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The Building of a Bird

Even as we pull a couple of Gs, it’s smooth soaring in a one-of-a-kind plane making only its second flight

Our freshly painted, shiny yellow bird waits outside the Air Tractor factory, resting on a patch of concrete. With blue stripes racing along the sides and up the tail and blue ribbons wrapping the ends of the wings, the airplane looks like a ready-to-open present.

For sure, today is a gift. A couple of months earlier, it was starting to look like my long-held dream of flying in an agricultural aviation plane just wasn’t going to materialize. Most ag planes have just one seat, and a two-seat tandem aircraft wasn’t readily available. Then I talked to Brett Whitten, an ag pilot in the College Station area, who suggested I talk to Grant Lane, an Air Tractor dealer in Rosenberg, who suggested I talk to Mike Rhodes, a production and experimental flight test pilot for Air Tractor, the world’s largest maker of ag aviation aircraft.

Bingo. Rhodes, who will be my personal pilot, and Air Tractor officials said yes to a demonstration flight, and here I am on a windy North Texas morning in March, minutes away from taking off in one of the rarest birds in the world: an AT-504 ag aviation training plane in which instructor and student sit side by side.

The side-by-side seating and dual controls provide superior training, says Rhodes, a flight instructor. “You can tell what a student pilot is thinking if you’re sitting next to them,” he says. “A skilled flight instructor knows what a student’s next move is going to be before they even make it.”

Air Tractor, with facilities just southwest of Olney, introduced this model in 2008: There’s no other two-seat ag plane like it in the world, and the AT-504 sitting on the tarmac today is only the ninth to roll off the assembly line (as of fall 2011, 13 had been built and delivered). This plane is so new, it’s been in the air just once—about 24 hours ago when Rhodes climbed into the cockpit for the initial test flight, pronouncing everything in perfect working order after 1.1 hours of flying. That’s great news for the Air Tractor dealer in Australia who ordered this AT-504 for aerial applications of cotton, rice and wheat fields.

And it’s great news for a nervous reporter as Rhodes slowly walks around the plane, checking its general condition. He pauses at the rear, inspecting the tail wheel and the tail components: the fin and rudder, which control yaw, or the plane’s side-to-side motion; and the horizontal stabilizer and elevator, which control pitch, or the up-and-down motion of the nose.

Two pieces of brown tape beneath the door frame on the passenger side mark two tiny spots needing touch-up paint. Everything on the gleaming plane—including its black-painted registration number, N20411— looks like it’s just been polished, but Rhodes brushes his thumb over the leading edge of the right wing. It’s a little dirty, he says apologetically, explaining that the plane will be ready for shipment overseas after it goes through the final cleaning and paint touch-up process.

Using the left front tire, a landing gear leg, the leading edge of the left wing and the oil cooler scoop as steps, Rhodes climbs on top of the plane to check the oil. Just like you would in a car, he says, replacing the dipstick in the cowling.

We’ve got plenty of fuel, about five hours’ worth, and we’re good to go. Rhodes’ calm demeanor and professionalism have pretty much erased my fears about the flight. But suddenly, staring up at the cockpit, I realize there’s one thing I hadn’t thought about: actually getting in the plane. I don’t see an easy route up.

But the agile, 34-year-old Rhodes, clad in a blue, pull-over jacket, shorts and tennis shoes, makes it look simple as he demonstrates what I’ll need to do on the passenger side: Gripping a handle above his head, and placing his left foot on a steel rest, Rhodes starts his ascent: “Step, step, you can hold onto the door frame …” he says, first planting his left foot on the right wing, “and then stay on the black …” Rhodes says, moving onto sticky, no-slip material called wing walk as he takes a few steps up the wing, then turns to face the cockpit.

“There’s a handle, that’s a handle, that’s a handle, hold on anywhere here …” Rhodes says, leaning forward to grasp the door frame with his left hand. The wind’s blowing about 25 mph, but doesn’t ruffle his short-cropped brown hair. “Probably the best way to do it is put a leg in and hold onto the door frame and then slide in,” Rhodes says, pivoting to thrust his left leg into the cockpit and sit on the frame, his right leg casually dangling outside the plane as he sits halfway down. “That’d be the best way.”

I appreciate Rhodes’ patience, and a few clumsy minutes later, I am sitting beside him in the cockpit. The doors and windows, which are built as a single component, are shut tight (red lettering on the windows says “DO NOT OPEN DOOR IN FLIGHT,” and I certainly don’t intend to), and we’re buckled and strapped in, including our shoulder harnesses. We each have a control stick with a full set of dual controls, and both sides have rudder pedals with toe brakes. But I sure don’t plan on touching anything. Rhodes explains all I have to do is sit tight and keep the area clear around my feet and legs. Roger that.

