At 60, SL pilot has survived 2 crashes
He describes the art of cropdusting with the words of advise that the old-timers passed on to him years ago - "Hours and hours of sheer boredom accented by a few seconds of sheer terror."
For Jim Bartholomew of Storm Lake - "Bart" as he is universally known in piloting circles - his 31st year of crop-dusting comes to a close, even as the ranks of the crop-dusting pilots grow thinner and thinner.
"There's not many of us left, and I'm pretty much the only one around this area any more," said Bart. "There used to be more, but some have passed away, and others just gone by the wayside."
That doesn't mean business is stalling. In fact, this season Bart had to call in his son Mike, a fellow pilot, and five other pilots he knows to help cover all of the farms calling for his help.
"Work starts fast and ends fast," he said.
Unfortunately, a good year for the crop dusters, like this one, mean a rough year for local farmers. The chief culprit this year was the soybean aphid. "We're seen as sort of a mixed blessing. On on hand, if they need us, the farmer is losing some money. On the other hand, we can save that family's crop."
Bart covers a 30-mile radius, and put in perhaps 300 flying hours as a crop duster this year, in addition to his other duties as a pilot, instructor, mechanic and manager of the Storm Lake airport.
The work can be dangerous. He hits a field at 100-120 miles per hour, coming within five feet of the top of the crop.
"I suppose there is some inherent danger, but it's just a routine for me. There are hazards in any business," Bart said.
In 1976, he was cropdusting when he struck an unexpected power line and crashed in the field. He had to be rushed to Sioux City by ambulance. He went right back to it, and in 1984, he suffered another crash after hitting a power line, but was able to walk away. "Every once in a while something will pop up and scare heck out of you," he says.
His favorite duster, a yellow biplane looking like a World War II fighter on steroids, attacks a lot of attention. And for the Bartholomews, it is a family affair. Mike has already joined his father crop-dusting, and son John is also in line to take over the business "when the old man craps out," Bart laughs.
Don't you believe it.
At 60, he's still on top of his game, and plans to keep flying as long as he is able. "There's guys older than me who are still at it," Bart says.
In fact, it's the young guys like his sons who are rare. The insurance is hard to get, and it's nearly impossible for someone without experience to break into the crop-dusting field today.
The state's crop-dusters still gather about twice a year to swap stories and information - the big topic always being safety, Bart said. Iowa State University still puts on clinics to recertify the flyers.
The job is still a bit of a thrill for the veteran. "It's not the type of flying where you get up to altitude, point it in the direction you want to go and sit back and relax. We fly very low, and you are always on your toes and always doing something," Bart said.
It's been a buggy year for farms, and a busy one for the pilots. "One man's poison is another man's honey," the pilot shrugs.
"When we get busy, I start calling other pilots I know to help us, and this year we had five other planes beside my son and I," Bart said.
Although technology, chemicals and regulations charge, the skills are the same as when cropdusting began after World War 1, he said.
"These guys came back from the war and wanted to keep flying. The only way was to convert the old military biplanes left around and start dusting the crops," Bart said. "These were the real tough, daredevils. I've learned a lot of respect for what they did with those primitive planes."
Is there a future for the dusters? Bart thinks, and hopes, so.
"When there's an outbreak, there is simply no other way to cover so much ground so fast, and it's us they call."