By Rama Sobhani
Bob Klein might be described as a daredevil or a thrill seeker to those who have yet to meet him.
Taken only from conversations about him, Klein’s love of riding motorcycles and flying airplanes might create the impression that he would have a boisterous or flashy personality. Stories about Klein giving free rides to friends and acquaintances in one of his airplanes usually conclude with air sickness and vomited lunches. He loves to ride a giant touring model Harley-Davidson through twisty roads, wearing nary a piece of safety gear, and as though the big bike weighs half as much as it does. But Klein doesn’t fit so nicely into an archetypal mold, and in person, he’s quietly friendly and is, in fact, a level-headed businessman who is one of the very lucky few to have been able to turn one of his lifelong joys into his job.
Klein is a small craft pilot for his own crop-dusting business, Klein’s Flying Service, which he runs with his son, Ryan, and occasional help from his daughter, Bri. They apply mostly fungicides and insecticides to crops, including the typical grains grown in the area, as well as fruit and vegetable fields. Flying is a family business and has always been so for the Kleins. Bob Klein said since he was a small child, he’s been flying, either in his father’s lap or at the controls.
Farming to flying
“Basically, I’ve farmed all my life. I love to fly, but I couldn’t afford to fly, so I had to find something that would blend flying and farming together and this was a perfect match,” Klein said. “I’ve been riding in airplanes as long as I can remember; it’s just been my passion. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I did. I was 31 when I started, but I had been flying in my dad’s plane since I was a kid.”
Klein’s father, however, quit flying in the 1980s because of some injuries to loved ones that turned his mother’s approbation to anxiety, and she urged all of her family to give up on the skies.
“We don’t want to hit anyone, no workers in the fields, we don’t want to kill the bees, number one.” — Bob Klein
“My dad flew in the ‘70s, then quit; my brother-in-law flew in the mid-’70s to the ‘80s, then quit. My dad taught me to fly but quit because my mom didn’t want him flying.
“We had a house, whenever we were doing it in Indiana. It was a big house and we had two boys living with us at the time. They weren’t family, just friends.
“The one boy — he was probably 25 — he lived with us and he got hurt real bad (while flying). Two weeks later, another boy got hurt really badly in a crash. Two weeks after that, the sheriff came to our door, just asking for directions, but my mom couldn’t handle it because she’d had two knocks on the door before that.”
In 2001, however, Klein said he had convinced his father to start flying again. They gave up the family farm a year later and Bob Klein went to being a full-time crop duster, rather than splitting his time spraying his own crops.
“It’s a tough job; the hours are unreal,” Klein said.
“On a typical day, when we’re running hard, there is no typical day. We don’t know when we’re going to shut down because of wind (or other conditions). We try to get here at 5 a.m. and go until midnight. Maybe we’ll switch it around a little bit, but usually, we run for five hours, shut down, and get some sleep.
We start running seven days a week, usually, the second week of May and run seven days until the end of July. Then, I’ll go to Minnesota and I’ll work there until the end of August,” Klein said.
Klein is licensed to spray crops in several states around the Midwest and said he sometimes starts the early season spraying crops as far south as Florida. The grueling schedule is something most people, with intransigent circadian rhythms, would have a hard time physically adapting to, but Klein said he’s just different and works better when he gets sleep bits at a time in between bouts of working. Still, nothing about crop dusting is easy, according to the picture Klein paints, especially the physical demands of flight.
“Basically, we’re pulling two G’s in a turn, most of the time, could be more or less, depending on the load. It’s no different that someone doing exercises. You have to start slow in the beginning of the season and condition your body to it. Sometimes by the end of the day, you’re worn out. It’s a very physical job. Very physical.”
To make matters more difficult, Klein said recently, he does most of his crop-spraying at night, mostly for environmental reasons, and while that’s something that would wreak havoc with more people’s internal clocks, Klein said his method of sleeping in bits and pieces when he can makes it easier to manage getting in a plane at 2 a.m.
The change to nights was mostly to avoid harmful interactions with not only people, who might be working in the fields about to be sprayed, but also with pollinators, especially honeybees, which are beneficial to the health of the crops farmers are trying to protect.
According to a 2007 report by the Board on Life Sciences at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Status-Pollinators-North-America/11761, populations of pollinator species are on a demonstrable long-term downtrend, especially honeybees, bumble bees, butterflies and bats. The causes of those population declines have not been pinpointed, but Bob Klein said that applying pesticides at night, when the bees are safely in their hives, is the most that can be done to prevent them being harmed by spraying.
“We don’t want to hit anyone, no workers in the fields, we don’t want to kill the bees, number one,” he said. “The stuff we’re spraying today is a lot less toxic than the stuff we sprayed in the ‘70s.”
But there’s still a misconception, Klein maintains, among some people that farmers and crop sprayers don’t do enough to protect pollinators while going about their business. But Klein says that’s a fundamental misunderstanding because the relationship between those parties is symbiotic.
“People don’t realize if we don’t have bees, there won’t be any crops and the farmer won’t have anything to sell. The farmer will do everything he can to save that bee,” Klein said.
The ride of your life
When he’s not in the air for work, Klein loves showing other people what he loves about flying. To that end, he offers plane rides to anyone willing to brave what could be an experience that makes the jauntiest roller coaster seem like a gondola ride. Klein used to own an acrobatic plane, one used to perform stunts and when he really wanted to give someone the ride of his life, that’s the one he would take. Stories abound of people who thought they could handle it coming back and vomiting their guts out and being sick for days after the loops, spins, dives and climbs that Klein would treat them to.
“I give people rides, I love giving people rides. I will give them the ride that they want. If they want to do all the crazy stuff, I’ll do that. If they want a smooth ride, I’ll do that, too,” he said. “I don’t do it as a daredevil — everything is done safely, — but everything has a calculated risk. I am one of the most cautious pilots there is.”
Still, flying is inherently risky. Just as when he goes out on his motorcycle, Klein said he understands there’s risk, just as there is to everything.
“Oh, certainly,” he said when asked about whether he knows other pilots who have died while working in small craft. “They just screwed up one time. That’s all it takes. We all know people that have gotten killed (on a motorcycle). Usually, it’s a chain of events that happened. I lost a friend this year when a new 2,000-foot TV tower went up with no marker … he hit that tower. We look at every single (crash). This occupation can be as dangerous as you want to make it.”