It may look like an ordinary early aircraft, but the Huff-Daland Duster was a game-changer. Built in 1925, this first crop duster, nicknamed the “Puffer,” altered the direction of the nascent aviation industry—begun just two decades earlier with the Wright Flyer—bent on building bigger and better biplanes by focusing on a precise purpose for new designs.
“As far as utility goes, this certainly was one of the first planes developed for such a specific type of work,” says Dorothy Cochrane, curator at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the new Thomas W. Haas We All Fly Gallery, opening in the fall of 2022. “As soon as this idea of aerial application for farming began to take shape, nearly everyone agreed this was the way to go.”
Agricultural aviation took off a century ago with the first test of crop dusting in an Ohio field on August 3, 1921. The U.S. Army Air Service, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, treated trees plagued by sphinx moth caterpillars using a World War I trainer similar to the Curtiss JN-4D Jenny.
As word spread of the success, farmers across the country were anxious to try the new approach for treating crops with pesticides and fertilizers. Up until then, chemicals were inefficiently applied from mule-driven wagons. The new aerial technique showed promise, though the first few years were mostly trial and error. Chemicals were applied haphazardly from a large tin bin strapped to the side of a military-surplus biplane.
That changed with the development in 1925 of the Huff-Daland Duster. Spurred by the destructive attacks of the boll weevil on the cotton crop, aviation pioneer and Delta Air Lines founder Collett Everman “C.E.” Woolman worked with B.R. Coad, a government entomologist, to conceive of the concept aircraft, featuring several innovative designs, including a dust hopper built into the fuselage behind the pilot for ease and accuracy of application.
The Puffer—one is held in the collections of the National Air and Space Museum and on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center—was also one of the first aircraft to be built with a cantilever-wing design, which eliminated the need for bracing wires on the struts. This reduction of drag helped the biplane to be more aerodynamic and responsive to pilot controls.
“Woolman used spruce wings for strength,” Cochrane says. “Each was a single-piece construction so you had two solid wings for the biplane. Before, you really had four wings, which necessitated struts and wires for support.”
As president of the Huff-Daland Duster Co., Woolman built at least 14 planes for his commercial crop-dusting businesses. Only two original aircraft survived. Parts from both were used to restore the Smithsonian’s Duster, which came into the collections in 1968.
While Woolman was building the crop-dusting business, he was working on another aviation dream—passenger flight. “The only monotonous thing about the aviation industry,” he said, “is the constant change.” He renamed the company as Delta Air Service and began offering passenger service in 1929. The crop-dusting service remained a division of Delta Air Lines until 1966.
From that small beginning, agricultural aviation has blossomed into a major industry segment. Crop dusting and its related fields have a significant impact on farming, ranching, forestry and other commerce areas. GPS systems and modern avionics ensure precise applications and limit the public’s exposure to harmful chemicals.
“It’s a huge business now,” Cochrane says. “Nearly 30 percent of all crops across the country are treated by air. The world’s economy as well as food supplies depend largely on the precision spraying of agricultural aviation.”
Today, more than 1,500 businesses fly in excess of 3,500 aircraft for agricultural aviation in all 50 of the United States, according to a 2019 survey by the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA). Thanks in no small part to an innovator who saw “constant change as the key, the industry has evolved into a versatile operation that not only protects crops, it also fertilizes fields, drops seeds for planting and assists in controlling a myriad of dangerous insects around the globe.
“We treat 127 million acres of croplands across the United States,” says Andrew Moore, NAAA’s chief executive officer. “That doesn’t include pastureland, forests and firefighting, not to mention public health spraying, including mosquitos that carry West Nile virus, encephalitis, Zika and other diseases.”
In many ways, the Huff-Daland Duster was the “grandfather” to the agricultural aviation planes that followed, including the Grumman G-164 Ag-Cat and Air Tractor AT-301/400A, better known as Dusty Crophopper from Disney’s 2013 movie Planes.
“The Duster was the right plane at the right time,” Cochrane says. “It helped solidify the notion that air application is an essential tool for the farming industry.”