|Cessna AgTruck 188B
27 May 2004 – Thursday Morn
Arrived back at the Rancho Tuesday Morn - after driving all night. When I left cousin Suzie’s in Los Osos, I bopped
over to Chowchilla in the San Joaquin Valley to see my old friend Bobby Gudgel. Bobby owns and operates Gudgel Aero-Ag Service
in Chowchilla, California. If you’re not familiar, Chowchilla is located on Hwy 99 between Madera and Merced. I digress
Back in ‘74, I felt the need to satisfy a longtime desire - that of being a crop-duster pilot - an aerial applicator
as they’re technically known - and I apprenticed under Dusty Varain in North County San Diego, flying his Navy N-3-N
bipe powered by a P&W R-985. Dusty started in crop dusting when it was invented and was a fine teacher, in addition capable
of regaling me with stories of the early days in Central California. He mostly sprayed for the Frazee Brothers flower outfit,
and there came a point when I wanted to get more experience with other crops and bigger fields. Dusty sent me up Hwy 99 with
a letter of recommendation in 1978. I got in my then wife’s El Dorado and headed north, starting in the Bakersfield
area. No operator was willing to give me a “seat,” partly because they were all filled with experienced types,
and partly (or maybe mostly) because applicators had an aversion to airline pilots because they had a tendency to run their
aeroplanes into stationary things - like wires, poles, irrigation stantions, and the earth. When I finally arrived in Modesto,
I was about resigned to the fact that I was not going to be a crop-duster. Although I was an accomplished tail-dragger pilot
and familiar with many different types of engines, no one was interested in giving me a chance. I was visiting an operator
north of Modesto, who was not going to give me a job, and he asked me if I had stopped in at Bobby Gudgel’s in Chowchilla.
I said I hadn’t - I think it was the only place I skipped on the way north - and he said that Gudgel had a good operation
and was known to take on new guys. So I headed south.
I found Bobby at his operation on the north side of Chowchilla Airport. Picture this - you meet someone, and when they talk,
if you weren’t aware of where you were, you might assume you were somewhere that matched the persons accent that you
were talking too. I hope your following this. When you talk to Bobby Gudgel, you think you’re in Oklahoma. And yet
he was born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley. When I asked Bobby where he was from, he said the Valley and asked me why
I asked. I told him he sounded like an Okie. He replied that the Valley was full of transplanted Okies. And then I remembered
the Grapes of Wrath.
He was operating six or seven Cessna AgWagons and AgTrucks, and I was immediately impressed with how clean his operation was.
The area, his equipment and the airplanes were immaculate. He let me hang around, and we had lunch while he considered whether
or not to take me on. He told me he’d give me a call if he had a seat. Another dead-end I figured. I headed back
home, without a lot of hope of turning into a journeyman crop duster.
He called me in a few days and said he had a seat for me. Wow! I jumped in my hotrod bug and headed for Chowchilla. The
next morning we met at Farnesi’s, a local cafe and truck stop located on the main drag and 99, at oh-dark-thirty and
he laid out the mission for the day over breakfast. The first job was about 10 miles northeast of the airport. I remember
it was row crops, and maybe a quarter section. Before I saddled up, Bobby squatted next to my bird and began to draw in the
sand the layout of the field, the landmarks I would need to find it and the fact that I would know I was in the right farm
because there would be two flaggers there, that to expect him to arrive there a few minutes after I started but not to worry
‘cause he would stay out my way, and then pointed out the wires on the west end of the field with the instruction to
avoid them. We started up, taxied up to the nurse rig, loaded about 140 gallons of material and I headed out as the sun was
just coming up over the Sierras.
I found the field with no problem, positioning myself on the east side and started my first pass on the south side of the
field, heading west which was good because it put the Sun at my back. I made sure I had my wheels right down on the crop
and was getting good coverage ‘cause I really wanted Bobby to be happy with my work. The flagger in front of me on
the first pass was a large pretty black girl, and because she was out in the Sun a great deal, she was very black. I mention
this because as I approached her, her eyes got real big so the whites of her eyes were like headlights, and then she started
to run north. I thought “What the hell?” - and then saw the t-poles to the left and right of me. I started back
on the stick and center-punched the wire(s). The cutter in the middle of the windshield must have cut the wire and then there
was a helluva racket as the wire(s) snaked over the airplane. I looked out over the left and right wings and couldn’t
see a thing, just this horrendous noise. The airplane began to sag as it slowed down, so I went to full power and kept the
nose down and after an eternity (a few seconds) the noise went away and I felt the airplane begin to surge ahead. I admit
I was unnerved. While the wire was on the airplane I thought about pulling the dump handle and getting rid of the load which
would lighten me up about 1200 pounds - not good (poor form as well as paperwork) - and then decided not to dump until the
airplane stalled. I went straight ahead about half-a-mile, feeling the airplane out, and it seemed to be flying OK, so I
turned back to the field to finish putting the load out. When I turned on the pump fan (the pump that pumps the material
through the spray system that has a small wooden propellor that drives it) there was a heavy vibration, but it was spraying
okay, so I kept going.
Bobby was making his first pass coming the other way next to the first swath I had made, and we race tracked around the field,
I finished my load and headed back to the strip, sure that I had just flown my last application for Bobby Gudgel. I rolled
into the loading area and shut down, got out and told the head mechanic, who was also in charge of the loading operation,
what I had done. He started looking the airplane over and then I saw Bobby land and as he taxied into the loading area he
shut down, climbed out of the cockpit and jumped off the wing and ran over to my airplane - while his plane was still rolling!
I thought, “Boy - you are in for a #1 all-time ass chewing!” He said, “What are you doin’? - we don’t
shut down between loads!” I told him what I had done. He smiled and said in his Okie croak, “Yeah, I thought
I saw some wires strung out in the next field.” Then he turned to the chief mech and asked him what the damage was,
and the mech told him that the lower cowl was creased ($1,000.00), the right strut fairing fence was busted and would have
to be taken off ($400.00), and the pump fan was mutilated (causing the bad vibration) and would have to be changed ($100.00),
and the prop spinner was toast and would have to be removed ($300.00). And this didn’t include the labor. He said
to get it done - we had a lot of work to do. I couldn’t believe it, I was still on the roster. They pulled the fences
off the struts, removed the prop spinner, changed the pump fan, and I was airborne in about 20 minutes, albeit a bit shaky
as the adrenaline level began to subside.
Late in the day, when we had finished, I told Bobby I appreciated his letting me finish the day and how idiotic I felt for
running through the wires. He smiled and said, “It’s probably good you did, it’ll probably be the last
time.” It was.
When I tried to pay Bobby for the damage, he said, “Nah, Son, it’s part of the business.”
After all these years, it was good to see him - he’s a good friend ~