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You Might Get Shot At

Dangerous flying in the mountains of Colombia

I was at the company headquarters of the Ayres Corp. in Albany, Georgia.

I was at the company headquarters of the Ayres Corp. in Albany, Georgia. Inside, factory workers hand assembled the Ayres Thrush, once known as the Rockwell Thrush. The memory has faded with time, like the pages of my first logbook. The logbook records the day as September 19, 1989, and the airplane as the Ayres V-1-A Vigilante. Flight time? One-point-two hours. Under "Remarks" it says, "State Dept. Profile."

Out on the tarmac the airplane sat low, sleek, and mean, like a lion ready to pounce. It had a long, long, pointy snout to encase the Pratt & Whitney PT6A turbine engine, capable of generating 1,376 horses. It looked like a prewar European fighter plane, except for its angular lines, the coat of flat gray paint, and a complete lack of national markings except for the N number. It was built solid, like if you took a base-ball bat to the wings, you'd splinter the bat and maybe leave only a mark on the paint. Its vital components were sheathed with armor plates, the pilot told me.

The Vigilante is the younger brother of the Ayres T-65 Turbo Thrush, a truck of an airplane usually seen flying graceful wingovers, diving, and laying insecticide on farm fields (see " Low Level, High-Tech," June Pilot). The T-65 has the same PT6A engine, and it is inevitably painted a high-visibility yellow, at least here in the United States, which is a bad color for flying drug eradication in other countries near hostile parties. The pilot told me he once crashed one while spraying a farm field, but its frame was so solid he wasn't even injured. That's built Ford tough.

We made a short-field takeoff without gaining much altitude and accelerated to 200 knots, skimming just above the trees. The trees abruptly gave way to a clearing, and the pilot instantly dumped what altitude we had.

"I'm spraying," he said over the headphones.

"I'm not spraying."

That quick. Maybe two seconds. He yanked back on the stick and slammed his foot on the left rudder. We screamed off just above the trees. It was over like that. He hadn't actually been spraying — the Vigilante had no hopper or spray bar, and in fact, never went on to be much more than a prototype. But that's the profile the U.S. State Department's crop dusters fly. And it was a blast.

Sometimes literally

"The lead content of the air can get fairly thick down there," the pilot explained. He was talking about Colombia, where he had flown spraying missions in 1989, spraying coca plants, which are grown on the Colombian mountainsides, in thousands of tiny clearings chopped out among the forest and protected by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. It's not an easy job. "In the mountains the fields are high, difficult to get to, and planted in real small fields," said another pilot. "The mountain stuff is considerably different from spraying in the valleys — the difference is you get shot at."

Anonymity keeps you safe

I'm not going to reveal my original pilot's name — or the names of the pilots I interviewed later in October 2005. The lead content of the air might get fairly thick even up here in the States. Or even worse: The pilots could find themselves shunned by the government contractor, DynCorp International, or the State Department.

The United States spends billions every year to spray other countries in hopes of eradicating the coca plants, which are refined into cocaine, and opium poppies, which are used to make heroin (and are the crop of choice in Afghanistan). DynCorp pays its pilots pretty well — up to $150,000 a year, compared with between $20,000 and $70,000 that an ag pilot can earn in the States. As for experience, "a big priority is finding an agriculture pilot with instrument time, an instructor's rating, and if possible, who can speak some Spanish, or be willing to learn it," said one pilot. "But the critical requirement is an instrument pilot with good skills maneuvering an airplane. That's a hard talent to find." Once they're on the payroll, the pilots fly from sunup to sundown, two weeks on, two weeks off. When they're not spraying they hang around the small air base in Colombia, sleeping, watching satellite TV, or fishing in a pond on the field. It's allegedly stocked with piranha. The pilots usually fly back to the States during their two weeks off. They certainly don't wander around Colombia.

To prevent spraying of legal crops, the pilots use GPS to mark the illegal fields and spray to precise GPS coordinates. The pilots don't fly unprotected: While they're spraying, a rescue helicopter orbits just overhead, and if an airplane should crash, the pilot carries a pistol and leverages survival training developed from one of the U.S. Army Field Manuals. In Colombia they fly OV-10 Broncos, Air Tractors, or Turbo Thrushes. Instead of bright yellow, all of the aircraft are painted dark blue. "In the mountains it's kind of hard to see," said a pilot. And the aircraft, too, are armored — the engine compartment, the vital components, and most important, the seat. In 2005, for instance, one Turbo Thrush in for maintenance at Albany had more than 100 bullet holes in it.

But the worst part is the trees. At the speeds and low altitudes the aircraft fly, it's hard for pilots to spot an occasional branch sticking up in the flight path. Three pilots have died crashing into the ground or hitting trees.

The war on drugs

Coca plants and opium poppies aren't the only vegetation sprayed by the U.S. government in other countries. There's also marijuana, often found growing in Mexico and Colombia. In neither place is it a good idea to get shot down, survival training or not.

But is America's war on drugs working? Probably not. In Colombia, for instance, cultivation has tripled to more than 28,000 acres since 2003. Growers have moved their crops inside some of the country's 49 nature preserves, where, not surprisingly, crop spraying is illegal. And since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan's opium production has shot up to 2,865 metric tons. The year before, 2000, poppy cultivation was banned by the ruling Taliban. And the Taliban weren't the kind of folks who resort to using friendly herbicides to get their point across.

Phil Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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