We don our headsets and helmets, Rhodes starts the engine, and within moments, the smell of jet fuel hits our nostrils. I’ve got a thousand questions about seemingly that same number of gauges in front of me, but all I really need to hear is: “Everything’s in the green,” from Rhodes, who notes that by the time we taxi to the runway, one of three fully paved runways on the 650-acre Olney Municipal Airport grounds that house Air Tractor’s facilities, the plane will be warmed up and ready for takeoff.

We’re at the runway’s edge. Rhodes says he’s ready if I am. I respond, no, I’m ready if YOU are, and the next thing I know, unlike on an airliner when it feels like an eternity before the tires leave the ground, we’re airborne, popping up so fast, I hardly know what happened. We bank left, over brown pastures and green wheat fields. Immediately visible on the flat horizon is the water tower of Olney and the headquarters of Fort Belknap Electric Cooperative, which serves Air Tractor.

Rhodes has been sensitive to my anxiousness all morning, but he’s also gotten the message that I want to experience—in a small way, mind you—what spraying passes are like for ag pilots. So he heads for a wheat field west of the factory. Rhodes didn’t fill the hopper with water for a spraying demonstration because the plane’s spray booms were removed for shipping.

So this is a dry run, but that sure doesn’t take away the thrill factor. With the turbine engine’s blades turning so fast they look like black shadows 20 feet in front of us, Rhodes approaches the field. I see a tree and a two-lane road and maybe a barbed-wire fence, and then whoosh! we’re swooping in for a pass, dropping lower and lower until the tires are 5 feet above the wheat. I’m keenly aware that we’re going 135 mph and flying practically close enough to touch the dirt, but I’m not afraid. The ride is so smooth, it’s like easily sitting in the saddle of a running horse: The combined speed and smoothness of the gait erase any jarring motion.

I glance at Rhodes, whose expression is so calm he might as well be checking the oil again. Then, whoa! Rhodes yanks and banks it, meaning he pulls up hard at the end of the field, giving me a blurry vision of colors and earth and sky, then levels off and turns sharply to the left. My stomach’s feeling a little funny, but I’m OK. Rhodes drops for a second pass and yank and bank part II.

My stomach is definitely in spin cycle now, which makes sense after Rhodes explains that we’ve just pulled a couple of Gs. Two simulated aerial application passes are apparently enough for me.

But yes, I tell Rhodes, I’d love to do a little more sightseeing, including flying over Olney. Much too soon, we’re approaching the same runway, marked by the huge 13 (indicating that the runway points 130 degrees to the southeast) painted in white at the pavement’s end. “Air Tractor 2-0-4-1-1 turning final runway 1-3 Olney,” Rhodes radios to anyone who might be flying in the general area.

The ground comes closer and closer, and like a feather falling to earth, we softly touch down. The landing is so gentle, Rhodes doesn’t even have to use the brakes.

Snow: a legendary name

Really, I owe my demonstration flight to the late Leland Snow, the founder of Air Tractor and inventor of modern aerial-spray aircraft that remains the standard for safety and productivity.

Snow, as described in his autobiography Putting Dreams to Flight (Midwestern State University Press, 2008, as told to aviation journalist Al Cleave), was always drawing up something, whether it was his next daredevil stunt as a young man or coming up with a new airplane design. At Texas A&M University, he fell in love with parachute jumping—in the late 1940s, then truly a risky sport—and thrilled his classmates with one particularly memorable leap from 700 feet that landed him in front of the administration building.

But Snow was destined to build and fly planes, not jump from them, and in 1954, he was invited to bring his first design—the Snow S-1—to the Texas Agricultural Aviation Association conference. The plane had proved its crop-dusting worth in work over Nicaraguan fields, and Snow’s demonstration of the S-1’s ability to handle a heavy hopper load proved to be a launching pad: The name Snow was well on its way to becoming the most respected in ag aviation around the world.

Snow, who died February 20, 2011, at the age of 80 while jogging in his Wichita Falls neighborhood, saw the Air Tractor company he founded in 1972 become the global leader in ag plane production. More than 2,600 Snow-designed aircraft have rolled out of the factory’s doors, and Air Tractors are flown across the United States and in more than 15 countries, including Argentina, Canada, Greece, Israel, New Zealand and Uruguay.

Air Tractor produced 123 aircraft in 2010, with international sales accounting for more than half of its business, and is on pace to make a record 150 this year.

The company is best known for its ag planes, but AT-802 single-engine air tankers—SEATs, which drop fire retardant—have been especially busy this year during Texas’ worst-ever wildfire season. And in October, Texas Forest Service representatives watched one of Air Tractor’s newest firefighting weapons—the AT-802F “Fire Boss”—perform a demonstration at Possum Kingdom Lake. The plane, modified with amphibious water-scooping floats, can land on water. Once it has dropped its initial load, it can return to base for more water or retardant, or it can scoop water from nearby lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

Air Tractors also provide border surveillance in undisclosed countries overseas and narcotic crop eradication: In 2002 and 2007, the U.S. State Department purchased AT-802s for aerial spraying of coca fields in South America. Coca is used to make cocaine.

