Snow, Henry Leland (1930–2011)

By: Norman Rozeff

Type: Biography

Published: May 29, 2019

Henry Leland Snow, aeronautical engineer, industrialist, and crop dusting pilot, was born on May 31, 1930, in Brownsville, Texas, to Arkansas-born Carrie Beth (Sewell) Snow and Texas native Henry Evans Snow. His grandfather, Elbert C. Snow, had come to the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1909 and had taken up farming south of Donna. By 1935 Henry Evans Snow moved his family to the farming community of Santa Rosa where he continued his vocation as a supervisory civil engineer. Henry Leland Snow, who went by his middle name Leland, developed a fascination with flying at an early age. At age six he had already made up his mind to be a pilot, and at the age of nine he was building balsa wood and tissue paper models with wingspans taller than he was. By 1942 the family moved to Harlingen, where his father later established his own engineering firm. Leland Snow attended Harlingen High School, where he was a member of the National Honor Society, the Shop Club, and a cast member in theatrical productions produced by the Masque and Wig Club. At age fifteen he began working at the Harlingen airport in exchange for flying lessons. He received his pilot's license at age sixteen and soon started flying crop dusters to earn money. He graduated from Harlingen High School in 1947.

Just after graduating high school Leland learned of an Aeronca plane that had been heavily damaged in a bad storm. He purchased the wreck for $200, repaired it, and was able to fly it to College Station where he attended the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University). While still in school, he began designing plans to construct an agricultural application airplane that would be superior to other planes in use, and to that end, he used his mother's car as collateral that enabled him to borrow $1,200 from a Harlingen bank in 1951. He graduated from A&M in 1952 and went on to study aeronautical engineering at graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin from where he graduated in 1953. While at UT he was a member of the student branch of the Institute of Aeronautical Sciences.

After graduation Leland Snow returned to his Harlingen home and worked on his airplane construction; he used the family garage at 401 Buchanan Avenue. He envisioned his plane with wings attached to the base of the fuselage thereby providing greater stability. He completed his S-1 aircraft in 1953. Needing to earn a living, Snow used his plane for crop dusting farms in the Harlingen area. He flew out of Harvey Richards Field, once the municipal airport of Harlingen. When his work for the local agricultural scene ended, he flew a crop duster to Nicaragua and began treating crops there. He returned in early December 1953. Snow continued improvement of his plane in his home and garage and in 1955 had designed his advanced S-2 model applicator, but he needed working capital to further his dream. When he could not secure funding in the Valley, he found his financial opportunity in North Texas. In Olney, Texas, a small community about forty-five miles south of Wichita Falls, not only was capital offered to him but also a manufacturing location. During World War II Olney was the site of a U. S. Navy bomber pilot school with its large airfield. The local business leaders were aware of the volatile nature of oil and ranching, industries that had dominated the town’s economy, and looked for a more stable enterprise. They were impressed by Snow’s endeavor and agreed to provide the funds for him to pursue his dream. He moved his two partially-finished planes in five cattle trucks to Olney in January 1958. The existing facilities at the municipal airport served as the site of Snow's aircraft production. He founded Snow Aeronautical Company and began construction of his manufacturing facilities. In the summer of 1958 his S-2B was certified, and two orders for it soon followed. By 1965, 300 of Snow's aircraft had been manufactured and delivered.

The company's upward rise was interrupted by a customer lawsuit over a crash unrelated to wing design. Snow was forced to take on two partners to avoid closure. The partners in turn forced a sale in 1965 to Rockwell-Standard (later to become Rockwell International involved with the space industry). Leland Snow was named vice president of Rockwell’s Aero Commander division, and he developed another crop dusting plane—the Model S-2R, known as the Thrush. Approximately 100 Thrush aircraft were manufactured at the Olney plant. When Rockwell made the decision to move operations to Albany, Georgia, and close the Olney plant in 1970, Snow resigned.

Snow devoted his attention to designing a new ag plane, and by 1972 he launched his new company—Air Tractor, Inc., in Olney, Texas. The name Air Tractor came into being when Snow acquired it from a defunct manufacturer. Two years later saw the new plane roll off the production line in a new facility in Olney. The 147,000-square-foot manufacturing facility was eventually capable of producing a plane every two working days. In 1977 Snow designed the first turbine-powered craft—the Model AT-302. In 1991 he produced the AT-802 as the world’s largest ag plane. Ag Tractor aircraft are used primarily for spraying, fertilization, seeding, mosquito control, cleaning up oil spills, and firefighting work. While more than 85 percent of sales have been for agricultural purposes, some planes have been utilized for drug eradication in South America. In 2008 Air Tractor manufactured an unusual modification in the Air Truck AT-802U as a two seater armored light attack plane. Outfitted with 12.7 mm GAU-19A three-barrel Gatlin guns, MK-62 rocket launchers, and MK-82 bombs, the plane could fly at a lower altitude and speed (210 mph maximum) and offered more adaptability in certain combat conditions. It was used in Afghanistan.

In 2008 Snow made an extraordinary business decision. Having witnessed the economic trauma wrought on the community of Olney when Rockwell closed the plant in 1970, Snow wanted to make sure that such a relocation would never happen again. In 2008 he sold Air Tractor to its employees. In the years 2012 and 2013 the company produced 180 aircraft a year. Air Tractor sold planes worldwide. Snow, who considered his best design to be the Air Tractor completed in 1972, designed more than thirty aircraft during his career. He received numerous aviation and industry awards and has been credited for giving “birth to the agricultural aviation industry.” In 2000 he was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame. In 2005 Air Tractor, the world’s leading producer of agricultural aircraft, received the Better Business Bureau International Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics. Snow was a generous financial supporter of the National Agricultural Aviation Association and its programs for pilot safety and drift minimization. He published his autobiography Putting Dreams to Flight in 2008.

Leland Snow married Nancy Lynn Bacon in December 1964. They had two daughters. He and his wife Nan supported the arts in Wichita Falls and were longtime sponsors of the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra. He enjoyed listening to classical music and playing the piano. Snow had a special interest in physical fitness and took up running. He became so adept that he even ran in several marathons after he turned sixty-five, and he logged more than 17,000 miles of running since 1990. Henry Leland Snow, at age eighty, died on February 20, 2011, while jogging near his Wichita Falls home.

Air Tractor (, accessed May 28, 2019. Stephen Pope, “Leland Snow, Air Tractor Founder, Dies at 80,” Flying Magazine, February 23, 2011 (, accessed May 28, 2019. Leland Snow, Putting Dreams to Flight (Wichita Falls, Texas: Midwestern State University Press, 2008). Loren Steffy, “Great Planes: How an engineer from the Rio Grande Valley turned a small North Texas town into a hotbed of aviation innovation,” Texas Monthly, December 2015.

  • Agriculture
  • Science
  • Scientists and Researchers
  • Business
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Company Founders
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Norman Rozeff, “Snow, Henry Leland,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022,

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May 29, 2019