A Visit to the Helibase

Nothing like starting the day with some heavy metal.

When my friend Tristan posted a Facebook update mentioning that he was working fires out of a helibase in Leavenworth, it was all I needed to plan a play day up in the mountains. I told him I’d come at 7:30, before he started work, for a brief visit. Then I picked out a hiking destination nearby, texted a few friends, and made a hiking date.

Alyse and I pulled into the field at 7:30 sharp on Sunday morning. I saw Tristan’s helicopter, a bright yellow Croman Sikorsky S-61, parked in the field with some other very heavy metal. There were no cars near it.

Malcolm & Friends
Malcolm and friends at the Leavenworth, WA helibase.

I drove up to the base trailer and got out, leaving the Jeep’s engine running.

“I’m looking for Tristan,” I told a woman there, including his last name in my comment. “He flies the yellow one.”

“Oh, yeah, Tristan. He’s not here yet.”

A man nearby took interest. “You can’t be on my deck,” he said.

I assumed he meant flight deck. He was being kind but firm. “I’m a helicopter pilot,” I said. “I just want to say hello to my friend Tristan. I haven’t seen him in two years.”

“I really can’t have you on my deck when it’s active,” he said, softening a bit. “You can drive over there and wait for him, but you need to be out when we start flying.”

I thanked him and we headed over, down a path in the grass field with a Do Not Enter sign prominently displayed. I parked by a portable toilet and we got out, leaving Penny behind in the Jeep. I texted Tristan. A moment later, he called me to tell me he was one minute out.

S-61 Outfitted for Firefighting
The Sikorsky S-61 my friend Tristan is flying on a firefighting job in Washington. Note the tandem tanker truck his company uses to haul around jet fuel.

He drove up as I was taking my camera out of my day pack. We shared a big hug, I introduced him to Alyse, and he introduced me to the helicopter’s captain, Sean. We chatted for a few minutes about my old Ducati 900 SS CR, which he’d bought from me in the spring of 2013 at a smoking good price. He’d stripped it down and sold off lots of the parts, in the process of turning it into a real cafe racer.

He gave us a tour of the helicopter that included a walk inside, which had been stripped bare to keep the ship light. It smelled of oil and grease and JetA. The cockpit instrumentation was remarkably simple. There were N-numbers scribbled on a Plexiglas window on Tristan’s side with a dry erase marker.

We climbed down and walked around the side. Tristan told us how it flew — more squirrelly than an R22, he said — and mentioned a few interesting flight and maintenance characteristics. Sean went for the morning briefing and told Tristan he could stay behind. The rest of the crew started working on the preflight, pulling off the blade tie-downs and adding hydraulic fluid to a port near the rotor hub. Tristan showed us the two buckets they use — not at the same time, of course — and described how they dip in a small creek near the fire.

Here’s another view of Tristan’s ship. Note the Bambi bucket on the ground in front of it.

We talked about his job as the second in command and the things he’s responsible for doing. We talked about what it’s like to fly fires in his position. We talked about the work hours and the challenges and the parts that make it easy and hard. Tristan had lots to say. Like me, he always does.

Note to Non-Pilots:

A fire helibase can be a very dangerous place to visit — which is why nonessential personnel are normally not allowed on “the deck.” The base commander very kindly allowed me a short visit with my friend, but don’t expect him to do the same for you.

Fortunately, this helibase has a nice observer area where you can come visit and watch the helicopters come and go. If you come, obey all signage and the instructions of base personnel and remain within the civilian area.

After about 20 minutes, I figured I’d taken up enough of his time. Besides, the sun was climbing ever higher into the hazy, smoke-filled sky and I was anxious to get down into the Icicle River Gorge where the air would be cleaner and the only sound would be water rushing over rocks. So we said our goodbyes, shared another big hug, and left.

Later, after the hike, we drove past the helibase again. Although the Sky-Crane and Army Chinook were there, Tristan’s ride wasn’t. I didn’t stop.

