Wings of West Texas

Cameron Kitten and his father, Philip, are beginning to gear up for a busy season of spraying. Cameron Kitten and his father, Philip, are beginning to gear up for a busy season of spraying.

With roots in agriculture dating back to the early 1900s, Cameron Kitten and his father, Philip, are keeping with the family tradition every time they take flight in their Air Tractor 502B.

Cameron, 23, a student in Texas Tech University’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communications, grew up around agriculture both in the air and on the ground.

Having raised a variety of crops in both the South Plains and the Dallas Metroplex has helped him gain valuable experience that he will be able to apply to his first season in the air.

“Not one minute in my entire life have I ever thought twice about doing something different,” Cameron said. “It has been aviation, my entire life. It’s never scared me.”

It has been aviation, my entire life. It’s never scared me.Cameron Kitten

Cameron has spent every summer since he could remember helping his dad with their family business, Cone Aerial Spraying Inc., in Slaton, Texas. Philip has sprayed almost every kind of crop in Texas, but has mostly cotton acres under his wing.

Like his father, Cameron grew up around crop dusters and aerial application and he could never completely turn away from it. He said he started to fly solo when he was only 16 years old.

“I’ve been working on the ground for about 13 years,” Cameron said. “This will be first season as a pilot.”

Earning His Wings

As a third generation agriculture pilot, Cameron grew up around aerial application and crop dusters. His family moved from Germany back in the 1900s and chose to settle on a farm with a runway in Slaton, Texas. He said they became farmers and that is what they have always done.

Cameron remembers the stories his grandfather use to tell him about plowing behind mules on their family farm near Slaton. The family, like other farmers in west Texas, farmed mostly cotton.

“A lot of the guys that pioneered aerial application were World War II pilots,” Cameron said.

Cameron said the World War II pilots were primarily from the area and they built a relationship over the strip. Philip grew up around the planes and as pilots that used the runway on their family farm. He would load their planes, and in turn, the World War II veterans taught him about planes and eventually let him fly when he was old enough. Cameron said his dad believes he would not be alive today if it were not for them.

“They taught him how to be a safe ag pilot and a safe pilot in general,” Cameron said. “And it’s the war that taught these guys.”

Cameron believes all the World War II pilots played a huge role in his life as a kid. He said they were all outstanding pilots and they showed his father the whole aviation side to crop dusting.

The series of numbers and letters on the side of their air tractor act as a serial number for the airplane like a license plate does on a vehicle. The lines that run along the bottom side of the air tractor are called booms and nozzles, which help apply pesticides accurately.

Taking Flight

Cameron received his commercial pilots license last summer. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires every pilot to have multiple licenses depending on the state you reside in. He was required to have his commercial pilots license and his applicator license. Both licenses have continuing education courses as requirements.

While Cameron has certainly put a lot of time and hard earned money in his commercial pilot’s license, he has also logged over 250 hours of flight time.  He is continuing to suit up next to his father to take on his first flight season as an agriculture pilot, while his father begins his 41st season.

“We use an Air Tractor,” Philip said, “we bought ours out of Olney, Texas.”

He said when crop dusters run into problems across the country, other agriculture pilots are more than willing to help. Cameron and Philip agree pilots stick together and look out for one another.

“They are like a brotherhood,” Philip said.

The decline of pilots’ interest in the aerial application industry is facing an age gap like that of the farming sector. The aerial application industry is seeing pilot age trends to be around the 50-year-old age range. The aerial application national community lost 13 agriculture pilots just last year. Agriculture operators are taking interest in the industry to introduce the younger generations to the aerial application sector.

Cameron hopes for the aerial application industry to allow the younger generation to be heard. He believes the costs are affecting the number of people that go into aerial application. He said many people can’t afford the amount of training, education, and costs that factor into getting a pilot’s license.

The Runway to His Career

Although Cameron is currently a senior agricultural leadership major in the Department of Agricultural Education and Communications, he has temporarily postponed his senior year to help his dad in the aerial application business.

Cameron said he knew as soon as he walked across the stage at his high school graduation he wanted to go to college. He said he attended Weatherford College for a year until the time his dad needed his help with their aerial applicator business. Once again, he uprooted his life and moved back to West Texas. He also attended South Plains College to finish his basics, and enrolled at Texas Tech in 2015.

He said he was a part-time student and worked for his dad full-time. Cameron said the demand for aerial application is very high in West Texas. Aerial spraying contracts depend on the crop, pests, and other issues.

Cameron said he is working on buying his own plane and has dreams of opening his own business. He said flying has never scared him, and he believes he can make a career out of flying. He thinks he will last quite a while in this business by individually taking care of business and taking care of himself when he goes flying.

He is taking the steps to receive his operator’s certificate, which often takes some people years to complete. He said the numerous steps needed to obtain an operator’s license turn many people away from the profession.

“I really wish I could somehow speak loud enough that somebody would hear and make it easier for kids to grow this business,” Cameron said.