Interview with Ag Pilot Tad Dickerson


1. How long have you been flying Ag A/C? How many hours would you say that you have acquired in that time?


a. I soloed in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the summer of 1968, and hauled my first revenue making load in June of 1970. I am currently the senior pilot for Bob’s Flying Service in Knights Landing, CA, and I fly full time.


b. My fixed wing logbook shows 29,186 hours, and the helicopter logbook shows 1,239. The helicopter hours are correct, however, I might be off by up to 5% on the fixed wing hours.


What happened was that I began my career as an ag-pilot by starting my own business in my home town of Fallon, Nevada. To get a business license for aerial application in Nevada, I needed proof of insurance, so I called a wonderful man by the name of Ralph Scott in Reno, and he told me to get liability insurance I would need 1,000 hours of experience. After a long silence he said, "make sure you pencil in at least that much time in your logbook tonight, and I’ll write the policy."


Over the next 19 years the only entries I made in my logbook were the years that I flew overseas, and the annual time logged here in the Sacramento Valley … and that was done by simply taking the tach time at the start of the year, and at the end, so that my employer could update my insurance records.


When I went to work for Bob’s Flying Service 22 years ago, I started keeping accurate records again because those numbers are needed for the turbine engine maintenance records.


Bottom line is that if someone came to me offering a plaque honoring 30k hours of flight, I’d feel a little guilty. However, in six years when I’m eligible for the "Wright Brothers Master Pilots Award," I will accept it with pride.


2. How did you get started? Where?


a. My grandmother passed and left me a small inheritance. With that, I started my commercial pilots licensure track at the Ag-Aviation Academy in Stead, Nevada, in 1969; graduating in December of that year with a commercial SEL and 250 hours, mostly in C-150s. I then bought a J-3 Cub for 2500$ if memory serves me, and spent the rest of the winter letting the J-3 teach me about flying a tail-dragger. That summer, the summer of 1970, I hauled my first load in a Cessna Ag-Wagon which I had purchased to start A&T Aviation (Andrea & Tad)


3. Is it something that you aspired to do, or did you just fall into it?


a. I had built model airplanes when I was a kid, and always knew that someday I would fly …. but when I first started my journey in earnest, I thought I wanted to be an airline pilot, and cropdusting would be a good way to build enough flight hours to meet


the qualifications of the airlines. After a few years, I realized I had found my calling in ag-aviation.


4. What type of A/C did you learn on?


a. As I said, my first season was in an Ag-Wagon. Next spring we bought an A model Ag-Cat for $48,000 plus the Ag-Wagon and an AT-6. In the early 70’s, the Ag-Cat was "the" premier ag-aircraft. Unfortunately, I had an engine failure at the end of that season resulting in the total loss of the aircraft, and that loss coupled with marital pressures led me to sell the business and grab a seat with Medlock Dusters in Davis, California in the fall of 1972.


5. Now that your industry has for the most part embraced turbine engine A/C, what has been the payoff other than keeping up with technology?


a. Lack of engine failures


. In the period from 1972 to 1989 when I took a full time seat with Bob’s Flying Service, I averaged one engine failure per year. Now in all fairness, most of those incidents did not cause forced landings, but blowing a cylinder on takeoff in a fully loaded aircraft and making that very long circle back around to land with the blown cylinder puking oil all over the aircraft, and the remaining 8 of 9 cylinders barking from the overload, makes for a very, very, long couple of minutes.


Since I’ve been at Bob’s, I’ve had one engine failure in over 15,000 hours of sitting behind the PT-6.


6. Describe a typical day during rice planting season.


a. One of the things I love most about my profession is that, generally speaking, there are no typical days. The next qualifier is that "rice season" has changed dramatically from my early days at Medlock and Watts-Ag flying N-3N’s and Stearmans, to where we are today flying PT-6’s with GPS. In the "good old days," for which I have no yearning, we would fly every day from daylight till dark hauling 60 to 80 loads per day (sometimes more), every day for 50 to 60 days. I would usually log 50 to 60 flight hours per week.