I’d still like to fly some heavy metal someday. I’d like to see what it’s like to have all that helicopter behind me up in the air. And while I’m not sure I’d be a quick study learning to sling a bucket under a long line, I’m pretty sure I’d catch on and do a decent job. But I doubt that any of that is in my future. Instead, I’ll watch my pilot friends move through utility pilot careers and wonder what it’s really like to be in their shoes.

Or seat.

Good luck, Tristan! Fly safe!

Some Things You Probably Don’t Know about Growing Apples

Getting up close and personal with commercial orchard operations is a good way to learn about real-world agriculture.

Yesterday, I did a charter flight for one of my favorite clients, a company that owns or manages cherry, apple, and pear orchards throughout central Washington state. Throughout the growing season, they often need to visit one or more of their orchards for any number of reasons. Yesterday’s charter flight was to take one of their lead horticulturists around to meet with orchard managers or growers, so I landed in four different orchards.

Helicopter in Apple Orchard
My first landing zone yesterday was a gravel staging area on the north side of an irrigation pond.

I took Penny the Tiny Dog with me yesterday, which I don’t often do. She curled up on a dog bed in the back seat during each leg of our flight and then kept me company while I waited for my passenger to return to the helicopter landing zone from his business elsewhere on the orchard. She also gave me an excuse to go walking while I waited. Together, we walked on the dirt roads around the orchard blocks.

This isn’t something new to me; I’ve been doing this since my first flights for this client two years ago. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how various fruit is grown, both by observation and by asking questions when possible during flights. I think some of the things I’ve learned are interesting and, after getting some photos to illustrate what I’ve learned, I thought I’d share them here.

Apple Orchards Need Cooling

Food for thought: Apples bought in the spring or summer are not “fresh”

No matter where apples are grown in the U.S., none of them are picked before August. August through October is apple season. Apples grown in the U.S. and bought any other time of the year have been stored since apple season. There are huge concrete buildings all over apple country called CA (controlled atmospheric) storage in which apples are stored until they’re shipped to stores. There’s nothing wrong with these apples — CA storage is used because it works — but don’t think that the apple you buy in May has been picked off the tree earlier that month. Unless it’s grown south of the equator, it hasn’t.

Apples are among the last fruit to be harvested. Long after the cherries and apricots have been picked, the apples continue to grow and ripen. Some early varieties are ready for harvest in August, but most are harvested in September.

Of course, that means that apples are on trees in the hottest part of the summer. And in this part of Washington — the dry side of the mountains — they’re pretty much baking in the hot sun throughout July and August.

Extreme heat isn’t good for apples. To combat the heat, orchards use evaporative cooling — they have sprinkler heads mounted high above the tree tops and turn them on periodically on hot days. This significantly cools the orchard air.

Where do they get the water for this? Orchardists pull water from sources according to their water right limitations and use it for irrigation. Excess water is stored in ponds on the orchards and used for cooling, as well as for warming during frost season.

I should mention that grower with very deep pockets will sometimes erect shade structures over entire orchards to keep apples out of the hot sun. They sometimes also use crop-dusters to spray chemicals on apples to protect them from sunburn. This isn’t necessary for all apple varieties, however.

Reflected Light Helps Evenly Color Apples

All fruit shipped to market has to meet certain standards. Among these standards is color — red apples need to have a certain percentage of their surface colored red to be salable.

Apples get their red color by exposure to the sun. In a perfect world, apple trees would be widely spaced and pruned so that every apple on the tree got full exposure to the sun. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where farmers need to maximize profit on their land to survive. As a result, they plant the trees as close together as they can and prune only as much as necessary to get a good crop.

Gala Apples on the Tree
Typical bunch of gala apples growing on a tree in the Ice Harbor area of Washington.

Mylar Sheets between Apple Trees
Mylar is commonly used on the ground to reflect sunlight back up to the bottoms of apples.

To maximize the amount of sunlight on each apple, growers occasionally use reflective material such as mylar or white sheeting. The growers refer to this as Extenday, which is actually the trademark of a company that makes this material. They roll these sheets out under the trees between every row or every other row, anchoring them with piles of soil. This is done with a tractor and specialized attachment, which I got to see for the first time yesterday. The sheets are removed and discarded before harvest.

