aerial crop dusting flight

View of the first aerial application and aerial crop dusting flight flown by Army test pilot Lt. John A. Macready on Aug. 3, 1921. The application was made upwind of a grove of catalpa trees infested by sphinx moth larvae. The arrow is pointed at the catalpa grove.

August 3rd is the 100th anniversary of an important event backing up Ohio’s claim as the “Birthplace of Aviation.”

In 1921, less than two decades after the Wright Brothers became the first to achieve powered flight, another milestone in aviation history occurred 20 miles from the Dayton bicycle shop where Wilbur and Orville invented the airplane. Over a Catalpa tree grove near Troy, an experiment set up by the Ohio Department of Agriculture resulted in the first documented use of an airplane to apply crop protection materials.

The history-making flight came as Ohio researchers were desperate for a way to prevent sphinx moth caterpillars from ravaging the state’s valuable Catalpa tree crop. Controlling the caterpillars with insecticide dust dropped from an airplane was a far-fetched proposition 1921, when farmers spread insecticides by hand and aviation was still in its infancy.

U.S. Army test pilot, Lt. John Macready, taking off from what was then an aviation experiment station at McCook Field in Dayton, applied the insecticide from a World War I surplus biplane, using an improvised spreader device to deposit the dust evenly.

The idea worked. The insect pests were successfully dispatched; the trees grown for use as telegraph poles and fenceposts were saved; and a practice now vital to crop production, wildfire-fighting and mosquito control was born. 

“The last century has brought remarkable innovation and technological advancement in agricultural production as a whole,” notes Andrew Moore, CEO of the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA). “And no segment of agriculture exemplifies that progress more than aerial application.” 

The inaugural aerial application flight a century ago was just the precursor of what was to come.

Macready’s lightweight, underpowered aircraft has evolved to the 1200 horsepower, turbine engine planes and high-performance helicopters that today treat more than 127 million acres of U.S. cropland each year. And the hand-cranked application device used in the 1921 flight has given way to the high-tech spray equipment, GPS systems and on-board data analytics capabilities that make possible the precision crop protection required on the farm today. 

“Farming in the 21st century is a complex balance of maximizing yields while preserving sustainability,” Moore says. “Aerial applicators’ efficiency and ability to apply fertilizer or attack pests at just the right time play a key role in helping farmers meet those demands.

“Along with its essential place in agriculture, aerial application has become an important tool in forest management and wildfire fighting, as well as in public health for mosquito control. It’s a safe bet that what began as an experiment in 1921 will continue to offer solutions to other challenges in the coming decades, like climate change and the increasing demand for food.”

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