Cropdusting and Biochemical Warfare: Fact and Fiction

by Arch Stanton

I just finished reading a Time magazine article about the potential use of cropdusting aircraft by terrorists. Cropdusting, known as "ag-flying" or "aerial application" in the business, is a peculiar business often shrouded in myth. What I find in this article is yet more agitprop for the idiots. I got a chuckle about the "grounding" of all crop dusters. Anyone in the field knows that the season is over and it would be no big problem for any spraying operation to stay grounded because that is pretty much where they all are anyway this time of year: on the ground.

Ag-planes are very expensive to operate. A 600-hp Ag-Cat burns about 42 gallons of fuel per hour and when you add in maintenance such costs assure these aircraft do not fly unless there is a potential for profit. In other words ag-pilots do not fly their working aircraft simply for pleasure. By the end of the season these aircraft are rolled into the hangar for engine and airframe repairs and rebuilds. So when your 'Cat is in the hanger with the engine removed, it is pretty easy to stay grounded. I would have like to have seen the result of this "grounding" in June or July, during the peak of the season, as the farmers watched their crops be decimated by infestation while the big brains in Washington suffered their fearmongering. One thing is for sure, the politicos would have had quite a few less friends in flyover country had this been the case.

As for the actual application of chemicals or biologicals from an ag-plane -- HA! -- Get real! First off, the average ag-plane travels at a speed of about 90 kn, about the same speeds that most WWI fighters could muster on a good day. The fast ag-plane, Leland Snow's Air Tractor, travels at about 135 kn. You could easily shoot an ag-plane down with light weapons of WWII vintage, like the .50 machine gun. Consider that the average WWII fighter traveled at speeds in the neighborhood of 350 kn and you can readily see the vulnerability of the ag-plane in today's weapons environment.

Ag-planes go so slow by design because there is a problem with proper chemical dispersion at high rates of speeds. For years it was believed that 100 mph was about the optimum operating speed for aerial application. The far-sighted Mr. Snow said it could be done at higher speeds, and so upped application speed by about 35% with his well-designed Air Tractor. If you take a trip out to farm country and look carefully at aerial application in action you will note these guys fly at very low altitude, approximately four to six feet off the crop. The low altitude is necessary to counter drift; as the chemical exits the spray booms, the wind will carry it away from the plane and for obvious reasons swath runs are always done into the wind except under special circumstances.

A side note here, many of you may be familiar with the so called "chemtrails" witnessed by many people around the U.S. The problem of drift from an aircraft flying at 30,000 to 35,000 feet is why it is laughable that people seeing these chemtrails overhead believe they are being affected by chemicals being dispersed from these jet aircraft. If you can see the chemical being dispersed overhead then it will be landing many miles from your location. A chemical dispersed at or above the jet nav altitudes would, even on a seemingly calm day, strike a target location hundreds of miles from its origin. The chemical would drift so far away in fact, that it is highly unlikely that any individual affected by such chemicals would ever actually see the aircraft putting them out.

Wind currents at altitude are something to behold. For an idea of what mother nature is capable of concerning weighted water droplets, look up information about how hail is formed. While you're there check out the jet-stream speeds. Chemtrails are undoubtedly just more fearmongering agitprop from those that spread such diversionary rumors.

Some farmers from the old school believed that you could not get good crop penetration unless the aircraft's wheels were dragging in the crop, so you may well witness this "dragging the wheels through the crop" when a farmer specifically requests (or demands) such application. The minute you get a few hundred feet above ground drift becomes a real problem and spraying a specific target becomes problematic. Of course, when you are spraying a large area with a low-grade toxin like Malathion for an insect like the mosquito, then you stay well above the area because overspray is not too big a worry. But even mosquito sprayers stay just a few hundred feet in the air while over their target area.

This brings me to the next point, that of volume. The average ag-aircraft is woefully inefficient for spraying large areas like a big city. The solution to this problem can easily be witnessed during the summer season in Florida when large aircraft like the DC-3s and DC-6s can be seen spraying vast tracts of mosquito-laden swamp land -- that's the type of aircraft it takes to spray large areas. Anyone who has witnessed this spraying will tell you it is impressive to say the least to see a large two- or four-engine aircraft roaring a few hundred feet off the ground with its booms on. This is not exactly stealth technology in action.

So there are three big problems with using aerial application for a weapon -- speed, volume and toxicity level of the agent. Obviously for the terrorists to consider using ag-aircraft we are talking a relatively low-toxicity chemical or biological agent that would require a fairly large amount of spraying. Perhaps the propaganda masters envision a flight of ten single-engined aircraft flying a perfect V formation while spraying death over a major city at 90 kn, like a scene from a 1930s movie?

We've all heard the talk about superagents like Anthrax or Ebola virus, where a teaspoon of the agent could wipe out a city the size New York. At this level of toxicity all one would need is a Cessna 150 with a Venturi box to drop the chemical through to accomplish the mission. It would be much easier to hide in such a lone aircraft than in a great, growling, 600-hp P&W-powered beast snarling a couple of hundred of feet off the ground. Of course in all likelihood the terrorists would not survive the flight were an agent with this level of toxicity utilized.

So the argument boils down to this when considering the potential aerial application of a chemical or biological agent: If you need something on the order of an ag-plane to disperse your agent then you don't have much of a "weapon of mass destruction," probably just a standard, off-the-shelf nerve agent on the order of an organophosphate toxin like those used for insects. Such chemicals will take time and skill to apply, something that is evidently in short supply for terrorists during an attack. Note that the fourth airliner never made it to the target: Time is critical and you need lots of it at 90kn to 135 kn. If you in fact do have a superchemical or biological toxin, then you certainly do not need an ag-plane to disperse it.

So which is it?: low-tech, off-the-shelf toxins used in the same manner as the low-tech solution of using commercial airliners as weapons? Undoubtedly little damage would be done in such an attack before the ag-plane would be brought down by any number of means, like folks with various types of weapons including civilian hunters armed with hunting rifles. Or super high tech weapons of mass destruction including incredibly high-level-toxicity chemical and biological agents that clearly do not require a large, low and slow aircraft to deliver?

My take on the matter is that the terrorists MAY have assessed the potential of using aerial application using relatively low-level toxins for an attack, but after finding out the problems involved, dismissed the idea as unworkable and moved on to the seizing a jet airliner for their method of attack. All in all I would say, judging from past technological performance of terrorists both here and in the Middle East, if you see terrorists using weapons of any higher technology than box cutters or slingshots, you need to be highly suspicious of just who is actually doing the terrorizing.


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