Harold Blackledge, a 79-year-old agricultural pilot, stands in front of his 1975 Piper Pawnee Brave in one of his hangars at the Watonga Regional Airport. The drought — the worst he's seen — has dried up aerial spraying work in Oklahoma, he says.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Drought Keeps Oklahoma Pilot Grounded

  • Joe Wertz

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Harold Blackledge, a 79-year-old agricultural pilot, stands in front of his 1975 Piper Pawnee Brave in one of his hangars at the Watonga Regional Airport. The drought — the worst he's seen — has dried up aerial spraying work in Oklahoma, he says.

The drought that settled into Oklahoma last year is getting worse.

Almost the entire state is in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma are worried. Very little farmland here is irrigated, and wells are running dry. Hay, soybeans, cotton and even pecans are withering.

It’s hurting business owners such as Harold Blackledge, an agricultural pilot who makes his living spraying farmland for weeds and pests.

U.S. Drought Monitor

Almost the entire state is under "extreme" or "exceptional" drought conditions, according to data from the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Blackledge, 79, has been an agricultural aviator for 30 years. He has three spray planes in two hangars at the Watonga Regional Airport, 70 miles northwest of Oklahoma City.

He started flying in Nebraska, and began his Oklahoma business in the late 1980s. Blackledge has survived a lot of droughts over the years, but says the current one is the worst he’s experienced.

“This year,” he says, “the summer crops they’d normally plant are burned up.”

Under ideal conditions, Blackledge would be helping with those crops. And ranchers would be calling him to spray herbicide over pastures.

The poison kills weeds and other wild brush that overtake the grass livestock graze on. “So they’ll have more production of the good grasses,” Blackledge says, and “the cattle have a decent pasture.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture / National Agricultural Statistics Service

This map shows the percentage of irrigated land in farm acreage throughout the U.S. This map uses 2007 data, which is the most recent available. Click for a larger version.

But the herbicide doesn’t work if plants — and weeds — aren’t growing.

The little work Blackledge has been getting — in nearby soybean fields — is over farmland that has been irrigated. But almost all of Oklahoma’s farmland is non-irrigated, which means the state’s agriculture economy depends on how much water falls from the sky.

Okies in Iowa

Blackledge says he isn’t concerned about himself — “I have other income,” he says. But he has two younger pilots on his payroll, and he worries about their ability to find work.

Right now, those pilots are helping with the corn crop in Iowa, another state that is hurting from the drought. Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association, says many crop dusting businesses rely on work in other states.

“Our industry is itinerant,” he says. “We migrate to where the work is.”

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Harold Blackledge and his 1974 Aero Commander Thrush, his biggest spray plane. He only flies the Thrush on big jobs because it eats 38 gallons of fuel per hour.

Planes, Plains

The current drought started in 2011 across the Sun Belt states, including Oklahoma. That’s where the biggest percentage of work for agricultural pilots lies, according to a NAAA industry survey. Another one-third of the crop dusting work is in the Midwest — exactly where the drought is spreading.

The drought has raised the price of crops and farmland because there’s less supply to meet demand. A little drought can be good for agricultural pilots, Moore says. Pricier crops mean farmers have more money, and larger farm budgets mean more work for agricultural pilots. But no one benefits from the most debilitating droughts, such as the one Oklahoma and much of the rest of the country is in.

The current drought has also intensified competition among pilots, and it’s hastened the industry’s longstanding move toward bigger, faster planes.


Follow the drought as it's changed over time with NPR's interactive map.

“It takes fewer ag planes and pilots to do the same amount of work,” Moore says. But Blackledge can’t afford one of the new turbine-powered planes, which he says can cost more than $800,000.

“They won’t hire me with these little airplanes up there (in Iowa). They want those big, fancy turbines,” he says, laughing. “That impresses the farmers, don’t it?”

Blackledge’s says his pilots have to rent those fancy turbine-powered planes to stay competitive in places like Iowa.

Blackledge is worried about Oklahoma’s drought, but says he’ll be a lot more concerned if dry conditions continue in the Midwest.

“I can quit anytime,” he says. “I just kind of keep it going to see if I can get a little work for them pilots.”

This is part No. 2 in our series on summer jobs in Oklahoma.