Agriculture and Aviation - A Rich History

The histories of aviation and agriculture are inextricably linked. Aviation has played a vital role in the development of agriculture, with crop dusting and other agricultural activities helping to shape modern farming practices. In turn, the agricultural industry has been a major source of revenue for the aviation industry, with farmers using aircraft to transport goods and services around the world.

Evolution of Agriculture

The history of agriculture is a long and storied one, with evidence of early farming practices dating back to 10,000 BC. This makes agriculture one of the oldest human activities still in existence today. It is thought that early farming originated in the Fertile Crescent, an area spanning from modern-day Israel to Pakistan. From here, it spread to other parts of Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

Over time, agriculture has evolved and changed to meet the needs of those who practice it. Today, there are a variety of different types of farms all over the world, each specializing in different crops or animals. However, the one constant throughout the history of agriculture is that it has always been vital to the survival of humanity. As a result, improvements to the practice of farming are constantly being explored so the enterprise is more efficient and profitable for all involved

Thankfully, homesteaders and homeowners don’t have to rely on pilots to keep control of their weed and pest problems; entire businesses are dedicated solely to smaller-scale lawncare projects– no pilot’s license required.

The Marriage of Agriculture and Aviation

So where does aviation come in? Well, it’s believed that in 1906 a man in New Zealand used hot air balloons to disperse seeds aerially to sow his rice fields. One of the first recorded instances of an actual plane being used for agricultural pesticide purposes was in 1910 when one was used to dust crops in France. This proved to be an effective method of pest control, and soon other countries began adopting similar practices. Crop dusting quickly became a common sight in rural areas, as farmers looked to take advantage of this new technology.

By 1921, the practice of crop dusting was being implemented in the United States, with early applications occurring in Ohio via modified “Jenny” planes, also known as Curtiss JNs. The first plane specifically designed for crop dusting was produced in Georgia by Huff-Daland Crop Dusting. You may not know the history of Huff-Daland, but you’re probably familiar with who they are today: Delta Airlines. Huff-Daland would spend just a handful of years focusing on agriculture before venturing into mail and passenger cargo in the 1930s.

The Move From War PIlot to Crop Duster

After the Second World War, many pilots found themselves out of work. With no need for their skills in a time of peace, many of these pilots turned to crop dusting as a way to make a living. Crop dusting was seen as a relatively easy way to get into the aviation industry, and it offered good pay for those with experience flying aircraft. As many pilots-in-training know, once you’ve taken flight, it’s hard to remain grounded for long.

For many former war pilots, crop dusting was a way to stay involved in aviation while also supporting their families. While it may not have been as exciting as flying in combat, it was a steady job that allowed them to use the skills they had acquired during the war. In some cases, former military pilots even used their crop dusting businesses as a way to stay in shape and keep their flying skills sharp in case they were ever needed again.

Training to Be an AG Pilot Today

Becoming an agricultural pilot today is a very different prospect than it was in the past. Instead of just transferring wartime experience as pilots over to the ag industry, the vast majority of ag pilots now have some kind of college education specifically geared toward agriculture. This is especially true for those who want to fly larger and more complex aircraft.

These programs typically last two or four years, depending on the specific requirements. In addition to flight training, students will also learn about topics such as crop science, farm management, and agricultural aviation regulations. 

The demand for agricultural pilots has changed in recent years as well. Where once they were most needed during planting and harvest seasons, many farmers now use aerial applications of herbicides and pesticides year-round. This has led to a need for agricultural pilots who can fly in all kinds of weather conditions and terrain.

Overall, becoming an agricultural pilot today is a much more involved process than it was in the past. However, for those with a passion for flying and helping others, it can be a very rewarding career.

1950s Airlines and Agriculture

While the vast majority of airlines today focus purely on passenger transport, there are a few, such as Delta, that have their origins in the agricultural industry. These airlines started out providing services to farmers, such as crop dusting and goods transport, before moving into the passenger market. Additionally, some companies focused solely on agricultural aviation from the word “go,” such as Air Tractor.

Founded by Leland Snow, Air Tractor was originally conceived in the 1950s as Snow Aeronautical. At this time, Snow was determined to design a plane specifically for crop dusting, rather than retrofitting warplanes for the job. Snow is responsible for introducing the S-1, S-2A, and S-2B planes in the early years of his work. He had spent years in college in the 1940s working as a crop duster to help support his family after the death of his father, which is when he earned a commercial pilot’s license. Thanks to his hands-on experience, Snow knew what a crop duster plane should and shouldn’t feature to be safe and efficient over the fields.

The company Snow started was sold to Rockwell-Standard in the 1960s, and Snow took on the role of vice president for the Aero division. When he left his work with Rockwell, Snow started Air Tractor in 1972 and continued to design planes, including Air Tractor’s first turbine model plane.

Thanks to Snow’s contributions to the worlds of aviation and agriculture, the equipment available to ag pilots improved dramatically. He pushed for large-capacity hoppers, steel panels under the fuselage, and electric flaps on the planes. He also designed a sealed cockpit positioned behind the hopper and the engine; this protected the pilot more in the event of a crash and prevented errant pesticides or insecticides from entering the cockpit.

Air Tractors in Pop Culture

If you’ve ever seen the Disney Pixar movie Planes: Fire and Rescue, then you’re familiar with Snow’s Air Tractor planes. Dusty Crophopper is modeled after Air Tractor, and his engine audio is actually authentic– it’s a recording from a real AT-802 in California.

As you can see, the history of aviation and agriculture is a long and intertwined one. From the early days of crop dusting to the present, pilots have played a vital role in helping farmers to increase yields and produce food for a growing population.