Editor’s Note: Reader Dave Sandidge’s uncle, Bernard Threet, was an ag pilot in the Mississippi Delta region for many years. After his uncle’s recent death, Sandidge wanted to honor him by sharing the story of his memorable cross-country in a Piper Cub crop duster. And what a story it is.
In early 1954, at twenty-seven years of age, I was working at Baxter Laboratories in Cleveland, Mississippi mixing and preparing chemical compounds for the injection molding machines they used to manufacture plastic medical products for hospitals and clinics. I had already earned my Private Pilot’s license at the Cleveland airport – a small, dual-runway, grass field in the heart of the Delta region. Mr. Henry Elliot, a soft-spoken gentleman who helped pioneer crop dusting in Mississippi back in the 1920s, taught me how to pilot an airplane just as the Wright brothers had taught him. After receiving my license in 1953, I continued on with my training and earned a commercial license in late 1954.
I had always been fascinated with airplanes and flying, and having grown up on a farm I knew I wanted to enter professional agricultural flying. So I began working for Johnny Dorr in Merigold, Mississippi during my vacations from Baxter Laboratories – helping out around his ag flying school doing odd jobs in the maintenance shop to pick up some flying time in a Piper Cub. Johnny was an iconic aviation figure both during and after WWII. He founded the first agriculture flying school in Mississippi in the late 1940s. It was from there that I first began spraying crops in the spring of 1955 in a converted J-3 Cub.
A few weeks went by and Johnny decided he would let me start spraying poison on some cotton fields between Merigold and Shelby in one of his Stearman biplanes. These were converted World War II trainers equipped with 225 horsepower engines that he used to teach his Ag students in. They were reliable because they hardly ever broke down, but they were also somewhat under-powered for hauling heavy loads out of short grass strips and maneuvering close to the ground on those steamy Mississippi Delta days. It was while flying Johnny’s Stearmans that I learned the importance of keeping the ball centered in the race while turning; coordination on the controls was imperative. Some of my peers didn’t learn that before they augured in.
Back during that time most agricultural spraying outfits were more akin to gypsy barnstormers than they were fixed-base companies. They’d set up operations and start spraying in the early part of the year way down south in Texas or Florida. Then, after the days became warmer and longer, they’d pack up and work their way north to Louisiana, Mississippi and on up the river valley toward Illinois and Ohio as the planting seasons became optimal for the specific areas. One of these traveling concerns was based in Mercedes, Texas, an agrarian, one-horse town ten miles north of the Mexican border – not too far west of Brownsville.
One of the men who owned and operated it, Glen Accord, partnered with a friend of Johnny’s from Shelby, John Robert Hollingsworth, in 1955 to buy a spritely, rebuilt Piper Cub sprayer for John to fly up in Mississippi. It was a Cub with more powerful engine. This arrangement ensured the airplane had a lot better performance, but it also made it nose heavy. All-in-all, it was a much better airplane for John Robert to fly doing agricultural work in Mississippi, but it was sitting in a hangar in south Texas. So they had to figure out who was going to fly it up north to Shelby.
John Robert knew me and my situation – I had just started my vacation from Baxter and would do just about anything to get in the air – so he called me that afternoon at Johnny Dorr’s field and asked if I’d be interested in flying his new J-3 duster back to Mississippi from South Texas. There wasn’t any money in it, but he also said he’d let me fly it in spraying operations some if I did. Well, without hesitation I jumped on the offer with a very enthusiastic “yes.” He gave me a few details about the flight over the phone, and said Glen would send me an airline ticket to Mercedes as soon as he could. I don’t think I slept a wink for the next three days.
The next Saturday, Daddy and Momma drove me all the way up to Memphis, Tennessee to catch the flight to Houston, Texas, where I was to change planes for the final leg down to Brownsville. From there I’d either hire a taxi or ride the Greyhound the last few miles west to Mercedes.
I didn’t spend any time in Mercedes because, when I arrived at the field just south of town I saw some fellows already had the airplane out of the hangar sitting in the grass; it was fueled and ready to go. Glen and another partner of his were there waiting for me, and about the third question Glen asked me was where I intended to land first for fuel. I was familiar with the range of a normal J-3, about 160 miles with no wind, and I had thought I’d make the first stop someplace south of Houston.
What they told me set me back on my heels. Glen said due to the bigger engine and a smaller fuel tank, this airplane had a range of barely over ninety miles in a calm wind – or just over an hour’s worth of flying before I’d have to land for fuel. His partner then spoke up and said not to worry because they had been generous enough to install a reserve gas tank for my benefit – a five-gallon Western Auto jerry can that sat in the empty hopper tank in the front seat. The extra fuel would get me another seventy miles down the road, but I’d have to land somewhere to pour it in the airplane’s fuel tank first. Anyway, I had to rethink the entire flight – adding many more fuel stops.
