Done & dusted: 56-year ag pilot reflects on the fading art form that is ‘crop dusting’

Avatar for Lisa GordonBy Lisa Gordon | August 19, 2022

Estimated reading time 17 minutes, 4 seconds.

When he was about 10 years old, Jim Horvath was a hangar rat. As soon as his chores were finished on the family farm, he’d ride his bike over to the Brantford Municipal Airport, where he’d do odd jobs in the hopes of lucking into the occasional airplane ride.

Like many others, Horvath found himself bitten by the aviation bug. Growing up in Norfolk and Oxford Counties, he was fascinated by 1950s crop dusters who swooped in over the fields in Stearman biplanes and Piper Super Cubs.

By age 16, he’d begun lessons at Garth’s Flying Service in Kitchener, Ontario, where his instructor sagely advised him to “maintain thy airspeed lest the ground arise and smite thee.”

Horvath earned his commercial pilot license by age 18, followed by his float rating in Orillia. More than anything, he wanted to be a bush pilot.

Horvath, 19, with a Piper J-3 Cub owned by Sam Lammens in Glen Meyer, Ontario. Photo courtesy of Jim Horvath

“I wrote about 200 letters to apply, and got two replies back,” he remembered. “Neither one was an option. I was a flight instructor for a little while; it was nice, but kind of boring. Then one day, I was visiting my grandma in Delhi, Ontario. She suggested I check out Norfolk Aerial Spraying, down the road in Nixon. I saw John Tar, the owner, who had seven pilots and seven airplanes — so the best he could offer me was a job as a spare pilot.”

For a month and a half, Horvath worked as a “boy Friday” at Norfolk Aerial Spraying, hoping to get some flight time. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s, tobacco was king in southwestern Ontario. Ag pilots sprayed for cut worms in the spring and again for horn worms before the August harvest.

One day, Horvath met Sam Lammens, who ran a small aerial application business out of Glen Meyer, Ontario, flying two Piper J-3 Cubs.

“Sam had two airplanes and one pilot, so he hired me in 1967. We took the back seat out of the Cubs and put 50-gallon tanks in it. We took the windows out and it became a sprayer.”

After a couple of years, Horvath became chief pilot and graduated to flying a 450-horsepower open cockpit Stearman, and then a Cessna 188 AGtruck. In 1977, he asked Lammens if he could be his business partner — but the idea didn’t appeal to his boss, so Horvath decided to go his own way.

He traveled down to Indiana to buy a brand new Piper Pawnee, launching Jim’s Flying Service Ltd. from Stratford, Ontario, later that same year. Down the road, the business moved to a farm Horvath purchased in Seaforth, Ontario — and today, Jim’s Flying Service is based at Nixon Airport in Norfolk County, using Tillsonburg Municipal Airport and various other airstrips to support its operations as needed.

Horvath and his Piper Pawnee. Rod Horvath Photo

“I got my business license to air spray in April of 1977,” recalled Horvath, now of age 75. “By the time I got into it, dusting was pretty much done. We sprayed liquids, seeded, and applied dry fertilizer.

“Back then, you needed a commercial pilot’s license and an exterminator’s license from the Ministry of the Environment. Everything was eyeballed when you were doing your runs. You got to know how many swaths it would take to cover a field. I remember one guy who was teaching me; we were practicing going back and forth across the field. He said, ‘Get in there, do the best you can and don’t bust your ass.’”

Plus or minus five feet

After 40 years in business, Horvath sold Jim’s Flying Service to Rob Bennett in 2017. He had a retirement party, but then Bennett asked him to stay on and help apply fungicide to the spring wheat crops.

“Come corn time, he asked me to stay and help with the corn,” recalled Horvath with a laugh. “So, I stayed, and the next year he said we should be doing this and that, and he asked me to fly one more season. And I’m still here!”

With about 10,000 hours of spraying time — “at plus or minus five feet or nothing” — Horvath is one of the most experienced agricultural pilots around. Now in his 56th season of ag flying, he’s often found skimming treetops in the Pawnee, spraying for gypsy moths, or applying fungicides to wheat, corn, or soybeans. 

“In the old days, we’d count the swaths and pick out landmarks to make sure we were doing a good job,” recounted Horvath. “You had to be pretty good and pretty accurate. If you weren’t, the farmer didn’t invite you back.

“Now, we have the luxury of GPS marking. You can do a side-by-side pattern, a racetrack, or a squeeze, and you can set it up for a 60-foot swath. You position your initial lines and when you’re coming around, you have light bars in front of you ahead of the cockpit. There’s no guess work involved.”

