Bill and Betty Kennedy, of Jennings, look over more than four decades of photos and other memorabilia collected from Bill Kennedy's aviation career in this photo taken on Ash Wednesday. Kennedy has flown more than 80,000 hours as a serviceman, crop duster and private pilot flying everything from a C-56 military cargo plane to seaplane to a Stearman and an Ag-Cat. (Doris Maricle / American Press)
Last Modified: Saturday, March 02, 2013 6:41 PM
JENNINGS — At 88, William “Bill” Kennedy believes he may be among the oldest living “original” crop duster pilots — those who flew from about the mid-20th century or earlier.
Upon his retirement in 1983 at the age of 59, Kennedy estimates he had flown more than 80,000 hours as a serviceman, crop duster and private pilot, flying everything from a C-56 military cargo plane to a seaplane to a Stearman to an Ag-Cat.
Kennedy began flying crop dusters more than six decades ago for a friend in Rayne after returning home from World War II. As part of the war effort, he had flown cargo planes for nearly three years.
“He needed an extra pilot and I knew how to fly,” Kennedy said.
He was one of the earlier waves of pilots to fly crop dusters in Louisiana, he said.
“They were using airplanes to spray the cotton in north Louisiana and Mississippi before they ever started using them in the rice fields,” Kennedy said. “They used them to dust the cotton crops to kill the bugs, then they started using them to put rice (seeds) in the fields and fertilize the crops.”
Kennedy said planes have always interested him and his flying skills kept him airborne until retirement.
“When I was a kid, I’d build model airplanes,” he said. “I was always interested in flying and I had a few flying hours before the war.”
He first flew in 1941 while taking flying instructions at the Lafayette airport.
He later volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps at the age of 19. The Air Corps was the forerunner of the Air Force. As a pilot in the Air Corps, Kennedy flew cargo planes during World War II.
He flew supplies — primarily gasoline, food, small arms and ammunition and equipment — to U.S.-led armies between the Assam Valley in northeastern India, across northern Burma, to the Yunnan province in southwestern China, a route often referred to as the “Burma Hump.”
“We were flying supplies into the areas where ... soldiers were still fighting the Japanese,” he said. “Sometimes we’d land; other times we’d just drop the supplies.”
After returning home from the war, Kennedy went to Lafayette to learn to be a flight instructor. He taught flying for a while before flying crop dusters for Jack Hains Flying Service in Rayne.
He worked there for about three years flying open-cockpit, two-seater Stearman biplanes.
Most of the Stearmans were surplus military trainers purchased for $400 and converted into crop dusters for planting rice, spreading fertilizers and spraying pesticides for local farmers.
“We’d take the front seat out and put the hopper in to carry the seeds and rice, or whatever we were spraying,” he said.
Being a crop duster pilot was “tiring, long days,” Kennedy said.
During the peak season he worked from dawn to dusk.
“I’d get there in the early morning, get my schedule for the day and find out what farm I would be working for and what they needed me to do — whether it was fertilizing or planting rice — and where the landing strip was,” he said. “There were landing strips all over, so you needed to know where to go.”
Most of the landings were on small grass strips. Few were actually at airports, he said.
“We’d fly until almost dark and I’d get home about 9,” he said.
“I remember there were days when I didn’t see my daddy,” daughter Colleen Kennedy-Watson said.
Most of the work was seven days a week, he said. He’d carry beef jerky and dried shrimp in his pockets to eat most days because there was little time to stop for meals, he said.
“I remember Daddy saying it was like digging ditches,” Colleen Kennedy-Watson said. “He always said you had to like it to stay with it.”
He wore a helmet and goggles to help protect himself from the weather.
“You couldn’t fly in real bad weather and you couldn’t do a good job if the wind was blowing,” he said.
“I remember seeing Daddy with white stuff on his nose to keep from getting a sunburn up there because it was an open cockpit,” Colleen Kennedy-Watson said.
Kennedy said he had “four or five” helmets and wore them all out. “The leather’s all gone,” he said.
His wife, Betty Kennedy, recalls the long hours and pay.
“They worked 12 months and would get paid $3,000 a year,” she said. “After we got married, we had to make it on $3,000 a year, but we did it.”
She jokes that they lived on soup without meat.
The Kennedys later moved to Morgan City, where he flew seaplanes delivering construction equipment.
They later moved to Jennings, where he became a private pilot for Fred Zigler, an early industrialist and philanthropist in Jennings.
“He had a twin-engine airplane and needed a pilot,” Kennedy said. “The man running the shop for the Zigler Flying Service (later Riceland Aviation) knew me and knew I could fly a twin-engine plane because I’d flown one in the service, so I became Mr. Zigler’s personal pilot. That was all together different from crop dusting.”
He flew Zigler’s Lockheed Model 10 Electra until Zigler’s death in 1960. The airplane was the same type of aircraft Amelia Earhart flew on her ill-fated around-the-world expedition in 1937.
Most of the flights were business trips to Houston and Kansas or hunting trips to Texas and Canada. He remembers one trip to Norfolk, Va., to buy surplus aircraft engines for the Stearman.
After Zigler’s death, Kennedy returned to flying crop dusters for the Zigler Flying Service.
“I used to fly in the Jennings-area rice fields in the early spring and summer,” Kennedy recalls. “Then when the rice was planted, sprayed and fertilized, I’d go over to the Mississippi Delta around Rolling Fork to fly the cotton fields there. That was around the first of July.”
He’d return to Louisiana when rice season resumed.
Kennedy admits to having some close calls through the years of flying, including several crashes, near misses and a few forced landings.
His first crash occurred in a pasture just east of Morse when he flew into the top of a tree while spraying fertilizer.
“The tree was in the middle of the field, I just didn’t see it,” Kennedy chuckles. “I hit the top of the tree and it messed up the leading edge of the bottom wing. I just fell straight down. It didn’t hurt me at all. It just gave me a headache.
“The people loading the fertilizer came over, and I was just sitting on the ground waiting.”
He went home that night and went straight to bed without telling anyone about the crash, Betty Kennedy said.
“I didn’t know what was wrong,” she said. “It took him a while before he told me what happened. But that was just part of what he was doing and he liked what he was doing and that made for a happier marriage.”
Another time his wheels hit a cattle fence at a landing strip near Branch. The plane ended up in a corn field.
He also snagged a power line near Hathaway and nearly ran out of fuel flying back from a business meeting in Houston.
“I remember Daddy wanting me to go fly, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” Colleen Kennedy-Watson said. “I guess I’d heard too many of his stories, or it wasn’t something I was interested in.”
The Kennedys, who have been married 65 years, have two children, Kenny Kennedy of Crowley and Colleen-Kennedy Watson of DeRidder. They have six grandchildren and are expecting their 12th great grandchild.