Sunday, July 30, 2017

Night Duster

It was a typical summer evening in the Central Valley; still very warm and humid air and a flat horizon all around with just a few ribbons of car lights indicating distant roads.  We were driving back down Highway 99 south of Bakersfield after an afternoon of getting a few things done for Brenda’s parents.

To our right at about Two O’Clock appeared off in the distance a bank of horizontal lights that were moving above the ground.  We quickly identified them as the flying lights of a crop duster spread out across it’s wings.  The pilot made sweeping turns and dips down to the dark fields for maybe fifteen seconds, and would then ascent back up and into the black sky.  There were moments when we couldn’t see him at all as he turned away from our direction.  But sure enough, the row of lights reappeared as he flew in our direction, maybe two or three miles from us.

As we approached the next turnoff, which was Herring Road, a road that stretches out deliberately and seemingly endlessly to the Sierra Foothills to the east, and also presents a somewhat bumpy and unused path towards Interstate 5 to the west, we both agreed that we should investigate this pilot’s skills further.  For the farmland to our west, as all around, is nearly black in the night, and yet this pilot was somehow negotiating obvious things that stick up inconveniently at night.

We existed Herring Road and turned west.  The time was about 10:30pm and there wasn’t a soul on the road in front of us.  We kept track of the airplane, whose sweeps were getting incrementally closer as we made our way onward.  The plane’s lights banked and aimed our way, maybe about a mile out now.  He then made a right turn southward, dipped down, and then flew over the road we were on at what looked like to be just a few feet off of the ground.  His crossing happened about a half mile in front of it. 

Brenda and I discussed the possibility of his not seeing us and T-boning us, but then we figured that he’s probably been doing this job for a while and knows what cars on on Herring Road at night.  Just then, the one and only other vehicle came eastward and passed us.  It was a truck about the size of a large U-Haul moving truck.  After that, totally black again with the exception of our headlights, which were on high beam.

The pilot, after crossing our road, finished dusting the fields now to our left and then gained altitude, crossed back over the road in front of us at maybe a thousand feet, and then flew northwest of us.  I was mostly keeping my eyes on the road at this point, and having now seen the Interstate 5 about three miles in front of us, was determined to see where Herring Road crossed it.  I had never been on this road and this is just the kind of thing I like to do; to figure out where various rights of way intersect.  My reasoning is that I’ll be able to use the information stored in my brain at a later date.  And often it turns out to be true.

But by now, Brenda said that the airplane had flown west, then turned back south, descended, and she swore that it had landed in a field just east of the 5 freeway.  I thought this not to be possible since there were no airfields around this desolate farm area.  However, just a minute or two later, we came up to what first looked like a very brightly lit silo.  I slowed the car down and as we rolled down the window, there was the airplane.  It was either refueling or it was getting more insecticide. 

It was a yellow single fixed wing aircraft, similar to those that you’ve seen crop dusting in the daytime when you've driven in rural areas.  The pilot had just gotten out of his plane and there was a crew at this station that was servicing the plane like a pit crew.  By now, we had pulled the car over onto the dirt shoulder and were watching the activities, all of which were happening maybe fifty yards from us.  In fact, we had to pull the car forward because while the plane was sitting, it’s props were still on and they were kicking dust onto thee highway.

The other prominent thing we noticed was the strong smell of airplane fuel.  It was to be expected.  But it put us on notice as to how close we were to this large duster aircraft.  That’s when we also made out in the dark the long, dirt airstrip, which was really just a wide road carved out of the edge of the field.  The runway was not illuminated as far as we could see, and later, after looking at it on Google Maps, I found it to be about 5,000 feet in length and completely surrounded by crops and farming apparatus. 

After about two minutes of sitting there watching it and wondering if everyone involved thought that we had come to massacre all of them, the pilot went back into the pilot’s seat and revved the engine.  And off he went.  Down the long, dark, dirt airstrip, and he was up and flying with haste. 

I thought, this is our chance to ask this crew a few questions even though there were two prominent signs that read, “No Trespassing.”  I drove my Jeep into the property as a crew member walked over to greet us.  I told him that we had just happened upon this scene and we couldn’t believe how this pilot could possibly navigate crop dusting in the complete dark.

What the crew member, a very young kid of about twenty years old, lanky, dark haired, and friendly, told us was that this pilot had been doing this job for over thirty years most nights of the week, and that he was about fifty five years old, and that he knew every inch of the surrounding terrain.  I asked him if he used infrared goggles or something like that.  He said, “Nope.”  He just has his lights on and knows where to fly.  He knows where every tower, farm house, telephone pole row, and radio tower are within several miles. 

I was really dumbfounded as to, first, that anyone could even be crop dusting at night…that they could see anything, and that a pilot could be doing this nearly every night in servicing various area fields and crops.  What a skill I thought! 

We cordially said goodbye to the dust cropper pit crew and I decided to finish the short distance to Interstate 5 to see where it crossed.  No on-ramps or off-ramps anywhere around Herring Road.  But I had intended to drive back to Highway 99 anyways because we wanted one more time to see this flying savant at work. 

We turned around just west of Interstate 5 and started the other direction on Herring Road.  We passed the refueling station, now to our left, and continued on down eastward.  Just then, as if the guys at the station had radio’d to the pilot that a couple had taken a great interest in his skills, we saw the bright UFO-esk bank of landing lights turning somewhere over Highway 99 about four miles in front of us, and he started dust cropping the field to our left.  The lights got brighter and brighter as he flew parallel to Herring Road, making his way closer to us on our left.

Then he turned, banking his lights like a bright straight razor, towards Herring Road.  It looked like at our speed of sixty miles per hour, and at his speed of maybe one hundred twenty miles per hour, we might meet on the road.  I let up a little on the accelerator.  The crops started glowing closer and closer to us as his landing lights light up everything to our left and he then passed over the road at maybe fifty feet, dragging a whole bunch of dust across the road just in time for us to plow through.  It was exhilarating. 

We watched as he stayed at a low altitude and dusted the crops to our left, and then finally, at about the time that he was drifting out of our immediate view because our Jeep was continuing forward, he ascended up towards the night stars to begin another pass around. 

Brenda and I love to take these little excursions.  To learn something new.  To see an incredible skill that someone has who is nearly unknown, but who flies with the accuracy of a Navy pilot.  That’s just crazy.  What fun!