After squaring things with Glen I loaded my overnight kit in the back and took off from Mercedes headed north for Falfurrias, Texas – what seemed like just a stone’s throw up the road. I had drawn a line on my map from Mercedes to Falfurrias and observed there weren’t many usable landmarks between the two airports – mostly scrub and bush. VFR charts were notoriously bare of details in the 1950s; however, I saw and circled a couple of grain silos marked on the chart; so I could watch for those in order to check my magnetic course. I was holding a very accurate compass heading for twenty minutes; but even so, the first grain silo never did appear.
I climbed higher in an attempt to see further ahead and eventually saw one several miles off to my right – almost ninety degrees. I banked the airplane and headed over that way, but all the while I was wondering how in the world I could have gotten almost eight miles off course after flying only twenty minutes. In due time it dawned on me that the compass was no good at all. It was many degrees off from what it should have been reading. As a result, we (the airplane and I), got back on course about the time I had to land at Falfurrias. I turned around to come in from the east, touched down and taxied to the white-shingled office shack next to the airport rotating beacon tower. Hopping out of the airplane I realized that, this being a quiet Sunday afternoon, there was no one attending the airport to sell me any gas. So I was forced to use the five-gallon can after the first landing.
The trip continued like that all the way up the Texas coast – watching the section lines, marking off check points, and all-the-while trying to make some sense out of that crazy compass. The only sure way I could identify any particular town was to swoop down and read the name on the water tank. In any event, I made it to Victoria, then to El Campo and Rosenburg, and finally to a small grass field just south of Houston. It was there that I realized I was going need a reliable compass in order to be successful navigating my way across the eastern part of the state with its pine forests stretching for many miles in all directions.
The airport manager happened to have one for sale at the counter, so I bought it. He even let me borrow some tools in order to install it myself. After about a half hour I got the thing in okay, but while swinging it to test its accuracy I concluded it wasn’t going to work either. There was something in the airplane somewhere causing any magnetic compass to bobble back and forth like a drunken sailor. So, I removed it and took it back to the manager to get a refund, but he said he had just been to the bank deposit box to drop in the take for the day and didn’t have any more cash. After a while though, he must have taken pity on me because, between him and the mechanic in the hangar, they eventually came up with enough money to give me my refund.
From South Houston we flew on to Beaumont, Texas, where they had a blacktop runway. I refueled the airplane and bought a sandwich and a cup of coffee from the airport café. While there I made careful notations about the course line to my next stop, Jasper. That part of east Texas was flat and featureless; there was nothing but trees for miles and miles. I noticed on my chart that two highways led into Jasper – one from the southwest and one from the southeast. I hoped to arrive over the town right on course, but if I was off, either to the east or west, I’d intercept one of the two highways and follow it to the airport – kind of like a funnel. I took off from Beaumont and circled the field to the southwest. Then I passed over the runway directly on course for Jasper. There would be no more checkpoints until I arrived there.
The further north and east we flew the hazier it became out ahead of us. The visibility was dropping, and there were several large clouds building off to the northwest through the northeast. I wondered if we would run into rain showers before sunset. I strained my eyes to see ahead, and after a while we came right up on the town of Jasper. I guess fate was with us because we hit the airport on the nose.
After landing I asked the older fellow who met me to top off the gas. As he did so I reached into the hopper tank, got the five-gallon gas can and set it on the ground to make sure it was full. He saw it and asked what it was for. I told him I needed the five gallons because the airplane’s fuel capacity would only allow us to go about ninety miles at a time between fuel stops. He got the same startled look on his face that I must have had on mine when I first heard it, but he didn’t say anything. He thought about it for a while though, because while walking back to the office after he was finished he asked me first where I was headed. I told him to Shelby, Mississippi. He then asked me where my next stop for gas would be, and I told him Many, Louisiana and then on to Natchitoches.
Those pronunciations were both wrong, and with somewhat of an irritated smirk he promptly corrected me: (Man´-E) and (Nack´-o-dish). He said Many was unattended and didn’t have any gas, but that I could land there and pour my five gallons into the airplane tank. He thought that might be barely enough to get me as far as Natchitoches, but he wasn’t sure. He seemed very concerned about my future, and he then asked how much total flying time I had. I answered, “Just enough to get a commercial license.” Stepping through the office doorway I saw him shaking his head back and forth as if to emphasize what he was probably thinking: “Son, you ain’t never gonna make it.” At that point I wondered who had more doubt about my success – him, or me.
