All four of the sunflower-yellow airplanes and all three helicopters in the hangers at Olathe Spray Service have pictures of Felix the Cat on their tails. And – completing the analogy – each big-eyed, cartoon cat is pumping a cloud from one of those old hand-held bug-spray canisters.
When I drove up to the hangar one afternoon last week, just east of Hwy 550 amidst the corn and alfalfa fields, I found Leonard Felix wrapping tape on his pickup steering wheel while a big, orange-and-white tomcat wove tight figure eights around his ankles. Three pink-tired girls’ bikes – one with training wheels, recently outgrown – leaned against the office walls. “My granddaughters’,” he said, with a proud smile. “They love to ride up and down the runway.”
It was that very windy day, when the air in the valley was filled with Utah dust. “Hundred and four mile an hour gust here earlier,” Leonard said, flopping down at a table beneath wall posters provided by Dupont and other chemical companies illustrating the safe handling of pesticides. “We can fly in wind. We can even apply product in some wind. But not wind like this.”
Leonard and I had met only once before. That was in June of 1981, when Ellen and I naively took over organizing the mosquito abatement program in Ridgway. I say naively because it turned out to be a lot of work, and the aerial spraying component would very soon come under economic and environmental pressure – but we were new to town, eager to contribute, and especially eager to protect our infant daughters and ourselves from what was in those days a real backyard scourge.
Leonard was new to the program, too, and wanted to make a reconnaissance flight over the wet spots in question. Gertrude Perotti, who ran the program before, drew circles on the map for me, and I watched as Leonard banked out of a perfect early-summer sky and landed on the grass strip in Pleasant Valley. His sky-blue, cloth-covered Super Cub bounced back into the air, me squeezed in behind, Leonard up front with a little black dog on his elbow eagerly sniffing the breeze.
I had some experience in small planes. An uncle used to take us up in his Beechcraft V-tail, and a fellow ski instructor in northern California flew us around Yosemite’s Half Dome in a rented Cessna one spring. But I had never before flown in such leisurely and intimate harmony with the landscape. Perhaps it was the moth-like aircraft. (This was not Leonard’s spray plane; for that he uses much bigger, more powerful Air Tractors.) More likely, it was the pilot himself, not much older than I was (he is 62 now), calm as a Buddha, and possessed of a preternatural gift for playing the air. For that was the feeling: floating over the grassy folds of Dry Creek or up along the glacial sidewalls of the Uncompahgre Canyon, he was “playing” the space between heaven and earth.
The Super Cub is yellow now, like all of Leonard’s planes. She’s had two new engines since 1981, and Leonard has recently replaced her Dacron skin, heating and shrinking the new fabric over her skeleton, then painting it with a flexible polyurethane. He poked a finger in a wing and watched the dimple spring back taught and slick.
Cubby, as the Super Cub is known, is used these days for telemetry work, tracking collared deer and elk for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Leonard’s son Deven does most of this work, along with winter game counts and summer search-and-rescue missions in his turbo-charged helicopter, which is named MOLIIN after the ship’s N-number (N1170W) viewed upside down.
“I’ve got two of my three boys flying with me now,” Leonard said, as delighted as if the thought just appeared. “I run ’em off and said, go get a life. And here they came back. If that’s not the icing on the cake.” The other flying son, Seth, “does ag stuff” in the Air Tractor known as Dandy (short for dandelion) and predator control (“coyotes mostly”) during calving season in his helicopter, SSOLIN.
Leonard names everything: “You gotta call it something, “ he says of each gleaming, spotless machine. I’m not sure if it was Dandy or Daisy that Leonard used to spray around Ridgway that June 26 years ago. I remember we arranged for the sheriff to stop traffic briefly so Leonard could land on the highway by the fairgrounds and refuel. I remember him swooping in like a swallow to deliver white puffs of Baytex to even the smallest puddles in the corners of irrigated fields.
I remember the fine mist drifting down over town – we were advised to stay indoors – and the subtle oily residue left on our cars. The Baytex was mixed with a diesel “carrier” to kill, as it were, three bugs with one stone: the adult mosquitoes, the larvae, and the pupae all in the same application.
I remember that the rest of that summer was blissfully mosquito-free. Other people thought they noticed a decline in bee and bird populations, too. That trade-off, along with Ridgway’s changing environmental ethic and the rising cost of diesel oil, doomed the aerial spraying after that year.
Leonard is not oblivious to the contradictions and controversies that accompany his work. If anything, he’s hypersensitive to it. But he is also a pragmatist. If Telluride’s Mountain Village wants its caterpillar problem dealt with, he’s willing to tackle it. “If mosquitoes are still eatin’ people up, we’ll come and knock ’em down.” Some days he and his boys will be killing sagebrush to create rangeland, and other days they’ll be applying sagebrush seed to burned-over sage grouse habitat. Some days they’re helping to suppress wildfire, and some days they’re using the helicopter to start a controlled burn.
Most days when I happen to see Leonard now, he is flying Lilly, delivering pesticide to the hay and corn fields near our Colona home. (One long wall in the office in Olathe is covered with aerial photographs pieced together and showing every field in the Uncompahgre from north of Delta to south of Montrose.)
As I watch, I am less concerned with pesticide drift than I am mesmerized by Leonard’s thrilling, dangerous dance: diving down over power lines at 135 mph, skimming inches above the rows, rearing up just in time to clear the cottonwoods at the far end. Statistics show crop dusting to be the second most dangerous job in America, after logging and ahead of commercial fishing.
He’s only “crashed” once in 40 years when he “sat down hard” in his helicopter right near the airstrip. Though he admits to coming home more than once with power and phone wires dangling from the Air Tractor’s wheels. The good record is due to Leonard’s exacting skill, his even temperament, and, he admits somewhat bashfully, to art: “To me it is art. I’m just a flying paint brush.”
Luck, surely, plays a role, too. In Latin, Felix means “luck.”