As coastal farmlands vanish, a longtime local crop-dusting family finds work farther from home.
By Bill Newcott | Photograph by Kyle Kaminski
From the October 2019 issue
The sound awoke me, and even before my brain kicked into gear, I recognized it: The dive-bomb roar … the seconds of near silence … the renewed urgency of an airplane swinging into another approach.
It was unmistakable. There was a crop-duster in the neighborhood. And he was very close.
Yanking jeans over my pajama shorts, I grabbed the car keys and shouted an incomprehensible explanation to my wife (Carolyn’s used to this by now). Driving out to the main road, I stopped, rolled open all the car’s windows and the sunroof, and tried to discern precisely where the sound was coming from.
Then I saw him. Above a ridge of trees, the yellow glint of a biplane’s wings caught the early morning sun. It took some maneuvering through unfamiliar roads, but finally there he was in full view, swooping like a lemon-colored condor over a Robinsonville Road cornfield.
I spotted the pilot, his yellow helmet clearly visible through a window, and marveled at his dramatic approach — how he seemed to leap from behind the tree line before plummeting to just a few feet above the corn, nearly close enough to reach out and run his hand along the waving stalks. My eyes tried to track him as he skimmed the surface at 150 mph, and I held my breath as he barreled right toward the power lines along Webbs Landing Road. Surely he’d cleared wires like that a thousand times, I told myself, and surely he’d do it again.
He did. With inches to spare, it seemed. Then, in a wide, graceful turn, the biplane disappeared to the north.
I was sorry to see him go. Even in the seven short years I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed that visits from the crop-dusters are becoming less frequent. The day seems close when, after the last cornfields have been smothered by concrete and clubhouses, crop-dusters will no longer come to us. We’ll have to go to them.
And that’s just what I’m doing. It is now a few days later, and I have followed that little yellow plane to its home base: Chorman Airport, about 30 miles northwest of Rehoboth near Greenwood. It is 5 a.m. on the Fourth of July, but the place is buzzing with activity as a small army of workers tinkers with engines, mixes chemicals, and rolls open hangar doors to reveal a virtual air force of agricultural aircraft. The windsock atop the main hangar droops limply, and in the
still, inky light of pre-dawn, the air is a mix of fertilizer and aviation fuel.
“I hear it’s a holiday today,” says Jeff Chorman with a wry smile when I meet up with him in the break room. Chorman runs the day-to-day business of Allen Chorman & Son Inc., established three decades ago by his dad.
The senior Chorman, now 73, is something of an aviation legend in these parts. Tributes to him line the walls of this room: certificates from the State of Delaware and Sussex County honoring his contributions to agriculture. Allen began piloting crop-dusters for longtime Sussex County aviator Joe Hudson in the 1960s, flying out of Rehoboth Airport — which is these days commemorated by the names of the streets that once served it: Airport Road and Cessna Drive near the American Inn.
Allen bought the business from Hudson in 1987. Jeff started flying crop-dusters for his dad when he was 18, in high school.
Together, the Chormans and their staff have buzzed virtually every farm field on the Delmarva Peninsula. Since the 1990s they’ve owned this airstrip — plus some 20 aircraft, including a helicopter.
As I describe how I stalked his employee in the yellow biplane that recent morning, Jeff smiles and shakes his head. Overzealous observers have no idea, he says, how much trouble they cause his pilots.
“It happens all the time — they get in the way!” he says with a laugh, but he clearly means it. “Sometimes people hang out on the downwind side of the field, and everything’s blowing towards them.
“Eventually you have to fly away to make them think you’re done. Then you come back when they’re gone.”
Remembering how the yellow biplane had abruptly left the scene as I jockeyed below him taking pictures that morning along Robinsonville Road, I summon up an apology. But Chorman waves me off. He enjoys his work too much to let distractions like me ruin it for him.
“I just love the flying,” he says. Then he offers to take me up and show me why.
The sun is just revealing itself on the eastern horizon as we walk past an array of yellow single-seater airplanes, each mounted with a spray unit under its wings. From a large hangar, a worker on a cart has just towed out a twin-engine Beechcraft. It’s the company’s biggest plane — and also its oldest, by a long shot, a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard duster that’s been airborne since 1943.
