So many rumors were flying around the Putnam County Airport last week you'd have thought we were all living in Area 51.
But rest assured: No airplanes clipped treetops, slammed into farm fields or buzzed local homes for two hours. And absolutely no alien or Al Qaeda aircraft crash-landed in the vicinity.
So what was all the hubbub? Just the unusual sight of crop dusters spraying winter wheat fields east of the Putnam County Airport. That local oddity apparently spawned several calls to the airport and the Sheriff's Department on Tuesday, airport officials explained.
The truth is: Planes from Bi-State Helicopters, Covington, are in the process of spraying 350,000 acres of winter wheat in central Indiana and eastern Illinois to help curtail wheat rust. And the Putnam County Airport was the ideal location for them to use as home base this week.
Owner Bill Rice and pilot Steve Schaler dispelled the treetop rumors and more, explaining that Schaler typically flies 8-12 feet above a field in order to properly apply the fungicide to the crop below. Otherwise his yellow 1978 Air Tractor is cruising along at little more than 200 feet en route to its next destination.
Rice and Schaler chalk up the complaints to "fear of the unknown," compounded by the current climate of uncertainty that they partially blame on the media.
"Most of the calls and complaints are usually irrational and emotionally driven," Rice said, speaking from a lifetime of experience in (and above) the field.
That was not unlike the situation Schaler found himself in near Stilesville Tuesday. He looked down to see a woman frantically running toward him, waving her arms hysterically. Turns out her dog was roaming around the wheat field and she was freaking out that he was going to be sprayed and turned into Cujo.
"I could have made a half-dozen passes right over that dog and he'd have never known any different," the pilot said, alluding to the apparent safety of the chemical he sprays.
"We're immersed in it daily," he said, "and we're all fine."
That comment drew laughs and a couple of unprintable punchlines from ground crew members Rick Glover and Jeff Thomas, but Schaler was serious about the spray. It carries only a "caution" warning, far from a "danger" label with the obligatory skull and crossbones.
Rice's team will return to spray about 20,000 acres of corn in the area in late June or early July. The crop dusting has a valuable return for the farmer, he said, citing a 12-15 percent increase per bushel. Last year he typically saw a 25-bushel-per-acre crop increase, which translates into a dramatic boost to the farmer's wallet.
"We're making food," Rice said, expounding on how the crop production increase impacts corn-fed cattle and on down the farm food chain.
Rice has been involved in the crop-dusting business since 1974 and owned his own planes since 1981. "It's not a new business," he stressed, "you're just seeing a lot more of it right now."
Their efforts are not only good for farm production, but also for the Putnam County Airport, said Art Evans, who owns Dixie Chopper Air that operates the local facility.
"These are businessmen making a business decision to utilize the Putnam County Airport to help increase crop production locally. And in doing so, they're using 5,000 or 6,000 gallons of fuel (purchased from the airport).
"Ain't it nice that we've got an airport like this so they can do a job like this," Evans continued.
"So remember, it's not some kid who just got his pilot's license out buzzing your house," Evans added in alluding to the rumors. "It's a professional pilot out flying low over the countryside, doing his job, making things better for all of us in the long run."
Eric Bernsee contributed this story.