Flying over Delaware beaches — now and then

Date Published: 
March 17, 2017

Coastal Point • Submitted: Joe Hudson flying his Navion Range Master.Coastal Point • Submitted: Joe Hudson flying his Navion Range Master.Joe Hudson began his flying career while still in high school, during the 1940s, as a student fish-spotter. Today he is known as “dean of Delaware crop-dusters.”

By the summer of 2016, Cape Henlopen High School students had been flying camera drones and taking pictures of the Delaware beaches, including the World War II towers, for almost two years.

Thanks to a very unique photography class and enthusiastic art teacher, Jason Fruchtman, the students have learned to master the camera drone and create stunning images.

More than 70 years ago, Lewes High School students were quite literally flying over the same beaches for a very different reason. It was not a class. They were at work, fish-spotting. Just how did these guys get to do this?

Growing up in Harbeson during the 1930s and ’40s, Joe and his best friend, Ted Freeman, hung around the airport in Rehoboth Beach. They washed planes, got a job “sweeping up,” then traded more work for flying lessons.

In ninth grade, Joe took his first airplane ride in a J-3 Cub, and he continued to work delivering milk to the Georgetown Airport each morning at 4 a.m. Once the sun came up, he could watch the Navy trainers practice carrier landings and “snatch guys up of the ground by a hook.” The trainers flew over the Delaware Bay from their home at Cape May County Naval Air Station in Wildwood, N.J.

In 1943, the 23rd Carrier Aircraft Service Unit was stationed in Georgetown, so Joe was able to watch the Grumman TBF-1 Avenger — the Navy carrier-based torpedo-bomber — practice its landings. And he watched the Curtiss 2B2C dive-bomber practice bombing near the marshlands adjacent to the Georgetown Airport. Joe’s high-school years were filled with days of work at both airports, with his friend Ted.

As high-school students, Joe and Ted were already flying and being paid to do it. They flew over the Delaware Bay and along the Atlantic coast in Stinson aircraft owned by the Rehoboth Airport, looking for schools of menhaden fish.

Later, their planes were owned by Lewes Mayor Otis Smith, who also ran his family’s fish-products company. Their task was to identify the blackish stains on the water’s surface as menhaden, determine their direction of movement and inform the fishing-boat captains below.

The Stinson aircraft of the late ’40s were not yet equipped with radios, so Joe and Ted dropped sealed bottles or jars containing notes as to the menhaden’s location and direction of travel. While flying, they threw down jars with lids and bottles with corks, and that was called “fish-spotting.”

By his senior year of high school, Joe had already earned his commercial pilot’s license and used it to win a contract to spray mosquitos for the state. Joe also ran charter flights and continued fish-spotting.

During high school, he and Ted flew their boss, Otis Smith, to all his fisheries along the Atlantic, from New York to Florida. They may have been just “student fish-spotters,” but later pilots would have considered them “pioneer fish-spotters.” By the late ’50s and early ’60s, the adult fish-spotter pilots used radios to communicate with the big steamers. By then, both Joe and Ted were flying larger aircraft for different purposes.

In 1950, Joe began his own aerial application business, with two World War II vintage aircraft. He redesigned the Stearman bi-planes, originally used as Air Force trainers, and outfitted them for spraying chemicals.

By 1956, he owned and operated seven Stearman spray planes and hired other pilots and a “ground man” to mix chemicals and keep them flying. At 20, he and his team worked off of his private airstrip just north of Lewes.

About a year later, Joe traded his Stearmans for two twin-engine Beechcraft airplanes. The change was because the nozzles on the Stearmans continually leaked, covering the pilots, planes and ground crew with chemicals.

The equipment on the Stearmans had been converted for spraying, but Joe said “it was not made for it” and never really worked very well. His aerial application business was becoming more precise and needed to be much more efficient, as well as safe.

Joe took what he had learned, then designed, built and installed new spray systems for both twin Beeches. He won FAA approval for his new spray systems. They were the first twin-engine spray planes in the East, and so effective that they replaced five of his seven Stearmans. Joe soon became one of the largest aerial applicators on the Delmarva Peninsula, and “one of the first pioneers of the aerial spraying business.”

Reporter Andy Cline named Joe the “crop-spraying pioneer” in 1978, after watching him work a field of wheat. Cline wrote about how the “sleek racy craft banked steeply then zoomed inches from the crop expelling the load.”

After each pass, he said, the plane appeared to “float for a moment” as it turned to make another pass. It would disappear behind the trees, reappear, engine roaring, skimming the tree line, and dropping quickly to the wheat after dodging power lines. Then it was gone and quiet.

Cline watched as the “duster” headed west for home, disappearing into the pink dust. Flying in to the darkening blue-pink twilight, was Joe really thinking “another field with a higher yield because of aerial applications?” Maybe. He did love to fly, but he also did so much good for so many people.

During his flying career, Joe Hudson also helped Beebe Medical Center add facilities, including a wing in 2008 and a helipad to service the Delaware State Police helicopters. In 2014, he donated his beloved Navion Range Master aircraft to the power-plant program at the Delaware Technical Community College.

The airframe and power-plant facility located near the Delaware Costal Airport is now the home of the Theodore C. Freeman Powerplant Education Building, dedicated in 2014 and named after Joe’s best friend. Joe’s wish was that his donated Navion would help the college graduate more students as airframe and powerplant technicians.

As of early 2016, Joe was still a farmer, aviator, business entrepreneur, humanitarian, philanthropist, developer and “dean of Delaware crop-dusters.” Asked what he would say to students today, he said, “Learn to fly. The No. 1 thing is to be good at business, and then make money and make people happy.”