Early most mornings, you will find Delbert Williams climbing into the cockpit of his Air Tractor, snapping on a helmet and roaring down the runway at the Wasco Airport.
At 73 years old, Williams is an oddity. He is likely Kern County's oldest, regularly flying cropduster -- or preferably "ag pilot" to those in the business.
Age is no big deal to Williams, who commutes from his ranch in Woody to operate Tri-Star Agrinautics in Wasco. He says his hero is Al Grouleff, an 85-year-old San Joaquin cropduster who continues to fly.
But age is a big deal in an industry that has amazed us on the ground for nearly a century with its graceful aerial ballet. This air force of private pilots is getting older. Most pilots now are in their 50s and 60s. It is the exceptional pilot who is healthy enough and willing enough to fly beyond that age.
For the sake of the industry they serve, and the increasing world demand for the food they help grow, many aging pilots now wonder who will fill their seats when they finally are grounded.
"We're in the 911 business," Williams said as he prepared to take off one recent morning. "When the pest control advisor goes into a field, when all alternatives have been tried, when the bad bugs are out-eating the good bugs, they call us in."
Skimming the tops of plants while dodging power lines, skillful cropdusters plant fields, fertilize crops and drop mixtures from the air that help fight the "bad bugs." Safety rules have restricted where and how these pilots work.
Changing crop patterns -- particularly the trading of "king cotton" for tree-planting in the valley -- has reduced the need for their services. And the bigger carrying capacity of today's aircraft has resulted in doing more with less.
But still the need for cropdusters exists and the looming shortage is troublesome.
The California Agricultural Aircraft Association estimates ag pilots in the state log more than 100,000 hours in flight time a year. Terry Gage, the association's president, estimated there are 400 fully licensed ag pilots in California, but only 300 are actively flying.
Many of the old-timer pilots turned their military aviation experience into flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants civilian jobs upon discharge. But much more is demanded of today's ag pilot. He or she must be an "applicator" first and a pilot second.
Licenses from a wide range of alphabet-soup regulatory agencies and the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as extensive training and apprenticeships, are required.
"Part of the challenge is finding the right individual," Gage said. "It's more than flying low over fields. We need people serious about agriculture."
"We don't wear ties and suits to work. We wear jeans and carry lunch buckets. But we are professional, skilled aviators," Williams said.
It's not just the education, licensing and experience requirements that keep new pilots from entering the industry. It's also the high cost of insuring a plane flown by an inexperienced pilot.
Williams learned how to fly when he was a Bakersfield High School student. He said he paid for his lessons by washing and fueling airplanes for Roy Pemberton at Meadows Field. He completed a tour in the Air National Guard. His experience in agriculture began with mixing chemicals and loading cropdusters.
But likely the professional breaks Williams was given as a young pilot he could not afford to give a newcomer today. In fact he said he advises pilots wanting to get into the business to spend some years in the Midwest, where restrictions and the physical challenges may be less and opportunities greater. Then return to California as a more seasoned aviator.
When I called to San Joaquin to check up on Williams' hero, Al Grouleff, he was out flying with his 18-year-old grandson, Greg Grouleff Jr. Greg's father, Greg Sr., answered the phone at the cropdusting business the family has operated for 67 years.
Greg Jr. has the flying bug. He wants to be a cropduster. When his grandfather isn't dusting crops or joyriding in his Stearman biplane, Greg Sr. said he is teaching the youngster the ropes.
But even with a family business to back up his dream, Greg Jr. is being urged to be cautious.
"We want him to have a backup plan," said his father, who has encouraged his only son to enroll in Fresno State and major in agriculture.
Even the old-timers worry about the uncertainty of their industry.
"I think there will always be a need for us," said Allan Bittleston, who runs Vince Crop Dusters Inc. in Buttonwillow. But he admits the need is shrinking.
This article written by Dianne Hardisty appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian in July 2009.