are not that many in this area, and I don’t think twice about them,” Porter said. “I usually either fly around or over them. It’s typically the farmer’s job to warn us beforehand.”

In his 16 years of crop dusting, Porter has “technically” crashed only a handful of times due to engine failures or blown parts, but has safely landed each time. Even after crash landing into a flooded rice field, he has never thought about walking away from the job he loves.

“One time I did 137 flights in 23 hours in order to beat a rainstorm. I’ve never found myself burned out by this job,” Porter said.

Crop dusters may have to compete with new technologies in the years to come. For example, ground-based electrostatic sprayers, which disperse a negatively charged spray that is absorbed by the positively charged plants, help reduce spray runoff and worker exposure. Despite this and other technologies, Porter and the farmers he services believe there is a strong future for crop dusters.

“I use both ground and air spraying, but spraying by air ensures maximum efficiency,” said Jim Mead, who owns a 320-acre farm in Durham. “When the ground is extremely wet, the only way to spray is by helicopter, and the dusters do an excellent job.”

“Customers know they can depend on crop dusters when they really need them,” Porter said. “We can cover a lot of ground really fast, which is difficult to do with many ground systems.”

For Porter, the best part of his job is seeing the rice seeds he drops turn green and smooth like a golf course and the fields he dusted become free of weeds, and knowing his customers can count on him.

“What I like the most is having people coming to me with their problems and needs, and getting it done for them,” Porter said. “I have not lost the thrill of crop dusting yet. There aren’t many people who can do what we do.”