A Career in the Clouds

Posted: June 1, 2023 at 9:30 am

For pilot Dickie Sherman, five decades of piloting a crop-dusting plane has been an aerial adventure.

By Jodi Helmer

After high school, Richard “Dickie” Sherman had two options: go to college or go to Vietnam. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserves and spent two years working on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. In 1972, Sherman returned to his hometown of Minturn with one goal: get his pilot’s license and take to the skies.

Sherman moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to work for the ground crew for Piedmont Airlines and used his G.I. Bill to take flying lessons at the local VA flight school.

Sherman had only taken a few lessons when his cousin made him an offer: move back to Minturn and run the ground operation for his aerial application (crop dusting) business, Taylor and Page Flying Service, and he could log as many hours as he needed to obtain his commercial pilot’s license during the off season. Once he’d earned his commercial license, Taylor and Page Flying Service would bring him on as a pilot.

Sherman didn’t hesitate to accept the offer. He joined Taylor and Page Flying Service in 1973—the same year he got both his private and commercial licenses—and he’s been in the cockpit ever since.

“When I was a little boy, I was raised on a farm, and I’ll never forget I woke up one morning to this awful racket out over the field. I went out and there was an old [pilot] dusting cotton, and that thing fascinated me,” he says. “I was always interested in it…and it was a good way to make a living.”

High Flying Adventures

Sherman sprayed insecticide, fungicide and fertilizer on crops ranging from tobacco and cotton to corn and wheat—and he didn’t just zigzag over fields throughout North and South Carolina; he also logged thousands of air miles flying to other states.

He accepted a contract to spray fire ants in Texas and transported a plane from Georgia to Oklahoma; the job paid $200 in expenses; it was a decent paycheck in the 1970s but that wasn’t the only reason Sherman took the jobs.

“It was an adventure to me,” he says. “It’s an exciting profession. Back then, GPS was just three letters in the alphabet; these planes didn’t have radios in them. You took sectional charts, aeronautical charts and compasses and charted your route.”

Along the way, Sherman took in some amazing views— and he had one close call.

He was offered a job spraying wheat in Oklahoma. He arrived at the airstrip, picked a plane, grabbed local maps and prepared to take off from the runway of the former World War II military base when the engine cut out.

“The plane started falling almost immediately; I flipped on the emergency fuel boost pumps…and I managed to stagger around and landed,” he recalls. “I pulled up in front of the hanger and the shop foreman and a mechanic were standing there and I said, ‘That darn thing just quit on me,’ and come to find out there was another [pilot] who had some issues with the engine on that airplane and he brought it in for work. They worked on it but nobody test flew it. I was the test pilot. It’s the only engine failure I’ve ever had.”

Sherman started out flying a Stearman airplane, a model he calls “the backbone of the agricultural aviation business” because the planes could be purchased from government surplus for $1,500 after World War II. It’s one of the reasons that military pilots were among the original crop dusters.

Sherman later upgraded to a Grumann Ag-Cat in the 1980s because the turbine engines were much more productive than older aircraft with reciprocating engines. He still flies the same Ag-Cat four decades later. He tried newer models, but nothing compared to the feeling and performance of the vintage aircraft.

Admiring the View

The experience of piloting planes for others helped Sherman build a confidence that his own aerial application business could take flight. He started Minturn Spraying in 1978. At one time, he ran three planes and hired two additional pilots to manage the volume of work.

“In any service business, if you do good work and you have a good attitude towards your customers [and] put them first, the money will come,” he says. “I have found that to be true.”

Minturn Spraying has been in business for 51 years. Sherman works almost exclusively from his home airstrip, contracting with farmers in North and South Carolina for their fertilizer, pesticide and disease management needs.

Sherman juggles more than 100 different clients and, in some cases, he’s provided aerial application services for three generations of farmers. The long-term relationships he’s built with local farmers has been one the highlights of his career.

“It takes a lifetime to develop the relationships with the people I work for and the rapport we have,” he says. “We have mutual respect, and I hope that they consider me one of the best in my field.”

A lot has changed since Sherman began flying more than five decades ago. For starters, farms have gotten much bigger. Instead of spraying a patchwork of small fields, making multiple back and forth passes to hit all of the crops, Sherman sprays fewer, larger fields; he also sprays far fewer tobacco crops than he did in the 1970s. The changes have made his role as an aerial applicator much easier.

“I used to spray 1,000 acres or more of tobacco every week and the fields were so small and [the farmers] didn’t care where it was planted,” he says. “You could have a three-acre field with a house and a barn…and houses in our part of the country had powerlines running to the old tenant houses and the back of the barns…there were so many obstacles and you had to get all of that area without killing the chickens. It was brutally hard work.”

As farms get bigger and technology advances, the demand for crop dusters gets smaller. More farmers have turned to GPS-powered ground spraying equipment or started experimenting with drone sprayers. A DIY approach makes sense, according to Sherman, because there aren’t enough pilots stepping in to take the flight controls.

Sherman estimates there were 137 applicator businesses and 400 licensed pilots in South Carolina when he started. Now, he estimates Minturn Spraying is one of just 10 crop dusting companies operating in the state. In fact, most of the members of North Carolina Agricultural Aviation Association are around the same age as Sherman, and the industry is struggling to attract new entrants.

“I could double the size of my business if I could get the labor,” he says. “The young guys don’t want the work…they don’t want to put the hours in, working daylight until dark.”

Sherman’s son, Ethan, got his commercial pilot’s license but had no interest in soaring through the skies and doing aerial application. Instead, he opted to remain on solid ground. Sherman started Silva Tech, a ground application business specializing in forestry application, in 1986, and Ethan manages all in-filed application services for the operation.

Throughout the years, Sherman didn’t just work hard to satisfy his customers. He also strived for skill and safety, signing up for regular continuing education credits and networking with other aerial applicators to talk about the business and best practices.

After decades of being tied to his business and skipping vacations to ensure local farmers received aerial application services, Sherman is starting to think about retirement. He’d like to make a trip to Montana where his father, a former Air Force pilot and flight instructor at Maxton Army Air Base in Laurinburg, North Carolina, now lives. But he knows that grounding his plane will mark the end of an era.

“When I decide to [retire] my business will probably cease,” he says.

But logging more than 20,000 flying hours has taught Sherman to take a 20,000-foot view of his career and his life.

“There haven’t been many dull moments and it’s been constantly challenging and I liked that,” he says. “I work for some of the best farmers in the world and to do good work and make them happy is a gratifying thing.”