Spreading Extenday
Yesterday, I got to see them spreading mylar sheets in an orchard using a special tractor attachment.

It’s interesting to note that Rainier cherries also require a certain percentage of red color. Reflective sheets are also used to help get that color during growth. In fact, that’s usually how I know I’m flying over Rainier cherries when I dry them — because they have more delicate skins, I need to fly higher to prevent bruising.

Some Apples Require Cross-Pollination with Other Varieties

Not all apple varieties can pollinate themselves. Delicious apples, for example, require cross-pollination to bear fruit.

Orchardists commonly use different varieties of crabapples for cross-pollination. These trees are planted within the Delicious apple orchards — perhaps every fifth tree every other row — so that during pollination season bees can spread their pollen around.

Of course, after pollination season, crabapples grow on these trees just as Delicious apples grow on the trees around them. But because there’s no ready market for crabapples, they’re left behind at harvest time to basically rot on and around the trees. This is unfortunate because although they don’t taste very good, they can be used to make other products, including hard cider. Unfortunately, because they’re so tiny and yield such a low financial return, it’s usually not profitable to pick them.

Crabapples growing in a Delicious apple orchard.

Again, some varieties of cherries have the same cross-pollination requirements. Bing, for example, require cross-pollination. Some orchards will plant a less desirable cherry throughout the orchard and leave those cherries behind at harvest time; others will plant another desirable cherry, such as Rainiers or Lapins, and pick them separately.

Bees Can Be a Nuisance to Organic Apple Growers

As a beekeeper, I’m always interested in placing my bees in a location where they get an ample food supply. Earlier this year, when I was touring cherry orchards with a new cherry drying client, I noticed a bunch of beehives in a field. I asked him about it and was very surprised to learn that organic apple growers don’t like bees to be left behind past pollination contracts.

During pollination season, all apple growers rent beehives to ensure pollination of their trees. Non-organic growers don’t care how many successful flower pollinations there are. When the bees are gone and the fruit starts to grow, they spray a chemical that forces a good portion of the fruit to drop off the trees. This ensures that the fruit left behind gets more of the tree’s resources and grows well.

Organic farmers, however, can’t spray that chemical. As a result, they try to limit the number of apples on the trees by limiting the amount of time the bees are present. When a beekeeper removes bees from an orchard but keeps them in the area — perhaps a nearby field — the bees continue to pollinate the trees. As a result, there are too many apples on the organic trees and they need to be culled manually at a great expense to the grower.

So organic growers simply don’t want the bees around any longer than necessary.

Grass and Weeds in Orchards Help Bees Survive

Most orchards have strips of grass and weeds between rows of trees. This is impossible to prevent given that the area is irrigated, fertilized, and cleared of pests. The trees aren’t the only things to benefit from this. The grass and weeds can grow quite luxuriant.

This is good for bees, especially when those weeds produce flowers such as dandelions. In late summer, long after the fruit trees have been pollinated and fruit has begun to grow, other food sources such as wildflowers become scarce. Weeds in orchards sustain the bees.

Flower or Mushroom?
I still don’t know if this weird thing was a flower or a mushroom.

With colony collapse disorder (CCD) killing off bee colonies worldwide, growers are encouraged to leave the grass and weeds in orchards as long as possible to help the bees find a food source. Unfortunately, most orchards are mowed before the pickers come in to make it safer and easier for them to move and position ladders and get around the orchard.

Still, yesterday, I was reminded of this as I wandered into the tall, thick grass and heard bees flying all around.

More to Know

If you’ve gotten this far, I hope you’ve learned at least one thing about commercial fruit growing: that there’s a lot more to it than simply planting and watering trees and picking fruit at the end of the season.

When we go to the supermarket — or even to the farmer’s market — to buy fruits and vegetables, we have no idea what the growers did to make that produce grow and get it to market. The next time you’re at a farmer’s market chatting with a real farmer, take some time to learn more about the food you’re buying. If you’re like me, you’ll find it fascinating and get a lot more respect for them and their efforts.

Another Reason Why I Love It Here

Wildlife watching from the door to my front deck.