I climb up the plane’s fold-out stairway and inch past two large plastic containers filled with insecticide: We’re heading to kill mosquitoes at the Trail’s End campground near Wallops Island, Va., about 80 miles south. The dashboard is defiantly analog, with an array of dials and switches Gregory Peck might have fiddled with in “Twelve O’Clock High.”
“The whole reason I ever wanted to be an ag pilot was to fly these twin Beeches,” Chorman says. “I used to ride in ’em with my dad when I was 10 [to] 12 years old. I’d look at him sitting there, and I’d think he was God.”
Faster than I expected, we’re airborne, swinging around to the south. Chorman has issued me a pair of earplugs, but even with them and the yellow safety helmet, the roar of the right engine — just a few feet outside my open window — is deafening.
As the farms and small towns of the mid-peninsula slide past beneath us, I squint to the east, trying to catch a glimpse of the Delaware beaches. A ribbon of silver shines on the Atlantic, and for a moment I mourn the fact that I didn’t live in coastal Sussex County when it was still green and rural.
“There’s very little farmland left over there,” Chorman tells me later — the engine is too loud for any kind of conversation while airborne. “Along Route 1 from Five Points south — that was the best farmland in the state.”
Still, for anyone concerned that agriculture may be evicted from the region anytime soon, the view from 500 feet is reassuring: As far as I can see the land is a patchwork quilt of farms away from the coast, interrupted by the occasional long, low chicken house.
Somewhere east of Seaford, Chorman removes his hands from the pilot’s yoke and gestures toward the one that’s sitting in front of me. It had never occurred to me he might let me take the wheel. Uncertainly, I assume control, and in that moment I recall a long-forgotten childhood dream, one that was born one Saturday morning watching “Sky King” on television. I’m flying.
Gently, I ease the yoke to the right, and I feel us tipping, ever so slightly. I have the presence of mind to glance over at the attitude indicator, in front of Chorman. Sure enough, the little white plane on the indicator is following my lead, first to the right, then to the left. Too soon, Chorman resumes control of the plane, but it’s just as well. I have no idea where we’re going.
Soon the seaward side of the peninsula bends in to meet us, and Chorman brings us in to barely 100 feet up. We cross the marshy shoreline of Chincoteague Bay, double back, and head for the expansive stand of trees that shades the mobile homes and campsites at Trail’s End. To the folks down there, the Doppler effect raises the pitch of the engine’s sound as we approach, then lowers it as we pass, just the way war planes do in the movies. To us, the engine’s drone remains constant.
We’re making six passes over Trail’s End — a milk run for Chorman, who’s accustomed to spraying land parcels far larger than this one. Each time we bank to the left over the bay, I look to the pilot’s seat and see nothing but Chorman’s profile and, below him, sun-dappled water.
We are heading back north, but Chorman wants to show me one more thing before we land. On his smartphone — for this is how we must communicate despite sitting side by side — he types out: “I’m going to take us over a field as if we’re crop-dusting.”
The Beechcraft skims the treetops of a wooded area. Beyond I can see a large field carpeted with low-lying string beans. As soon as we pass the trees, about 100 feet up, the Beech plunges into a deep dive, and in what seems like less than a second we’re barreling across the field at 150 mph.
We are 8 feet above the ground. A 6-foot farmer raising his hand in our path would risk losing it. The furrows of beans extend straight ahead, close enough for me to make out individual leaves 50 feet or so ahead but becoming nothing but a blur as the plane passes directly over them.
We are approaching another stand of trees, one that moments ago seemed very far away. The Beech pulls up like a rearing horse. The view outside the windshield is a whirl of beans, tree trunks, leaves and sky. Simultaneous with our ascent, Chorman is already banking, preparing for the next pass. I am completely disoriented, literally unaware of up, down, or sideways.
I am as thrilled as I’ve ever been in my life.
Too soon, we’re on the ground again. My pilot is back in the break room chatting with a colleague about today’s jobs: more mosquitoes near Dover, nearly 200 acres of string beans on three different farms and a cornfield in Liepsic. And that’s just before lunch. Later he’ll be fertilizing corn in Sudlersville, Md., and potatoes in Hurlock, also in the neighboring state. He hopes to be back home in Broadkill to watch the Fourth of July fireworks with his wife and two daughters.
“You need a lot of equipment and dedication to succeed in this business,” he adds. “But mostly, you need a very understanding wife.”
And then he is out the door. Those string beans won’t spray themselves.