They Call the Wind Maria

A blog post about pollinating corn with a helicopter.

The call came on Monday from someone who works with a very large agricultural manufacturer. Do I do corn pollination with my helicopter?

The only thing I knew about pollination by helicopter was the spreading of purchased pollen using a special piece of equipment installed in a helicopter. It was a two-person job — one to fly, one to measure out the pollen — and I didn’t have the equipment or experience. I’d actually looked into at the request of one of my cherry pilots this past winter, but when he didn’t seem interested in moving forward and I suspected I might need special certification for aerial application, I let it drop.

Besides, I didn’t realize helicopters were used for corn pollination. I thought helicopters just spread pollen over fruit orchards.

But this new potential client didn’t want me to apply pollen from the air. He wanted me to fly over the cornfields in such a way that the pollen would get blown about and do its fertilization thing.

The way he described it, it didn’t sound much different from the kind of flying I do when I dry cherries. Sure, I told him. I could do that.

The Field Guy

After sending the company a copy of my W-9 for billing purposes — big companies always want the paperwork first — I got a call from the field guy. We’ll call him Bill. Bill and I set up a meeting at the White Trail Produce farm stand in Quincy. It was a perfect place to meet, despite the fact it was an hour drive from my place in Malaga. White Trails makes the best peach shakes.

I was drinking a peach shake with Penny on her leash when Bill drove up. Although we’d never met, I easily guessed it was him — he had a plastic chemical tank on the back of his pickup. We sat down in the shade and talked about the work.

Corn Tassel
Wikipedia image “Corntassel 7095″ by Spedona Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons; http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Corntassel_7095.jpg

The problem was this: as the corn was growing, a heat wave had set in. For the past nearly 2 weeks, the daytime highs had been getting into the high 90s and low 100s. The corn had formed tassels at the top — that’s the male part of the plant that produces pollen — and each day the packets of pollen were opening, ready for the pollen to be dispersed by the wind.

Corn Silk
Wikipedia image “Cornsilk 7091″ by Original uploader was Pollinator at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Teratornis using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornsilk_7091.jpg

Unfortunately, the extremely hot weather was killing the pollen within a few hours and the lack of wind was making it nearly impossible for the pollen to reach the corn silk — that’s the female part of the plant growing lower on the stalk — while it was still viable.

Bill’s corn fields needed wind — on demand.

That’s where I came in. They’d call me out to fly low over the corn fields at the time when the most pollen was being released by the tassels — likely between 8 AM and 10 AM. I’d fly back and forth, making sure all the plants got a good blowing. Once the pollen was flying around, gravity and mother nature would do the rest.

That was the plan, anyway.

Bill gave me four maps, each of which had at least a dozen or two corn field locations plotted on it. Each had a different number. They were scattered throughout an area that was probably 50 square miles. He said that each field was on its own schedule, so they would never all be done at once. Instead, only a handful would need to be done on a day.

That worked fine for me. I have a one-hour minimum for flights at my charter rate and would be spending at least 30 minutes round trip for travel time, which they would cover. If I could do two or three fields on a flight, it would likely come out to 90 minutes, which looked good for my bottom line and gave them more bang for their buck. Win-win.

I was booked with a photo flight in Seattle at dawn on Wednesday morning, so my first available day was Thursday. Bill said he’d call Wednesday night with a plan.

The Flight

Bill called Wednesday evening. I pulled out the maps. He listed two fields in Quincy and one in George. He asked me to be at the first Quincy field at 9:30 AM. He’d be on the ground, watching what I did. If I needed to make an adjustment in speed, altitude, or distance between passes, he’d call and let me know. Because the second field in Quincy was so close, he’d probably watch that one, too.

We hung up and I looked up the fields on Google Maps, knowing that the plantings in the satellite view might not match what was actually on the ground. I found the cross streets and noted the shape of the fields. I highlighted the fields on my maps.

Corn Field 1
The first field was easy; all corn, no obstacles. I came in from the southeast and went back and forth to the north.

At 9:15 AM Thursday, I took off and headed to Quincy. After following Road 9 instead of Road 8 for about a mile past the field location, I doubled back and zeroed in on the first field. Bill’s truck was in the southwest corner. As I came in to make my first pass about 10 rows in, he got out of his truck to watch.

It took me a few minutes to get the hang of it; my brain wanted to dry cherries. But this was higher: about 15 feet rather than 5. It was also faster: 20-24 miles per hour rather than 5 to 10 miles per hour.

I looked back on my first few passes to see my coverage and realized that every 20 or so rows would be perfect — the corn was really blowing at least 20 feet on either side of the helicopter. (The corn rows were planted 22 inches apart.) I was probably on my third pass before I got the feel for where I should be and how fast I should be moving. I was on my fifth pass when I started making baby ag turns — not much more was needed at the speed I was operating.