I’d been told that there were bighorn sheep in the cliffs up behind my home. And more than once I’ve heard them knocking rocks around up there as they move along the cliff face. And occasionally Penny will bark like a crazy dog at the cliffs, obviously hearing or seeing something I can’t. But despite purchasing and using a set of binoculars last autumn, I haven’t been able to see the animals up on the cliffs.

Until last week. That’s when Penny’s urgent barking caught my attention and I spotted three bighorn sheep — two adults and a yearling — in my neighbor’s front yard. I rushed Penny into the RV to shut her up and grabbed my binoculars.

Unfortunately, I got more of an eyeful than I expected. Not only did I get a close look at one of the animals, but I also got a too close look at my neighbor, who’d come out stark naked to photograph them.

Life’s different out here.

Today, more barking got my attention. And this time, when I rushed Penny into the RV, I grabbed my Nikon, 300mm lens, and monopod. Then I went into my unfinished building, climbed the stairs, and opened the door to my future front deck. I zoomed in on one of the animals grazing in the yard. Her head was down but I waited. No sense taking a picture of her back. After about a minute, I was rewarded. She popped her head up and looked right at me.

Bighorn Sheep
Captured in pixels from the door to my future front deck.

This isn’t the only interesting animal we have around here. There are also golden and bald eagles and other birds of prey that I see daily. There are quail — which have youngsters right now — as well as robins, magpies, and hummingbirds. I hear owls but have never seen one here. There are coyotes, which I occasionally see but more often hear at night. There’s elk and deer in the area, but I’m not sure if they ever make appearances near my home. And, of course, there are bull snakes and rattlesnakes.

It’s nice to live in a place that’s remote enough for wildlife viewing out my window without being too remove to take advantage of the conveniences a small city like Wenatchee has to offer. I really like it here — I only wish I’d moved here sooner.

The Oil/Water Separator

Another do-it-yourself project for my home.

I had a lot of time to design my new home. A lot of time. And not only did I have time to think about the building and how I would use it, but I also thought a lot about the land.

The Plan — or at least the relevant part of it

I decided that I’d try to plant a small vineyard. The rolling hills on the east end of my property are well-suited for wine grapes and, after all, there is a winery less than a half mile down the road. If I did everything right and could produce some good grapes, I could sell them for supplemental income. I don’t expect to get rich and I certainly don’t want to become a winemaker, but it would be a nice way to join the agricultural community beyond my short season cherry drying work. Of course, all this is a bit in the future — 2 to 3 years, I think — but it got me thinking about features I could incorporate into my building to make it more attractive for someone who might want to buy a vineyard and start making wine.

And that’s what got me thinking about the floor drain. If there’s one thing you need when you’re making wine, it’s a place to rack the wine. Wine racking involves pumping wine out of the barrels where they’re aging, cleaning the lees (dregs) out of the barrels, sterilizing the barrels, and pumping the wine back in. The process is time consuming and labor intensive and since you’re dumping the lees and rinsing the barrels, the runoff has to go somewhere. Being able to do this indoors, in the shade, in a possibly temperature-controlled space would be a big plus for a future winemaker, making my property a bit more attractive than it otherwise might be.

As if the view and the privacy and the giant garage and the wrap-around deck weren’t enough.

Besides, I reasoned, I’d like a drain in the floor, too. It would make it possible for me to wash a car or my RV indoors or simply hose off the floor.

The Drain

I talked to the builder and we decided on a 24-foot long drain with a grate on top and pipe leading the water out the back of the building. I already had a drainage channel dug back there to take rainwater off the roof away from the building. We’d tap into that.

I went to Home Depot and bought the parts: 2 10-foot lengths and 1 4-foot length of drain channel, 12 2-foot lengths of snap-in grating, 2 10-foot lengths of plastic pipe, 3 drain channel fittings, and 1 drain channel end cap. I spent just over $500.

When the workers prepped the floor for the concrete pour at June month-end, they installed the channel and the cap. It sat above the gravel grade; the concrete would be poured around it. They covered the grate with duct tape to prevent concrete from getting in. And then they poured.

