WHARTON--As the recent terrorist attack struck the Pentagon and New York's World Trade Center, Texas pilot Jim Folks was where one would have expected him to be--in the air, enjoying the peaceful solitude and quiet satisfaction of a job he's been doing for more than two decades. Never caught up in the romantic notion of the nomadic barnstormer historically associated with his profession, he's often explained to family and friends how life under the radar, both literally and figuratively, has suited him just fine. Folks has been a crop duster since age 20, flying the past 14 years for Bay City-based Ag Aviation Service.
He's enjoyed the work, the comfortable living it affords him and his wife, Debbie, and the knowledge he's providing a valuable and necessary service to the farming community.
On that September 11 morning, after setting his biplane down and walking into the hangar office, he found his co-workers silently huddled in front of a television. The world he'd known just minutes earlier while spraying nearby rice fields had suddenly and dramatically changed. Within hours of the disasters in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Folks and thousands of pilots like him were quickly grounded. Soon, wary doomsayers would begin suggesting that his industry might soon become the terrorists' next tool of death and destruction.
"It all seemed so unreal, so unbelievable," the 42-year-old crop duster says.
In the days that followed, that feeling would only grow. Like other crop dusters across the nation, Folks has now had his employment history thoroughly examined by the FBI. His employer, Ronnie Fehmel, has had transponders installed on each of the seven planes he owns so their location can now be immediately determined. All things his pilots had taken for granted over the years have now changed.
"We have the South Texas Nuclear Project plant near Bay City," Folks says, "and I've been flying around it and over it for years without a second thought. But now, if I'm going to be flying anywhere near it I have to contact the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to get clearance."
Folks and his fellow fliers are instructed to be certain their planes are locked inside the company hangar at the end of the workday. "We have a very secure, fenced-in facility for our planes," he says. "But that's not the case with a lot of crop dusters around the state. There are many who just tie down their planes at the end of the runway when the day is over."
In such cases, the FAA has suggested that owners remove some strategic part that will, in effect, disable the planes.
Folks understands the current caution. At the same time, he questions just how realistic a chemical or biological threat launched from stolen crop duster planes might be. "But," he quickly adds, "who would have thought hijackers would be flying commercial airliners into the Pentagon and office buildings in Manhattan?"
Triggering the authorities' concern was the fact that a crop-dusting manual was discovered among the belongings of Zacarias Moussaoui, a material witness in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Then came a report from Belle Glade, Florida, that Mohamed Atta, one of the suspected hijackers who flew a plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center, had twice visited a crop-dusting operation there. A mechanic remembered Atta and another "Arab-looking" man asking about such things as the capacity of the planes, how much fuel they held and other details.
It was such reports that prompted the National Agricultural Aviation Association to warn its members to "be vigilant of any suspicious activity relative to the use, training in or acquisition of dangerous chemicals or any suspicious behavior by employees or customers."
How realistic is the possibility of some kind of germ warfare launched from the biplanes normally flown by crop dusters? "The first thing that comes to mind," Folks says, "is the very basic fact that these planes are not that easy to fly. If someone were to steal one with plans of using it for terroristic purposes, he'd need a great deal of flight training. And I'm willing to bet the authorities now know everything there is to know about everyone who has gone through that degree of training.
Folks notes that the tanks on his plane will carry 400 gallons and that there are some crop dusters with a capacity to carry loads of up to 800 gallons. Most have a fuel capacity of 115-120 gallons and the capability of staying in the air for two hours while flying 125 mph. In many cases, he admits, that would put even rural-based planes in range of major metropolitan areas in the state. "So, sure, if someone had access to some kind of deadly chemical and could somehow get it loaded into a crop duster and release it over a city, yes, it could do a great deal of damage," he admits.
There are, in fact, a great number of "ifs" that block the path to any such doomsday plot. Terrorism by crop duster, most in the industry agree, is unlikely.
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"What I'm reading in the chat rooms visited by [crop dusting] pilots," Folks says, "is that the caution being exercised is understandable but is really just a pain in the ass." In nearby San Benito, Pat Kornegay, current president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, recently told The Associated Press that he also understands the concern of the FBI and the FAA. "At the same time, we've got farmers who depend on us. While we were sitting on the ground, insects and disease were eating at our nation's crops."
He's skeptical that germ warfare can be effectively fought with crop dusters and agrees with Folks that the industry's single pilot planes are difficult to fly and take years to master. And most chemical and biological materials that a terrorist might attempt to use, he adds, are not in forms that would easily mix with the liquids and pellets used in agriculture treatment.
Various experts quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that the viruses, bacteria and poisons most likely to be used by terrorists are not only very difficult to effectively disperse but almost impossible to store for any length of time.
Which is to say that the current focus on crop dusters and the danger they might pose is but another example of the new level of awareness being exercised today. In a recent statement, in fact, the FBI said as much: "In an abundance of caution, the FBI has taken a number of steps in reaction to every bit of information and threats received over the course of this investigation."