Today in rice season, I get up every morning an hour before daylight, and though I might haul the same number of sacks of rice as I did in the Stearman in a day, today I do it in 30 to 40 loads, and in half the flight hours. Most days I don’t work past 18:00, and the big push is less than 40 days.



7. In your opinion, what is the most miss understood part of your job? Misunderstandings of who or what an Ag pilot is or does?


a. I think you have to narrow that question down to misunderstandings from whom. If you are talking about the public at large, their misunderstandings come from the notion that crop protection chemicals


are the root of all the pollution problems on the planet, and the bulk of those chemicals are being dispersed by aircraft.


If you are talking about people who are interested in agricultural aviation, possibly even considering it as a career …their misunderstanding is generally that they think cropdusting is soaring over the fields with a white scarf waving in the breeze, and for that joy they will collect a big paycheck at the end of the week.


Today, fifty percent of being an agricultural pilot is flying the aircraft …the other fifty percent is application techniques. Meteorology, crop identification, properties of the crop protection chemicals, physical properties of the tank mixes, atomization, environmental concerns, and the list goes on. Nonetheless, my job is still a joy, and I do make more than a teacher.


b. I feel that most people outside the realm of agriculture don’t understand what we do. The aircraft is just one of the tools that growers have at their disposal to produce and protect their crops. When I tell someone that some of our better customers grow organic crops, they are surprised. We seed organic rice, safflower, wheat, alfalfa …we treat a variety of crops with organic fertilizer made from the renderings of large poultry concerns, we dust organic tomatoes with sulfur dust (elemental sulfur is by definition organic), and we


treat that same variety of crops with compounds extracted from garlic, or Bacillus Thuringiensis which is a naturally occurring bacterium that is registered for use on organic crops.


8. How has the industry changed in the years that you have been a pilot? Best change? Worse change?


a. When I first started, it was cool to be a cropduster. But as I said earlier, today the public at large have the notion that crop protection chemicals are the root of all the pollution problems on the planet, and that we are the purveyors of that evil. Granted, in the early days of our industry, there were abuses and the misuse of chemicals. But starting with the banning of DDT just as I began in this industry, to today where the organo-phosphates are no longer being used, and more "pest specific" chemistries that have very narrow ranges of lethality and extremely short term persistence in the environment, the industry is making great strides towards being good stewards of their products, and the environment.


b. I think the best change is that, as a whole, the industry now understands that what we do does have an impact on the environment, and that we do have to have to be good stewards, and not just give that responsibility lip service.


c. I would say the worst change is that when first got into this business and was introduced to someone I


didn’t know, I had no qualms about telling them that I was a "cropduster." Now, if I am introduced to someone who does not understand agriculture, and he/she asks what I do, I just say that I work in the "ag-services industry," and then try to redirect the conversation. I do that not because I’m ashamed of what I do …I do it because in this day and age when the divide between the urban and rural mentality is so wide …it’s just easier, and that’s sad.


9. What is the greatest challenge in the coming years for Ag Aviation?


a. The lack of new pilots. 0ur industry flourished after WWII because of the abundance of pilots and surplus aircraft. Then for many years, there was no influx of new pilots because the market was flooded. Then with the aging of the "Greatest Generation," there was a narrow window of opportunity for the generation of the Viet Nam pilots, which are all my age now, and looking at retirement within this decade. The problem is that the new generation of pilots that will replace us will have to show up willing to go through a much more extensive internship. Both the WWII and my generation of ag-pilot were able to just get into the airplane, find the field with the flaggers in it, and if we made it back to the airstrip without bending anything, we could probably keep our jobs. But now with all the liability


concerns, environmental issues, and increased cockpit load of the GPS, breaking into the industry will take young men and women with a tremendous amount of focus and patience.


10. Anything that you would like to add?


I appreciate our friendship.