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WOOM! Whitten’s Picture-Perfect Day of Flying

Cotton leaves ripple in the wake of ag plane’s passage

The faded orange wind sock is stretched out stiff. It’s photo day—and, we hope, flying day—at Brett Whitten’s place near Snook where the palm trees that he planted almost two decades ago wave their brisk welcome.

Whitten’s had a few flying jobs over the past several days, but it’s been slow. Here it is June 14, and crops that should be green and growing are shriveling in the unrelenting heat.

Whitten and photographer Wyatt McSpadden, who’s here to document the ag pilot in flight, convene at the hangar. Odds are, Whitten won’t make any real spraying runs today—it’s too windy to spray weed-killing herbicide—so he’s agreed to put water in the plane’s hopper for visual effect. That way, McSpadden can shoot close up without fear of getting chemicals sprayed on him.

McSpadden coaxes Whitten into the cockpit of the plane that recently got its overhauled engine back, but the pilot/rancher is having a hard time sitting still for pictures. His mind is at the corrals half a mile away where he’s got some heifers to pen.

Whitten climbs down from the plane, and he, Tank (his ever-faithful canine companion) and I pile into the four-wheeler. McSpadden, with Whitten’s blessings, stays behind to try taping a camera to the spray boom of the other plane (now with working air conditioning, thanks to a new compressor) that will be flown this afternoon. If the camera stays in place, the pictures could be incredible.

At the corrals, Whitten and 22-year-old Jeff Cunningham, a Texas A&M University senior who works part time for Whitten, spray the heifers for flies. Whitten’s concerned about the calving potential of one heifer in particular, and right on cue, veterinarian Juan Romano pulls up. “Buenos días,” says Romano, a native of Uruguay who’s accompanied by five, fourth-year students from the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

Jennifer Beattie, Bridget Feldhaus, Alison Gonsalvez, Emily Latimer and Lauren Peruffo, each clad in blue, short-sleeved Dickies coveralls, rubber boots and protective plastic covering the length of one arm, take turns rectally palpating, or examining, the heifer secured in a squeeze chute. Romano, associate professor of the college’s Large Animal Clinical Sciences department, examines the heifer and says her calving potential is weak. Whitten decides to sell the heifer immediately, grabs his cell phone off his belt and tells his other worker, John Terilli, to drive the stock trailer over.

Soon, the heifer’s loaded, and Terilli’s ready to haul her away. A local auction sale started 30 minutes ago. “This isn’t the space shuttle—get going, John!” Whitten hollers.

Late afternoon rolls around, and Whitten’s finally ready to fly for the cameras: the one affixed to the plane’s spray boom (he and McSpadden further secured it with clamps) and the handheld one that McSpadden will shoot with from the ground. At 5:02 p.m., with 100 gallons of water in the 350-gallon hopper, Whitten’s in the cockpit.

The plane I’ve waited to see fly taxis to the runway. Whitten waves goodbye and accelerates down the pavement. My heart soars as his tires leave the strip. McSpadden’s waiting in a cotton field five miles away where he’ll operate the camera by remote radio control.

Shortly, he and Whitten are back at the hangar. The camera, miraculously, stayed in place, and the pictures are fantastic. Now, it’s time for round two: This time, in the same field, Whitten will make several water-spraying passes over McSpadden, who first will be stationed 25 feet high on the walkway of an oil storage tank and then below, in a cotton field.

Cunningham, who’s interested in becoming an ag or military pilot, and I ride with McSpadden to the field. Whitten gives us a head start, and we climb to the oil tank walkway. Then, we see Whitten coming, over the green cotton and past a center-pivot irrigation system. Closer, closer, then pulling up … WOOM! The plane zooms overhead at a safe distance.

Down in the field, for the next series of photos, I sit one row over from McSpadden. We’re enveloped by the knee-high, irrigated cotton that’s putting on pink blooms and green bolls, a rare sight this summer. Whitten’s circling high above us and then drops and levels off for a pass, his tires almost touching the leaves as he flies straight at us. Closer, closer and … WOOM! He pulls up, and I look up, just catching a glimpse of the belly of the plane. The cotton leaves ripple in the wake of his passage, and sprayed water falls on me like rain—if only it were.

His final passes made, Whitten banks left, to the southwest, and heads home, the yellow plane fading from sight on the horizon. Back in Whitten’s office, we crowd around McSpadden’s camera. While Cunningham and I ooh and aah over McSpadden’s spectacular digital images, Whitten furrows his brow: Something looks a little off on his spray pattern. Do we see it? Uh, no. Whitten’s not convinced and scrutinizes the images more closely.

This field belongs to one of his customers. During real spraying passes, each nozzle on the spray boom must be operating flawlessly. The life and health of crops are at stake. Whitten leans closer to the camera, taking one more long, hard look. Yep, he’s still worried that something’s wrong. While we just see a breathtaking picture, Whitten sees spray patterns that aren’t exactly right.

And for this perfectionist, that’s just wrong. McSpadden’s photos are taking on new meaning. Even though Whitten only sprayed water today, each pass is now proving a valuable diagnostic tool: Every drop counts.

Camille Wheeler, associate editor