I paid him for the gas and headed down the hall to use the men’s room. They had a large aeronautical map pasted on the hallway wall, so I stopped and checked my route ahead. There was a pipeline on it running all the way from Jasper to way past Natchitoches that my map didn’t have, so I took out my pencil and drew it on my chart. Then I headed back out, took off and got on that pipeline for Many.
Climbing to about 1500 feet took a few minutes, and the cooler air was refreshing, but up at that altitude it became evident that the pipeline right-of-way was the only open space in the woods from horizon to horizon. If the engine quit we’d have to land there. The problem with that was it hadn’t been cleared; it was logs and gullies from tree line to tree line; no other work had been done. Nevertheless, it was the only way we could go; it was better than flying over solid forest. As we flew on, the haze and cloudiness increased in the late afternoon, and I thought I saw rain up ahead in the murkiness. Sure enough, in just a little bit as we approached the strip at Many, I saw heavy rain coming down in the entire area, and it didn’t look like it was in any hurry to move on through. So I turned around and headed back toward Jasper.
I started to sweat a little because I didn’t have enough fuel left to get there. For just a second or two I thought I was going to be forced to find someplace along that pipeline to set her down and pour in my five gallons, but I suddenly remembered that I had passed over a county highway cut through the trees a ways back. So we continued on southwest until we came up on it after only ten minutes or so.
From early on in his instruction in flying a student pilot is taught that landing anywhere except an approved airport or landing area is prohibited; the CAA could revoke a pilot’s license in a heartbeat for doing so without good reason. All this weighed heavily on my mind as I circled the highway below. The road looked good for a landing; there wasn’t much traffic, and it was straight and flat; but I still didn’t want to risk a dunking in the hot water I could get into if I got caught landing on it. So even though I was about to have a real emergency I was more scared of landing on the highway. Therefore, maybe against my better judgment, I continued on towards Jasper until I saw a flat stretch along the pipeline right of way that might give me just enough room to land on and get stopped.
I didn’t have enough time to do a careful survey of the landing area, so I came right around from the west in a steep descent and aimed for the short patch of logging road on the north side of the pipeline that looked clear of debris. There was a temporary power line running across the threshold area, so I had to be fairly aggressive in side slipping it in. I touched down okay, but the red soil was pretty soft. I got on the brakes as much as I could to try to stop her in the short distance available, but with the bigger engine up front I had to be very careful, because the airplane was already nose heavy; I could have flipped her over on her back if had I used too much braking.
In the last seconds I saw a gully piled high with logs and cut brush barely a few yards ahead, and I didn’t think she was going to get stopped in time before we ran off the edge and plunged down into it. But with just feet to go she hit a softer patch of dirt and came to an abrupt halt. I cut the switch, wiped my forehead and let out a big sigh of relief. I climbed out and checked her over. She didn’t seem to have any damage anywhere, so after pouring in the five gallons, I hauled her tail around to the edge of the gully, started her back up and made a short-field takeoff towards the west. We spent that night in Jasper.
The next day, Monday, was mostly uneventful. We left Jasper in the morning in pretty good visibility and found fuel at almost all the stops we made. I only used the five-gallon can two times before we finally made it back to Shelby. But it was raining pretty hard at the airport there, so I turned around and flew back the few miles to Merigold and landed at Johnny Dorr’s grass field along Highway 61.
As it turned out, while I was flying back to Mississippi in the new Cub John Robert broke his hand when the prop on the Cub sprayer kicked back while he was cranking it; he was going to be out of flying for a little while. But that worked out fine for me because my escapade with the big-engine Cub impressed him enough to where he felt encouraged to ask me to fill in for him while he was recuperating. So I had two airplanes to fly during that time I was still on vacation from the job at Baxter. I did okay with all the spraying; the customers seemed satisfied with my work, and that pleased John Robert even more. He soon asked me to continue flying in the evenings after my vacation was over. So I flew all that summer and eventually left Baxter Laboratories to fly agricultural work full-time.
Every time he’d call from South Texas, Glen Accord would laugh and tease me about my cross-country Cub adventure and if I still had the Western Auto can. Apparently, the whole thing made a good impression on him, too; when the growing season in Mississippi was over that year he called again and asked if I would be interested in flying the airplane back down to Mercedes over Thanksgiving. I told him I thought I might have the time but that I’d have to see about it. I think he could tell I really didn’t want to do it, but that didn’t stop him from calling me every few days. The thing was, every time he’d call he would change his mind about where he wanted it to go – asking me first to fly it to Mercedes, then to Dallas, then Monroe, then to someplace else I can’t remember.
I finally told him I didn’t want to fly it anymore, and that maybe it was time for someone else to have an adventure of his own.