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Crop-dusting pilots are the adrenaline junkies of the agriculture world. They fly fast. They fly low. They often dive under power lines while sowing seeds and spreading pesticides. This dangerous job has become even more dangerous. Jacob McCleland of member station KRCU reports.
JACOB MCCLELAND, BYLINE: If you're going to do a story about crop-dusting, you might as well start in the sky. I'm flying with Mike Lee directly above the Missouri-Arkansas state line. Below, it's a never-ending checkerboard of green and brown of fields of rice, cotton, corn and soybeans, with a little milo and popcorn for good measure.
MIKE LEE: I know some people who've had accidents. I've had friends who've got killed in these things, you know.
MCCLELAND: Mike Lee started Earl's Flying Service in Steele, Missouri in the early '70s. He's been flying ever since. When he's crop-dusting, he flies at 155 miles an hour at the crazy low elevation of 12 feet. Farmers hire him because it's a quick, efficient way to get things done. There's no driving out to remote field or slogging equipment through the mud. It's all done by air from the cockpit.
LEE: These are your basic controls right here. This right here just makes it - pull back to go up and down to go forward and right and left - you know? - very simple.
MCCLELAND: Crop-dusters are the ultimate multitaskers. They fly while dodging objects like trees and power lines. Pilots are stumbling across a new hazard now, unmarked towers that are used to prospect for wind energy projects.
LEE: You have to just be able to fly - just by the seat of your pants and not even think about flying to do all of that, you know? You've got to spend all your concentration looking outside and doing all the - controlling the seed or fertilizer or chemical, whatever it may be at the time.
MCCLELAND: And that's part of what makes this job so dangerous. Pilots' attention is divided, and they work long hours. During the growing season, they fly sunrise to sunset.
LEE: Radio towers seems to be the number one problem, these little weather MET towers they stick up overnight. And nobody knows about it. It's been a major problem in our industry.
MCCLELAND: Those MET towers, or meteorological towers, are thin and metal. They kind of blend in from the air. Farmers lease some of their land to wind energy companies that use them to gather data.
JENNIFER RODI: They are very hard to see.
MCCLELAND: That's National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jennifer Rodi.
RODI: They are below the 200-foot requirement that the FAA has that requires them to be lit and marked to increase their visibility.
MCCLELAND: In a report earlier this year, Rodi and the NTSB made recommendations to the FAA to mark and light those towers and to create a database with the location of each one. Tom Vinson of the American Wind Energy Association says the wind industry supports marking towers with orange and white paint and putting up orange balls on guy wires. But lighting is trickier because towers are often in remote locations without a power source. And wind farm development is a very competitive process. That's why the database with each tower's location is a thornier recommendation.
TOM VINSON: People are very hesitant to let competitors know where they may be looking. And so there has been some concern about having sort of widely available public databases.
MCCLELAND: Since 2000, three pilots have died after striking unmarked MET towers. Just this September, the family of a California pilot was awarded a $6.7 million wrongful death settlement following his crash into an unmarked MET. When you look at the big picture, crop-dusting has become safer. Accidents are down, and fewer crashes are fatal. Pilots have better training. And as Mike Lee, the Ag pilot in Missouri, says, airplanes now are designed for safety. Pointing to one of his planes, he says it was made to absorb energy in a crash.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE RUNNING)
LEE: Kind of a like a NASCAR, it's going to disintegrate around you. Most likely, you'll be sitting there holding the stick and in the seat, you know, when it's all said and done, you know?
MCCLELAND: That may be reassuring for some crop-dusters, but from the pilot's perspective, knowing the exact spot of every potential hazard works even better. For NPR News, I'm Jacob McCleland in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
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