March 8, 2012 - Given its long history in both agriculture and aviation, it's not surprising to find Texas at the heart of the crop dusting industry. The practice of spraying crops from an airplane didn't originate here, but it was largely brought to its current state of the art by Leland Snow of Brownsville, who was designing airplanes made specifically for agriculture by the 1950s.
The history of crop dusting in this country, other than some crude experiments with the concept here and there, goes back to 1921, when Army captain John McCready flew a surplus JN-6H Jenny over a grove of moth-infested trees in Ohio and dumped a load of lead arsenate on them. The moths died. The whole process took about a minute. Before that, it took two men with a wagon and a mule the better part of a week to complete the same process.
The experiment caught the eye of Bert Coad, director of the U.S Department of Agriculture Delta Laboratory in Tallulah, La. The lab existed primarily to fight the boll weevil, which was chewing up the Southern cotton industry. Aerial spraying appealed to Coad, and also to his assistant, C.E. Woolman. Woolman later founded Delta Flying Service, which specialized in drop dusting and eventually became Delta Air Lines.
Coad hired World War I veterans two fly two Jennys and a surplus Havilland DH-48 in hundreds of test flights over the Delta cotton fields. Many of the basic techniques for avoiding wires and drift were pioneered on these flights. The lab's technicians became the hero of mechanics everywhere by adding a gizmo in front of the hopper that blew the dust from a chemical dispenser fastened to the bottom of the aircraft. Prior to this modification, a mechanic had to crouch in the rear of the plane and ram the dust out manually.
The first airplane specifically designed for crop dusting was developed at Texas A&M University in 1950. The Ag-1 was a low wing monoplane with a high cockpit that allowed the pilot to have a better view of things. Not coincidentally, Leland Snow graduated from A&M with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1952.
Snow grew up fascinated with airplanes and flight, both the science and the thrill of it. He went from building model airplanes as a boy to taking flying lessons as a teenager to getting his pilot's license when he was 17. Then he headed off to College Station to study Aeronautical Engineering.
In the summer of his senior year, he took a job flying a crop duster for a company in the Rio Grande Valley. About this same time, he designed and constructed his first agriculture airplane, the S1. He took the plane it Nicaragua in 1957, where he received several orders from South American pilots.
In 1958, he opened Snow Aeronautics in the North Texas community of Olney. He sold the company to Rockwell Standard in 1965, which moved the operation to Georgia in 1970. Snow stayed on with Rockwell Standard for a few years and designed the popular "Thrush" model for the company. When Rockwell moved to Georgia, Snow stayed behind and designed the first Air Tractor, the AT-300, later known as the AT-301. In 1972, he reopened the Olney facility and began cranking out Air Tractors, first by the hundreds and then by the thousands. Soon, Air Tractors were being sold all over the world.
Snow's company turned out the first turbo engine Air Tractor, the At-302, in 1977. Turbine engines made the crop duster's life a lot easier. A turbine-powered spray plane can do more than twice what an older radial-engine plane could do. The AT-802 is the world's largest ag airplane.
Snow never forgot why he was making airplanes or who would be using them. "What we build here is really farm machinery," Snow said when asked about his planes. "It happens to fly, but basically it's farm machinery. Before we start thinking about designing a real exotic, fancy machine, we have to remember that it's just farm machinery. It's going to get chemicals or fertilizer all over it."
An avid runner who competed in marathons well into what might be considered old age, Snow died in 2011, at the age of 80 while jogging near his home in Wichita Falls. He is remembered with a scholarship in his name at Texas A&M University and by generation of pilots who have reaped the benefits of his insights, intelligence and hard work.