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Scarecrow Patrol Goes Awry for J-5A Cub

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I’m not sure which is more far-fetched – that farmers in Florida use Piper J-5A Cubs to buzz corn fields to scare off birds, or that a there are Cub pilots out there wearing helmets.  

Turns out that both are true, and there’s a pilot in South Florida who’s glad that he was wearing a helmet in a Cub the morning of March 25. 

According to the pilot's statement to the FAA in the aftermath, his job was to “chase/shepherd” birds from corn fields at a farm south of Lake Okeechobee by buzzing the fields at 5-15 ft. altitude then pull up into a “canyon turn” at the end of each pass to line up for the next. 

It turns out that harassing birds from crop fields with small aircraft (to prevent the birds from destroying the crops) is not at all uncommon. In fact, according to a 2011 article in the journal, BioScience, the U.S. Congress from 1986-1994 funded a blackbird-hazing program in North Dakota using fixed-wing aircraft “flying at low altitudes to harass blackbirds away from sunflower fields and roosting sites.” The aircraft would often have a “backseat gunner” who would sometimes kill the blackbirds, according to the article.

Why did it end? “The federal program ended when safety issues associated with low-flying aircraft, combined with the high costs of hiring an aircraft, pilot and a gunner, seemed to outweigh the benefits," the article stated. But the authors add, “Currently a few growers hire private fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to chase birds away.”

Which leads us back to Florida, where the accident occurred on Day 3 of the harassment duty. The pilot had completed about 8-10 passes, after which his memory blanked. He woke up in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. 

An eyewitness and the FAA investigator (the NTSB often subs out investigations to the local FAA officials) filled in the blanks. The eyewitness saw the J-5A enter a “steep turn” at an estimated 50-75 ft. above the ground (in the canyon turn), after which it “stalled and spun into the ground.” The man stated that it looked like “a typical base-to-final stall spin.”

As for wearing a helmet? It’s a good idea. According to the FAA official: “The flight deck area was for the most part intact and low-velocity blood sprayed about the flight deck as well as blood transfer marks…. A witness mark above the airspeed indicator most likely came from the pilot’s helmet.”
 

 

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