'Flying here is the biggest rush,' says a Texas crop-duster who now dodges bullets and trees to kill coca plants in Colombia.
Spraying 800 pounds of herbicides on coca over treacherous terrain while getting shot at is not everyone's idea of a good time. But for Dave, a 35-year-old crop-duster from Texas turned "top gun" of Tumaco, it's a "kick in the pants."
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.
"The physical beauty of Colombia -- the Andes, the rivers, lagoons and mangroves -- are something else," he said. "And the pay is good. Plus, I believe in the mission.
"So, I don't see me going anywhere," said the burly, tobacco-chewing pilot, who has flown 1,000 sorties since he arrived almost five years ago.
Dave and 19 fellow pilots are the "aces" of Plan Colombia, the U.S.-funded anti-drug and -terrorism aid program that since 2000 has spent $6 billion to curb the flow of cocaine to the United States. Colombia is the world's biggest producer of the powder processed from coca leaves.
Although the amount of coca produced in Colombia declined by 28% last year from 2007, according to United Nations figures, the effectiveness of the eradication program is under intense scrutiny in the United States, and funding has recently been curtailed.
The flyboys, most of whom come from Texas or the Midwest, have dusted more than 3.2 million acres of coca in the last 14 years, some of it under a program that was launched five years before Plan Colombia got underway.
The risk level is high, especially here in Narino state, scene of some of Colombia's most violent clashes between rival rebel groups and narco gangs vying for control of a crucial cocaine production and transit corridor. Poor farmers and indigenous groups are often caught in the crossfire.
Dave said that so far, the 3/4-inch composite armor and ballistic glass encasing his plane's cockpit, engine and fuel tanks has kept him safe.
But he is aware that rebels are seeking surface-to-air missiles, which could pose a bigger risk to the planes.
The powerful but lumbering aircraft are easy targets. They have 1,350-horsepower turbojet engines that are nearly as strong as those that power Abrams tanks. But they fly "low and slow" -- just yards above the tree line -- and invite potshots by traffickers.
On every mission, Dave and his fellow pilots are accompanied by what they call a security package: three Black Hawk helicopter gunships and, on the ground, a brigade of 100 Colombian special forces soldiers ready to recover him or his comrades in case of a crash.
Still, five pilots have been killed in the course of duty since the spraying program started in 1995. The danger comes not just from gunfire, but also high-tension wires, cellphone towers and "skinny palm trees we call snags" that suddenly jut out from the jungle canopy.
"All it takes is a split second of inattention and these obstacles could bring a plane down," Dave said.
The danger attracts a certain kind of flier, said an official with the Narcotics Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, which overseas the eradication program.
"These guys typically are cocky and they can be arrogant, but they are also very nonchalant in the face of real danger," said the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to comment. "To do their jobs, they can't be retiring personalities."
Critics say the eradication program has merely pushed coca cultivation and processing to Peru and Ecuador, where cocaine production has increased as Colombia's has declined. Citing health risks, others say the U.S. government should fund only manual eradication.
Others say the spraying only aggravates the misery of farmers who are pushed into growing coca because they have few other options.
"The question remains the same: Are crop reductions achieved through forced eradication sustainable if the vast majority of families vulnerable to growing coca are left without viable legal livelihood options?" said John Walsh of the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank that has been critical of Plan Colombia.
The Colombian and U.S. governments say glyphosate, the industrial name for Roundup, is not hazardous, and that Colombians get no more intense a dose than "average weekend gardeners in the U.S."
The Ecuadorean government disagrees and has filed a claim before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, saying that winds have blown glyphosate across the border to its territory, harming crops and humans.
Many Colombian conservation groups are also critical of the program. A top official with one, who requested anonymity for herself and her organization because of possible political repercussions, said spraying especially hurts "marginal" communities.
"We think spraying is a menace," she said. "It hurts legal crops, damages the forests, forces peasants to abandon their farms and could even contribute to climate change."
The U.S. Embassy in Bogota says that budget cuts -- not efficiency, pilot risk or health concerns -- have prompted the White House to drastically scale back its financial support of both aerial and manual coca eradication in Colombia.
The Washington-based Center for International Policy estimates that 2009 funding for coca eradication in Colombia was $105 million, down by $46 million, or nearly a third, from $151 million in 2007.
The coca destroyed this year will total 390,000 acres, down by one-third from the 570,000 acres sprayed and uprooted in 2008.
Despite declining funds and two fewer planes than the 14 available three years ago, Dave and his comrades press on. They continue to refine their techniques to match the narcos' tendency to grow smaller and smaller crops in out-of-the-way places.
Before each mission, the pilots attend a briefing and settle on the day's targets around Narino, a lush state bordered by Ecuador to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the east.
"I can fly for miles and not see a sign of civilization, only an occasional smoke plume rising above the jungle. The smoke might be from a farmer clearing an area to grow licit crops, or it might be a burning drug lab," Dave said.
"It's easy to forget there is a war going on down there."
As he inspected his plane for bullet holes and fingered the 96 spray nozzles arranged across the wingspan, Dave said he is also keeping his reflexes sharp.
"Flying in mountains is inherently dangerous work," he said. "You suddenly can find yourself in terrain that is climbing faster than the aircraft can climb."
Patting the ungainly looking aircraft like some oversized pet, Dave looked up toward the cockpit and said, smiling, "She's just a big pussycat."
December 16, 2009
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