Bill watched. I kept expecting my phone to ring, but it didn’t. When I got near the north end of the field, I realized I had an onlooker there, too.

Corn Field 2
The second field had wires just outside the field. I came in from the north over the wires, circled around, and went up and down the rows. This satellite image doesn’t show the field as it appeared during the flight, of course.

I got through the first field, which was the largest, in about 15 minutes. The second field was right across the road. The were wires on both ends of it, but they weren’t that close to the corn. I made my turns inside the field so there was no need to go anywhere near the wires. Bill repositioned to the north end of that field to watch. When I was nearly done, I realized he was on the phone. Again, I expected my phone to ring, but it remained quiet.

Corn Field 3
This is the last field, which was fully planted with corn. This image doesn’t show the irrigation pivot, but if you look closely enough, you should be able to see the wires on the west side.

I finished up and headed to George. I found the field a lot easier than I expected to, but didn’t like what I saw. Not only did it have an operating irrigation pivot in it, which would force me to fly higher, over the pivot arm when I reached it, but there were what we call “Bonneville” power lines — the tall towers with multiple high-tension power lines between them. The power lines definitely crossed the field. To cover the corn, I’d have to fly under the wires very close to the tops of the plants. Suspecting that I might do more harm than good to the plants — and possibly to the helicopter — if I attempted to fly under the wires, I did only 2/3 of the field before heading out.

There was a house on the north side of the field and about five people had watched me work. I was only there about 5 minutes.

I called Bill and told him I’d finished, what part of the George field I’d missed, and why I hadn’t done it all. He seemed to understand. He also seemed very pleased. I wondered whether he could see the pollen dust on the plant silk. I hoped he’d have some kind of quick confirmation that our “wind on demand” scheme had worked.

I flew back and parked at home. I’d logged just 1.1 hours of flight time.

Repeat Performance?

Learn more.

Want to learn more about how corn pollination works? Read this.

And the title of this post isn’t something I dreamed up. It’s from this song, which was covered by Robert Goulet and others. And maybe — just maybe — it inspired Jim Hendrix to write this song.

Will I do this again? I hope so. It was kind of fun and a welcome break from cherry drying and passenger work.

But it all depends on the age of the corn and the weather. To need me, three things must happen at once:

  • The corn must be ready to pollinate.
  • It must be more than 85°F.
  • There can’t be much wind.

If all three of this conditions apply, my phone might ring with a request to fly in the morning.

I’ll be waiting for it. I need to practice my ag turns.

A $500 Hamburger

A friend takes me out for lunch…and I provide transportation.

I’m not blogging much about flying lately. That might be because I’m not doing much flying. Although cherry season rains kept me pretty busy the last week of June, dry weather leaves my helicopter idle. I don’t promote my charter or wine tour services during the summer because I’d hate to have to cancel a flight if the weather got iffy. Cherries always come first during cherry season.

But people do find me. I got a call on Saturday about doing a birthday flight on Sunday. They have a summer home at Crescent Bar and wanted to tour the river between the Gorge Amphitheater and Orondo. It was a nice day with no rain in the forecast, so I booked it for 11 AM.

Happy Passengers
I like happy passengers — and these folks were happy!

The passengers were lucky, although I don’t think they realized it. I have a 1-hour minimum for all of my charter flights and that’s what I charged them for. But I bet we were out for at least 15 minutes more. Not only did we tour the areas they wanted to see, but we happened to pass by the Appleyard just as one of the fire helicopters was descending to dip for the Skyline Drive fire. I maneuvered to stay out of his way, then turned so my passengers could watch him dip from the air. Cool.

Blustery's
Blustery’s. Drive-in or fly in. Whatever works.

Meanwhile, I figured that while I had the helicopter out and about, I might as well do a little pleasure flight. I’d called my friend Bob at about 10 AM and had asked him what he was doing for lunch. When he said he didn’t know, I told him I knew: he was buying me a burger at Blustery’s in Vantage and we’d go there by helicopter. He should meet me at the airport at 12:30 PM.

He arrived at 12:30 sharp, just as my passengers were driving off for the rest of their birthday activities. Because of the heat, I told him I wanted to take off my door and asked if he wanted his off, too. “Sure!” was his enthusiastic reply.

A short while later, we were taking off into the wind, then turning a right downwind to meet up with the river at Rock Island. Bob was loving the flight — he hadn’t been aboard a helicopter in years. We crossed over the power lines near the mouth of Lower Moses Coulee — the road to Palisades, as the locals refer to it — and dropped down lower over the river. The water was low because of the repairs in progress downriver at the Wanapum Dam. All of the river access had been closed between the Wanapum and Rock Island Dams and PUD security crews were patrolling by boat and jet ski. (Talk about a dream job: being paid to ride a jet ski up and down the Columbia River all day.) Of course, since we weren’t on the water surface or shore, it wasn’t closed to us. We got a good look at the land that’s usually under water, including formerly submerged roads, building foundations, and orchards.

