The Los Angeles Times | 12/16/2009 12:00:00 AM
'Top guns' of Tumaco keep coca crops in check
Dec 16--'Flying here is the biggest rush,' says a Texas crop-duster, one of 20 pilots who navigate Colombian jungles to spray herbicide while risking potshots from cocaine traffickers.
Every day, weather permitting, the admitted adrenaline junkie starts up his armored plane, a bulky craft that resembles a horse trailer with wings. Then he zooms off from a tiny airport here on Colombia's Pacific coast to do his part in the drug war, a highly choreographed aerial ballet in which he and three other pilots flying in tight formation dump their chemicals.
Dave, who asked that his last name not be used because of security concerns, said his planes have been hit by small-caliber fire 25 times since he started flying crop-eradicating missions here in 2005 for a U.S. defense contractor.
"You know when the plane has been hit; it makes this kind of a sound," Dave said, slapping a nearby metal table hard, THWACK. "But there's too much to do piloting these things to have time to worry about the consequences."
The coca fields may measure miles across or just a few hundred yards, requiring "trigger pulls" lasting from 30 seconds to a split second. More often than not, Dave threads his plane through tight mountain valleys to reach increasingly remote crops that often have to be detected using satellite imagery.
"Flying here is the biggest rush I've ever had in an airplane," said Dave, who used to spray cotton and rice in South Texas, where his father was a crop-duster for 30 years before dying in a 2000 plane crash.
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