Kauai crop duster Joseph E. Bell Jr. worked for 8 sugar plantations
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, World War II fighter pilot Joseph E. Bell Jr. (1925-1967) had accumulated seven years of experience as a crop duster in Arizona before joining Murrayair Ltd. on the Big Island in 1954.
Described as being one of the world’s best crop dusters, Bell transferred to Kauai in 1957, where at that time and for years to come sugar was cultivated in cane fields extending around Kauai from Kilauea to Mana, with eight sugar plantations in operation: Kilauea Sugar Co., Lihue Plantation, Grove Farm Plantation, McBryde Sugar Co., Olokele Sugar Co., Gay &Robinson Sugar Co., Waimea Sugar Co. and Kekaha Sugar Co.
On Kauai, Bell could be seen flying his 450-horsepower Stearman PT-13 biplane almost every morning six days a week, diving and climbing above canefields and skimming low over them to drop fertilizer pellets, or to spray cane ripener upon them, with an average load of 1,500 pounds, enough to spray 22 acres or fertilize four or five acres.
While dusting a Grove Farm canefield in July 1960, “I ran out of altitude, air speed and ideas,” Bell later said.
His plane crashed and burned as a result, but he walked away, and after two days spent recuperating from chest injuries, he was back to work.
He often said, “If it’s the last thing I do before I die, I’m going to fly under the Hanalei Bridge,” and on Friday evening, July 14, 1967, he actually did fly his Murrayair Stearman biplane under it.
Then he landed in a pasture at Haena, took off, and was seen by residents of Hanalei, Wainiha and Haena gliding over the ocean and soaring high through aerial acrobatics, when suddenly he crashed near the Haena Dry Cave about 100 yards mauka of the main road and was killed.
Crop duster Joseph E. Bell Jr. was survived by his wife, Ellen Marie, his daughter, Judy, and three sons: Joseph E. III, Scott and John.
Hank Soboleski has been a resident of Kauai since the 1960s. Hank’s love of the island and its history has inspired him, in conjunction with The Garden Island Newspaper, to share the island’s history weekly. The collection of these articles can be found here: https://bit.ly/2IfbxL9 and here https://bit.ly/2STw9gi Hank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I went through Kapaa High School (class of 1966) with his daughter Judy. Used to watch him spraying the cane fields by our house in Kapaa. A terrific pilot. I admired his bravery. A great loss to a fine family and to Kauai.
Thank you for your kind words about my dad.
Kamaaina Hanalei resident Dick Sloggett has correctly informed me that Bell flew under the
present Kalihiwai Bridge, not the Hanalei Bridge. My original source was incorrect. Dick Sloggett also told me that Bell was good friends with the late Hobey Goodale.
I have heard many exploits of Joe Bell’s aerial acrobatics while crop dusting Lihue Sugar Plantation cane fields. The flag holder person who marked the spot often says he would fly over him dropping fertilizer than do a roll over pass often to the delight of kids watching him fly.
He was such a cool pilot and established quite a reputation at all the eight sugar plantations on Kauai. Too bad the air traffic control no longer tolerate such tactics, spoiling all the fun in watching such an accomplished pilot enjoy himself doing what he does best.
From what I gather while working for MurrayAir Joe Bell actually flew under the Kalihiwai Bridge then did a figure 8 loop above the bridge after flying underneath it, but could not recover due to the low attitude and crashed in the ocean that proved fatal.
I was asked by an English mechanic if I knew Joe Bell, but unfortunately only second hand information about him. Apparently he was well known during his WWII fighter pilot days even from British people during the war.
Went to St Catherines School with Joe’s son John in the 60’s. Joe was a legend and we all enjoyed his aerial acrobats.
I remember him flying over the cane fields near the elementary school in Koloa, and over fields between Koloa and Poipu.