Despite success and good fortune in dirt moving, Precht has never let go of flying airplanes. When the fields are too wet to work, he takes to the skies, flying at least several times each week. But he only flies out of passion and love; he wouldn’t trade his “stress-free” job for crop dusting. He knows he made the right career decision years ago: “I know I would have made an excellent ag pilot, but I’m truly blessed by God to run a dirt crew.”

 

(For a gallery of Precht and crew at work, see Photos: Shifting farmland with Robert Precht)

 

Precht also knows the risks inherent in flying over farmland. There is no forgiveness in crop dusting — it only takes one mistake. Precht makes it clear that danger always hovers close, and any ag pilot — rookie or veteran — works only a few feet from death. “It takes a special individual to get in the cockpit, put it on the deck, work it day-in and day-out, and breathe in life-and-death situations all day long.”

And he speaks with sobering authority — because in February of 2013, it all came home for the Precht family.

Billy Precht — ag pilot extraordinaire

When Robert Precht left the Krielow rice fields for construction, Billy Precht left the fields for agricultural aviation. Bolstered by the 42-year crop dusting legacy of his father, Billy was a natural. He was no daredevil and didn’t play with chance; just a straight-laced pilot with a reputation for fine work. He was a man’s man with no flash and no boasting. But on Feb. 15, 2013, despite Billy’s caution and years of experience, the risks caught up.

Finishing a spray as the sun was edging down, Billy made a final pass into a Jennings rice field at 150 miles per hour. On the approach, his left wing clipped a communication tower guy wire just 3.5 feet in from the wingtip. The force of the strike jolted the aircraft, slowed it to 120 miles per hour — and knocked Billy unconscious. From the moment of collision with the guy wire, his plane flew on its own for two-and-a-half minutes. The plane went into an immediate climb, rising to 400 feet, and began a gradual descending arc around the field. It had almost circled back to the communications tower before coming down in a hard landing, nearly in line with the original pass Billy had started on. The aircraft wasn’t balled up and the wreckage wasn’t severe — but Billy Precht, at age 52, had already passed on — unable to survive the initial jarring impact with the guy wire.

Robert was shattered. “My brother meant the world to me. I’m still just as crazy about him and he’ll always be alive in my heart. I was proud of him and I’ll honor my brother until the day I see him again.”

 

 

Robert went to the crash site to take it all in: tower, trajectory, impact spot — none of it made sense until days later, when he looked at the aircraft’s GPS card and saw the odd flight pattern and trajectory. “I believe God came and put his hand in and set the plane down. In all rights, that plane should have been balled up or been buried in the ground. I just think it was Billy’s time. I always figured I’d go before him, being the wild card of the brothers.”

Robert stayed out of the air for a month after Billy’s death, and then steeled himself to climb back in the cockpit — partly for Billy, partly for himself: “Now every time I fly — I feel like he’s with me. We used to tell each other, ‘Brother, if I punch out before you, I’ll give you some kind of sign.’ Let me tell you something. One night, days after my brother had passed, I woke at 3 a.m., to the sound of Billy’s voice telling me he was OK. This was no dream — I heard the voice. I got up, sat in the kitchen and knew I’d heard Billy. On the days when I get to feeling down — I go back to that voice.”