With half of his flight training, and dubbed a “shade tree operator,” Johnny King began his crop dusting business in 1979 on the county roads of Sudan, Texas. But after a stern warning from a highway patrolman, he bought the neighboring labor, (pronounced lah-bór, a Spanish land unit measuring 177 acres), and built what is today King Ag Aviation.
“I started under a shade tree a mile-and-a-half north of here,” he recalls, “and I used the county road to take off and land on. I didn't have a runway, so I bought an old bobtail truck, put a tank on it, and parked it under a tree. I had a house well I used to fill my water truck.”
The highway patrolman, who was responding to a car accident at a nearby intersection, saw the airplane sitting by the road with no runway in sight. “He came up to me and said, ‘Don't let me catch you taking off on these county roads,’ knowing good and well that I was. After his warning, that's when I finally came down here and built this operation.”
King comes from a long line of gunslingers. His grandfather, Tom King, who grew up hoeing and plowing with mules on the family farm at Vernon, Texas, wanted to do something different, so he attended Vanderbilt medical school and became a surgeon, returning to Vernon to build a hospital.
Johnny recalls flying to Crowell, Texas, to spray some wheat, and the 80-year-old gentleman who picked him up asked to which King family he belonged. Johnny told him Dr. King, and was told, ‘He took my appendix out and my dad gave him 10 roosters.’”
It would be in 1916, after Dr. King had ridden a train from Vernon to Farwell, Texas, and then a carriage to Littlefield, where speculators approached him to purchase land that would later become Main. But his grandfather didn’t like the soil on Main Street, so he purchased land near Sudan for $16 an acre.
“He built a house on every labor because that's all that one family could farm in those days,” says Johnny. “When my grandfather bought the land, my dad was just a kid, so he put tenants on it. There were families who farmed our land for 40 and 50 years.”
His grandfather was a “heck of a guy,” Johnny says, but was stern and believed passionately in work and education. “When I was young, he’d say, ‘I don’t want to catch you messing around and playing. I want you on the end of a hoe handle.’”
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PILOT’S LICENSE A GIFT
In 1949, Johnny’s father and mother, Tom and Elmarie King, left Vernon for Sudan to farm cotton on the family land. In 1954, his father also purchased and managed Fairview Cotton Gin. And while Johnny grew up working in both operations, he didn’t wind up on the end of a hoe but rather in the cockpit of an Air Tractor.
“Dad gave me my private pilot’s license for high school graduation, but under one condition: ‘You promise you won't be a crop duster.’ I had to renege on that,” Johnny laughs. “I've loved flying since I was a little kid, and it just made sense to do ag application work once I got of age.”
Johnny’s first flight hours as a child were in the cockpit of a Piper Cub that had wrecked while landing to reload on one of their turnrows. “Nobody was hurt, but they couldn't move the plane, so they left it behind our barn. I put so many pretend hours on that airplane — and I didn’t even go anywhere.
“Dad saw that wrecked airplane and said it scared him. He just hoped I wouldn’t fly.”
18,000 FLIGHT HOURS
Johnny, who credits Fred Locker of Muleshoe, Texas, for giving him his start by leasing him his first airplane — a Piper Pawnee — has been spraying crops on the Texas South Plains for the last 40 years. “It gets in your blood,” he says. “It’s a bug that bites you, and you don’t get rid of it. I just love flying.”
And while in his flying career he has “turned off the electricity in Amherst, Texas,” when the bottom wire of a highline got caught on his airplane rudder, and he’s had a couple of accidents, he’s logged more than 18,000 hours in the cockpit of Texas skies.
Prior to Bt cotton, Johnny says, treating for bollworms is how they made their money. “We'd work all year, then make our living in August spraying bollworms — that’s how we’d gauge our year, by how many bollworms we’d sprayed.
“In 1981, the threshold was 30,000 or 40,000 worms per acre. It was unbelievable. It was to the point that if you didn’t spray, you basically didn’t strip — you didn’t have anything left.”
GUIDANCE AND ENGINES
Over his career, Johnny says, the biggest advancements in aerial application have been the use of guidance systems and switching to turbine engines.
“Before that, we were running radial engines that were pre-WW II. They produced 600 horsepower — a lot of power — but they were old and worn out. We'd spray all day and work on them all night. They were always blowing jugs.”
Prior to installing his first guidance system in 1993, Johnny says, he used human flaggers on the ground, who were often his sons, Chad and Russ. Flaggers required a lot of pre-planning.
“With today’s guidance systems, I can spray a field in Sudan and then in Olton on the same load. In the old days, I had to have a flagger here, and either another at the next field or just wait on him to get there. They'd have flats and get stuck on the way. The guidance system has made it so we can really produce. There’s no way I could fly as many acres as I do today without it.”
In Johnny’s first year of business, he sprayed about 8,000 acres. In 2018, he and his three pilots covered a little less than 200,000 acres, which he says was less than normal due to the drought.