Farm Collector Blogs > Looking Back

The Air Tractor

by Sam Moore

Tags: air tractor, rusty iron, Sam Moore,

Air Tractor 

Any dedicated lover of Rusty Iron would jump at the chance to buy an Air Tractor – wouldn’t he? C’mon, who ever heard of an “Air Tractor?” This has to be someone’s idea of a joke, or else it’s one of those weird predictions for the future­­.....Right?

Ah ... but Air Tractors do exist, and are rather rare, with more than two thousand built since their introduction in 1958, although the name Air Tractor wasn’t actually used until 1972.

As far back as anyone knows, the only ways to control weeds were the hoe, hand pulling, tillage, mowing, burning and crop rotation. To kill insects, highly toxic compounds such as Paris green, lead arsenate, hydrocyanic acid, and kerosene-soap emulsion were used on fruits and vegetables, even though the dangers of these substances were recognized. After World War II, science seemed to have the answer to everything. The two major problems that farmers had faced for generations were weeds and harmful insects and science had the answers: DDT and 2,4-D, both of them organic chemicals that had been developed just before, or during the war for military use.

DDT was not only effective against most species of insects, but was believed to be safe for humans and animals as well, while 2,4-D killed most harmful weeds. Many chemicals were applied to crops for other reasons as well, such as to strengthen fruit stems to prevent premature falling, and to keep potatoes and turnips from sprouting in storage, while others stimulated growth in crops like flowers and grapes. Foresters used great quantities of chemical sprays to combat tree diseases, such as chestnut blight, white pine blister rust and gypsy moth.

American farmers eagerly embraced DDT and 2,4-D, and began to liberally apply them to their fields and forests. Sprayers were available to apply the chemicals and, while they worked well enough, they were inadequate for large acreages or forests. To meet this need, pioneering flyers converted ancient biplanes in their backyards, and flew them low over fields spewing a fog of chemicals. It was the beginning of the industry then called crop dusting, but known today as aerial application.

After VJ day in 1945, many military planes were sold as surplus. Some of these, particularly the Stearman, an open cockpit biplane that had been used as a primary trainer, and the Piper Cub forward observer plane, were converted and widely used as aerial dusting and spraying aircraft. They did the job, but many pilots realized that a plane specifically built for the purpose was needed.

One of these pilots was Leland Snow, who was just 21 years old when he began working on an ag-airplane in 1951 in his hometown of Harlingen, Texas. Snow’s first plane, which he called the Snow S-1, was completed in 1953 and he used it for dusting and spraying crops in the Rio Grande Valley. Snow built an improved model S-2 in 1955 and sold his original plane. Unfortunately, the S-2 was wrecked in 1957 and, although Snow had two more planes started, he didn’t have the money to finish them.

In dire need of both money and a place to build his planes, Snow somehow found Olney, a small town about 85 miles northwest of Ft. Worth. Olney’s business leaders advanced money to Snow and found a place where the aircraft could be built. In 1958 the Snow Aeronautical Company began operations with six employees and, by 1965, the plant was turning out a plane every three days.

Continual innovation resulted in improved models and by 1965, 300 of the Snow machines had been sold. This success caught the eye of Rockwell Standard Corporation, who bought the company in 1965 and installed Leland Snow as vice-president and general manager. A new model called the Thrush Commander was added, along with other improvements. Rockwell moved the ag-plane production to Albany, Georgia, in 1970, resulting in Leland Snow's resignation.

He soon began the design of a new aircraft, called the Air Tractor, to be manufactured in Olney. Construction of the new plane began in 1972, and the first Air Tractor, the AT-300, powered by a Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial engine, was tested in 1973. By 1975, twenty Air Tractors had been built and a new, larger manufacturing plant was built.

Over the next thirty five years, a steady stream of improved Air Tractor models have rolled out the factory doors, and today the Air Tractor is considered by many to be the best agricultural plane on the market. Air Tractor, Inc., of which Leland Snow is still president, is celebrating the firm's 50th anniversary in 2011, and offers a product line that includes 400, 500, 630, and 800 gallon aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney piston or turbine engines.

Today, both DDT and 2,4-D have been banned. Safer chemicals, improved training for users and better application methods have helped make aerial application safer. Air Tractors are used all over the world to help farmers control weeds, insects, and diseases in crops, along with spreading seed and fertilizer. Many are used by forestry services to combat Gypsy Moth and blight, spread seeds and fertilizer, and to fight forest fires.

Other Air Tractors are used to spray for flies and mosquitoes, and have even helped clean up oil spills in the Persian Gulf.

While a restored crop dusting plane isn’t every collector’s cup of tea, an Air Tractor would generate a lot of comment at a show.