Pouring Concrete around the Drain
In this shot, the drain channel divides the poured concrete from the unpoured gravel floor. The concrete is basically as thick as the drain channel is high.

Finishing around the Drain
You can barely see the drain in this shot; they used silver duct tape that really blends in with the concrete color.

Finishing took effort. The drain runs down the center of a 24 x 48 foot space. The front, back, and sides needed to slope down gently to the drain so if water got into that space, it would eventually end up in the drain. I was told that the slope would not be steep and that was fine with me. I didn’t expect to use it very often anyway.

The Drain in my Floor
Here’s the drain looks like today, although it’s actually longer than what you see here. The white “stain” is from me hosing off my tile saw; some of the water came back into the building and went where it’s supposed to go: into the drain. That’ll wash away the next time I use the hose.

Later, when the concrete was dry, I peeled off the duct tape. I even took out a hose and hosed down the floor to watch the water flow into the drain. I walked around the back of the building and watched the water move away. Cool.

The Oil/Water Separator

There was a bit more to the drain than just the drain itself. Because the drain was in the floor of a garage space, it needed an oil/water separator. That’s a contraption (for lack of a better word) that prevents oil that might wash away from vehicles from getting into the ground. Instead, it’s trapped and, when enough has accumulated, can be cleaned out.

Before buying the drain parts, I did some research. I found a very simple oil/water separator that I thought I could make myself. It was basically a container with a water inlet from the drain and outlet to the drainage ditch. Inside the container were two baffles or dividers. One was short but went to the bottom of the container; sludge would gather between the inlet and that first baffle. The other was short but went nearly to the top of the container with space beneath it. The water would move through there but the oil, which floats, would stay at the top. The water would then go through the discharge outlet, clean.

Oil/Water Separator
Here’s the design I found on the Web.

Box Diagram
Here’s a diagram of the box. I didn’t buy the grate, mostly because I wanted it completely covered; I don’t want to be fishing dead rodents out of oily sludge.

I sent this image to the plans inspector to see what he thought. He agreed that it would do the job. I suggested making it out of a heavy-duty plastic toolbox. He said that wasn’t heavy-duty enough.

It took a while to figure out what I could use as the container. It was Tanya who suggested that I go to H2 Pre-Cast near Wenatchee Airport. I sat down with the sales guy and showed him my drawing. He showed me concrete boxes on his computer screen. I spent $70 for a small one with a concrete lid.

The Concrete Box
They used a forklift to load the box onto my truck for a reason — it’s very heavy.

When I realized I how heavy it was, I rushed home to get there before the crew working on my building went home for the day. I let them use their forklift to get it off my truck. They stowed it in the building. Later, when they’d gone for the day, I used the forklift to move it to the back of the building so it would be out of the way.

When the concrete was poured, the box was waiting for the rest of the installation: digging a hole for the box, moving it in, and putting in the baffles. That was my job — and I had no idea how I was going to do it.

The Concrete Solution

I thought about how I would do this for almost a month. I talked to friends. My friend Bob suggested using the concrete pavers I already had to build the dividers. He had a masonry saw he thought could do the job. Because the interior of the box was smaller on the bottom than the top, if we cut the pavers just the right size they should slip into place. We could then use a cement paste to sort of “glue” them in.

It sounded good to me.

In the meantime, I had to get the box into the ground. That meant digging a hole in compacted earth. Fortunately the earth there has very few rocks and I have a very heavy digging stick. I made short work of the job one morning before it got hot and the spot was still in the shade.

Of course, I still needed to get the box in the hole. And I couldn’t budge the box.

The solution came on a motorcycle: my friend Mike. Looking for an early morning destination with his dirt bike, he showed up at 6 AM on Tuesday. After giving him hot coffee and a bacon and egg breakfast, I led him around to the back of the building to the little moving problem I’d discussed with him on the phone. Together, we knocked out the holes on either side of the box — guess who I was thinking of as I banged away with a heavy hammer on one of the punch outs? — and lowered it into the hole. Then we connected a cut length of pipe to the pipe coming out of the building to make the inlet and used the rest of the pipe as an outlet.

Now I was ready for Bob and his masonry saw.

