There are 244.8 billion square inches in Bleckley County, and Bill Coody has had a birds-eye view of every one of them.
He has swooped across the tops of pine trees from Coley to Carey, flown over fields of peanuts and soy beans from Crooked Creek to Magnolia Road. He has circled above farm ponds and railroad tracks. He has buzzed the row crops of corn and bombed the boll weevil until it finally retreated from the cotton fields in 1992.
Bill turned 70 years old this past Tuesday, and has spent the equivalent of almost two of those years (667 days) in the air. He has logged more than 16,000 flight hours on more than 55 different airplanes and six different helicopters.
He “unofficially” retired 15 months ago after a long and distinguished career as a crop duster. Of course, they’re no longer called that. They’re known as “aerial applicators.” The dust – once as fine and smoky as talcum powder – now comes in liquid form.
Actually, there are more than 244.8 billion square inches in Bleckley. That’s simply a nice round number … billion, as in Bill. The exact figure is a whopping 12 digits – 244,883,865,600.
I know this because Bleckley is 61 square miles. I enlisted the help of a couple of math teachers to do the calculation, since I’m mathematically challenged.
And that doesn’t count all the flying he has done in Twiggs and Dodge counties. He has hovered and covered the countryside there, too.
Bill continues to be a pilot on charter flights, and he has counted former Gov. Sonny Perdue (now the U.S. secretary of agriculture) among his passengers.
When he was spraying crops for a living, he was considered among the best and most experienced in his profession.
He recently was awarded The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, and that’s a huge feather in his cap. Only about 4,200 pilots nationally have been recognized since its inception 14 years ago. It is awarded to those with more than 50 years of flying experience who have an exemplary safety record.
Bill and his wife, Cathy, live a mile from the farm from where he was born and raised. Although he grew up around trucks and tractors, his real fascination was with airplanes. His grandmother lived in Atlanta, and when his mother would take him to visit, they would stop at the Atlanta airport to let him watch the planes taking off and landing.
“They had an old observation deck,” he said. “I could sit there for hours. I can still do it today, sit there and watch.”
One of Bleckley County’s legendary pilots was a man named Red Curtis. He managed the local airport and was a veteran crop duster. When Bill was 14 years old, he got his first flight lesson from Mr. Red. Two years later, he took his first solo flight. At 19, he got his pilot’s license and began his crop dusting career with Cochran Air Service at age 23 in 1970.
The company later changed its name to Cochran Air Ag. In 1987, Bill formed his own company, Coody Spraying Service. After 23 years, he sold it to Middle Georgia Aviation owner Lane Wimberly in 2010.
From his first airplane ride to the most recent time his wheels touched down on the runway, the thrill has never gone away.
“I tell people that’s the reason crop dusting was so good for me,” he said. “Every load was a new experience. No two were alike. It wasn’t like the guy in the factory putting a lug nut on a wheel every day. It wasn’t repetitious. There was always something different.”
There were times when he flew so close to the ground the wheels of his plane were not much higher than tops of the irrigation sprinklers.
Even with the new technology in aviation, he said a crop duster must learn never to rely solely on the instrumentation, no matter how sophisticated.
Those daring maneuvers, much like those of a stunt pilot, are the product of instincts and awareness.
“You have to be aware of everything around you,” he said. “I’m watching the wind by looking at the plants twirling and the tops of trees.”
In 47 years of crop dusting, he never crashed, although he once had to make an emergency landing in a field.
“You have to circle and know where the power lines are,” he said. “I’ve cut four lines in my career. That’s very few. They were hidden by trees, and I didn’t see them. I also brushed a few trees in my early years.”
He still plans to continue flying charter flights. He also has been asked to help start an agriculture aviation program at the Middle Georgia State University School of Aviation in nearby Eastman.
He won’t forget the aerial view of the county he has observed most of his life.
“I can be riding down the road with my wife and look over and tell her there’s an 85-acre farm over there,” he said. “I would come home from spraying all day and write everything down. I still remember most of it.”
Ed Grisamore teaches journalism and creative writing at Stratford Academy in Macon. His column appears on Sundays in The Telegraph.