Horvath launched Jim’s Flying Service Ltd. in 1977 from Stratford, Ontario. Photo courtesy of Jim Horvath

Still, agricultural pilots are in a dangerous line of work. There are potential obstacles near every application area; things like hydro wires strung across the corner of a field — called “widow-makers.”

“Wires are very hard to see flying into the sun,” said Horvath. “Then there are towers, and windmills are a bear to work around. You’ve always got obstacles. You either go over them or under them; to be a good ag pilot, you have to be thinking way ahead of yourself. The day you quit thinking it’s not dangerous is the day you probably end your life. I’ve never been complacent and I learn something new every year.”

Weather can throw a wrench into aerial applications, too. Operations are scheduled during daytime VFR (visual flight rules) only, but stifling hot weather can also be a factor.

“The last few days here, it’s been so hot,” said Horvath during an August interview with Skies. “When the outside air temperature feels like 40 C [104 F], you still fly. But there is very little lift when it’s hot like that; the air is thin and you have to pull up sooner. Plus, your plane is heavy with the chemical in it. You can’t make real sharp turns, because if you run out of airspeed and ideas at the same time, you’re going to auger in.”

The ag pilot community is small in southwestern Ontario, and Horvath wonders who is coming up to replace him and the other pilots nearing retirement.

“They should call this the senior citizens’ crop spraying service!” he laughed. “Ag pilots are hard to find. The average age of an ag pilot in the U.S. is mid- to high-60s. Not too many young people want to do this as a career; it could be here today and gone tomorrow. There is no aerial spraying in England, for example.”

Plus, it’s not easy flying. Good, old-fashioned stick-and-rudder skills are essential.

“Spraying is not for everybody. You are one and the same with the airplane. I always say that I strap the airplane on; I become part of the machine. You’re not looking at the gauges all the time, you’re always looking outside. Me, I’d probably be a real lousy instrument pilot. My IFR rating would be ‘I Follow Roads.’”

Today, becoming an agricultural pilot in Canada involves specialized training that can only be found in Saskatchewan. In addition to flight training, pilots learn about pesticides, GPS operation, and how weather affects spray application.

“It’s not something you jump into an airplane and start doing,” said Horvath. “Now, you must have the ag course and 1,000 hours total time, with tailwheel time, before you become insurable. It’s a whole different story from ‘get in and don’t bust your ass.’”

There are fewer employers out there, too. From a heyday of 12 to 15 operators working Ontario fields, Horvath said there are now just two: the company he used to own and still flies for, Jim’s Flying Service, and General Airspray in Lucan, Ontario.

“We’re the only two fixed-wing companies running in Ontario, and there are maybe three or four helicopter outlets going.”

When the industry slowed down 15 or 20 years ago, many agricultural applicators moved north to take on government contracts for forestry spraying. But Horvath never gave up on farming.

“I just kept with the farmers; I always came back to the row crop,” he said. “That’s been my forte. I have farmers I’ve been working with for 25-plus years.”

Leaving it all behind

It’s 4:30 a.m. in Tillsonburg, Ontario, and Horvath gets up in the summer darkness. His wife of 57 years, Margaret, puts on the coffee and packs his lunch for the busy day ahead, just as she’s always done.

The air is cool and still as he drives to the airport; the sun is rising. It’s a perfect day for ag flying.

“It gets in your blood and it’s unlike any other type of flying out there,” reflected Horvath. “It’s not like shovelling gravel. It’s very intense; it’s mind-fatiguing. Fifty-five years of pushing rudder pedals have wreaked havoc on my knees, but once I start spraying that field, my knees aren’t sore until I get out of the plane. Once you’re in that field, you leave everything else behind.”

When asked when he’s really going to retire, he laughs.

“I said I’d retire five years ago! I would think that this will be my last year. Eventually, I’ll have to hang up my helmet. But if somebody said, ‘Would you do it all over again?’ I would in a heartbeat.”

Horvath believes crop dusting is truly an art form. Good, old-fashioned stick-and-rudder skills are essential. Photo courtesy of Jim Horvath

Even though crop “dusting” went by the wayside long ago, replaced by liquid product applications, it’s a term that Horvath still uses to describe what he does.

“If you tell someone you’re an ag pilot, they just look at you. But if you say ‘crop duster,’ they know right away. So yeah, I’m a crop duster.”

He paused, before adding:

“It’s so in touch with real flying, you know? It’s an art form — it’s grass roots flying at its best.

“Some days you get 100 acres with dog-legs and triangles; I don’t enjoy that so much. But, if you get a nice field on a nice morning, there is nothing better than that. I’ll miss those nice, cool mornings.”

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