But it was Tuesday and Bob works 10-hour days during the week. The soonest he’d be able to come would be Friday — if he didn’t have something else on his plate for his only weekday off. And I’d been thinking about other solutions.

Like concrete.

I figured I could make 2 concrete forms for the inside of the box, mix up some concrete — I already had portland cement and sand — and pour the concrete into the forms.

And that’s exactly what I did on Wednesday. I cut some 1-1/2 inch foam insulation sheets I had lying around into 4 dividers. I positioned the dividers for the pour, being sure to place more foam under the dividers on the outlet side to leave a space under the baffle. I used scrap lumber to hold everything in place. It looked extremely makeshift.

Foam dividers are held in place by pieces of scrap lumber.

Then I mixed up some concrete in a big paint bucket. I tried 4 parts portland cement + 4 parts sand + 4 parts water but the mixture — once I got it mixed up enough — seemed too thin. So I added 2 more parts of cement. The resulting blend looked like it might be thick enough to stay within the forms.

So I poured it.

Concrete immediately began leaking from the first form. But only for a moment; it seemed to sort of clot itself, like blood on a wound. So I kept pouring. I poured both forms, stopping the inset side form about 2/3 of the way up and bringing the outlet side form (with the foam beneath it) within a few inches of the top of the box. Then I got down on my hands and knees, scooped up the leaked concrete and slapped it against the walls where the pipes came in and out. I did the best I could to use all the concrete in the baffle forms and around the pipes. It looked awful when I was done. So did my hands.

After the Pour
Here’s the big picture after the pour. You can see the box lid standing up against the side of the building as well as one of the pavers Bob wanted to cut for baffles.

I cleaned up and resisted the temptation, for the rest of the day, to pull off the forms. Instead, I used a level and a shovel to make sure the outlet pipe sloped down. I put the paver on top of it and closed up its mouth with some hardware cloth to keep the rodents out. (Around here, you don’t wonder if the mice will get in. You assume they will and take preventative measures to keep them out.) Then I buried both pipes and brought the dirt around the outside of the box.

On Thursday, I could resist no longer. In all honesty, I didn’t think it would work. I couldn’t imagine why freshly poured concrete would adhere to the concrete walls of the box. But it did. As I pulled the forms out, cracking and cutting them as I worked, I revealed the smooth walls of my new concrete baffles. With a little cleaning up, it would be all ready for inspection.

Finished Separator
Here’s my finished oil/water separator after cleaning it up a bit. The inlet from the drain in the building is on the right; the outlet is n the left. Although you can’t see it, there’s space beneath the left side baffle.

Inspection and Test

I was hoping I’d be around when the inspector stopped by so we could test it together, but I was on a charter flight at an orchard near Othello. He called me to get access to the building, which is secured by a keyless lock. He asked me to remind him what he was supposed to inspect.

“The oil/water separator and the framing,” I told him. “If you want to run the hose over to the drain in the building to test the oil/water separator, you can. Just don’t add oil unless you have to.”

“Oh, I already looked at that,” he told me. “It’s fine.”

And that’s that.

Of course, I wanted to test it. I wanted to make sure the water drained out properly.

Besides, who doesn’t like playing with flowing water?

So I ran a hose into my RV garage and laid it down by the drain. Then I turned on the water and ran around to the back of the building. I’d just managed to turn on my phone’s video camera when the water arrived.

Here’s the test. The water was only turned on partway — I have excellent water pressure. But the outlet drain kept up with the inflow of water and none of the water went over the top of the outlet side baffle.


What I like best about my solution for the oil/water separator is that other than the concrete box, I already had everything I needed to get the job done: foam for forms, scrap wood for supports, cement, sand, hardware cloth. So rather than spend over $1,000 for one of the many of the pre-made solutions out there, I got the job done for about $70. You gotta like that.

One More Thing

Of course, not everything could go perfectly smoothly.

Wrong Lid
Duh-oh! These two pieces were sitting around here for two months and I never noticed I had the wrong size lid.

When I was cleaning up the area after the test, I put the lid on the box. That’s when I discovered that I had the wrong size lid.

Well, at least I can lift it to return it for the right one.