Snow’s 20th design, the AT-1002, is a solitary red and white bird inside the Air Tractor facilities. Snow got to see the plane’s initial test flight in November 2009, but he never saw the plane officially at work. For that matter, nobody has: The plane—and there is just one right now—is under development and awaiting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification.

But there’s already a line of prospective buyers for this state-of-the-art plane that Snow envisioned as a world-class aerial firefighting weapon. The hopper can hold 1,060 gallons of fire retardant, and a computer-controlled system allows pilots to set precise retardant flow and even distribution.

Perfection is the only option

Inside Air Tractor’s facilities, where Rhodes is giving me a production tour before our demonstration flight in the AT-504, each plane starts with a fuselage frame, a naked frame, whose skeleton—steel tubing—is shipped by truck from Dallas. The tubing is measured, cut to size and fit by hand on the frame.

Sparks fly from a grinding machine, and a bluish-white light glows on a welder’s protective visor: No tubing goes onto a frame until it is perfectly sized and shaped.

Chatting with fuselage workers, Rhodes climbs on the naked frame of an AT-502B—the most popular size Air Tractor and generally used for ag work—excitedly pointing to where the cockpit, instrument panels, hopper, firewall (which separates the engine from the rest of the aircraft), wings and landing gear will go. It’s suddenly easy to visualize the end product: Yes this is an airplane, and it all starts with the crashworthy steel fuselage designed for maximum protection of anyone aboard.

We walk from station to station, talking over the sounds of drilling, grinding and riveting, watching aircraft take shape. Once tubing is in place, the fuselage is sandblasted and epoxy-painted bright yellow. Then the skeleton gets its skin—lightweight aluminum and a fiberglass canopy—which protects the plane from the elements and creates smooth airflow over its body.

Next, the door and windshield frames are hand-fitted, and the skins are marked for painting. The skins are removed, go into the paint shop, and aren’t put back on until the plane is ready for flight. Wings are built in a separate department, getting spars, which provide bending strength; and ribs, which form a wing’s teardrop shape.

From the arrival of steel tubing to the installation of a Pratt & Whitney turboprop engine shipped from Canada, it takes about one month to construct a plane. It’s the building of a bird, and by the time it’s ready to fly, all that’s missing are the feathers.

But you’d believe these high-tech birds can soar after having passed super-strict inspections every step along the way. The process starts with parts: Bolts, for example, must be exactly the right length, matching component specifications. Components must then be assembled correctly, according to dimension specifications. And at each station, the correct materials, dimensions, any special processes and workmanship must conform to drawings.

Everything must fit, and work, perfectly together. Nothing moves forward until it does. Same goes for aesthetics. During the tour, we approach a fully assembled and painted plane. It looks ready to be shipped or flown by ferry pilot to its destination. But a worker is removing the rudder from the tail. Why? Because the blue stripes are slightly off. It has to be repainted.

“A guy doesn’t want to spend a million dollars on an airplane and not have the blue stripe line up with the next blue stripe,” Rhodes says, explaining that nothing escapes scrutiny. “How do the panels fit? Is there a gap? We’ll take ’em off, remake ’em, repaint ’em.”

Ultimately, when an aircraft has been inspected, tested and found to conform to its type design, it is issued a Certificate of Airworthiness from the FAA. At that point, Rhodes says, an airplane is born, with the first entry in its logbook recording the date and declaring that the aircraft meets all FAA and Air Tractor requirements.

The insistence on perfection reflects Snow’s vision for the company, says Air Tractor President Jim Hirsch. “He planned for the day when he couldn’t be here to run everything,” Hirsch says, noting in particular an employee stock-ownership plan implemented by Snow that gives Air Tractor even more long-term sustainability.

Snow never ran out of ideas and energy, Hirsch says, recalling the saying on the Air Tractor founder’s coffee cup: “Workaholics! Thank God it’s Monday!”

On February 26, more than 900 people, including business associates from around the globe, gathered inside Air Tractor’s plant 2A to celebrate Snow’s life. At the ceremony’s end, the hangar doors were opened, and attendees went outside to watch five longtime Air Tractor pilots— Jack Frost, Grant Lane, Jerry Keeter, Pat Kornegay and Troy Vaught, a retired test pilot—fly overhead in missing-man formation.

The yellow and blue planes—representing three of Snow’s designs—streaked across the late-afternoon sky. Friends and family remained outside long after the planes landed, sharing stories about the life of this legendary man as sunset closed the curtains on the day … but not on an incredible story.

Camille Wheeler, associate editor