We went all the way down to the dam and made a wide arc past it. Bob wanted to know if the folks on the ground could get in touch with me. I explained that they couldn’t without looking up my N-number, which is large enough to see from the ground. But we didn’t pose a security risk. We were flying too far from the dam and our pattern was clearly that of a tourist. Bob knew about a friend of mine who’d gotten in trouble with the NSA when he did a photo shoot over a train yard. I explained how our flight was different. Now if we’d been loitering without calling ahead — well that would have been a big mistake.

We headed up the west side of the river. I circled my intended landing zone — a large paved parking area on the southwest side of Blustery’s — and made my approach from the east. I touched down as gently as I could on the rough pavement, noting the slight slope. Only one or two people seemed to notice a helicopter landing back there — it really doesn’t make all that much noise when it’s on the ground idling. I gave it an extra minute to cool down — it was running very hot — and killed the engine.

I shot a quick photo before we went inside.

At Blustery's in Vantage
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven past or flown over this LZ before I finally landed here. It was perfect!

I’m not sure if the girls at the counter inside knew we’d arrived by helicopter. They had a drive-in window that faced it so they must have seen it out there. But they played it cool.

I ordered a burger and a shake. Bob ordered a chicken sandwich. We took a table by the window and spent an hour just eating and talking.

It was about 2 PM when we finally climbed back on board. I wasn’t in any hurry to get back, so we took a scenic route up Frenchman’s Coulee, past Cave B and the Gorge Amphitheater, over Quincy Lakes, past the Coluckum Ridge Golf course where two pilot friends are staying, past Beaumont Cellars, and over Crescent Bar. When I shot out over the Babcock Ridge, I think I spooked Bob a bit; he asked, “Don’t you feel it in your gut when the ground just falls away like that?” I told him I’d done it so many times that it didn’t bother me anymore.

I took a shortcut over the wheat fields to Lower Moses Coulee, where Bob and I had gone motorcycling on Friday. The road was straighter and flatter than where I usually like to ride, but it was a good outing together — a great way to learn more about the kind of riding he likes to do. (I’m wondering if he’ll be able to keep up with me on the twisties and hope to make a ride up the Entiat with him soon. My last riding companion there lost me after the first mile.)

I cut up Douglas Canyon, following the creek instead of the road up to Waterville. Once up on the plateau, I poked around, exploring deserted homestead sites and abandoned farm equipment from the air. Then I steered us over Badger Mountain. The earth fell away again when I came over the cliffs just 4 miles north of Wenatchee Airport and we started a 1300 feet per minute descent, keeping a sharp lookout for gliders.

We’d flown a total of 1.6 hours.

I really needed a fun day out in the helicopter — anything other than hovering over cherries trees for hours on end — and Bob enjoyed it, too. He was still talking about it today when I stopped by his place to pick up some tools he had for me. I really enjoy flying with a companion — especially one who appreciates the novelty of a fly-in lunch and exploring a well-known path from the air.

As for Blustery’s — well, just as I offered “The Hamburger in the Middle of Nowhere” when I lived in Arizona, I’m thinking of offering “The $500 Hamburger” here in Washington. I’m willing to bet the folks at Bustery’s will appreciate me dropping in again.

Helicopter Commute

A video.

I had the Go Pro set up on my helicopter yesterday while cherry drying. It’s the same setup I used last week when I shared my “Orchard to Orchard” video.

The truth of the matter is, video shot while drying cherries is dull. After all, all I’m doing is hovering over trees so that’s pretty much all the camera sees: the tops of trees. Sometimes you can see a clump of cherries or a guy driving a tractor below me. But, for the most part, it’s pretty dull stuff.

Not so with the footage shot while going from orchard to orchard or, in the case of this video, from the airport back to my home under construction in Malaga. Although it’s a 30-40 minute drive — depending on traffic — it’s only about a 3 minute flight. Yesterday’s flight home after refueling was especially beautiful with dramatic clouds that reflected in the glassy surface of the Columbia River. This video covers the entire flight, from pick up to set down. It gives you an idea of where I live in relation to the city, river, and orchards nearby: remote, yet close.

I’m looking forward to the day when I can set down on my landing pad in front of my big RV garage door. At this point, it shouldn’t be too long a wait.

Orchard to Orchard

Do you see now why I love what I do and where I do it?

This one video should give you not only a glimpse of what it’s like to fly in a helicopter in one of the most scenic areas of Washington State, but it should give you a good idea of why I love doing what I do.

It shows the entire flight — all one minute and 47 seconds of it — from the time I depart one orchard at the top of Wenatchee Heights to the time I settle in over the trees at another orchard in Malaga. I’ll admit it here: this is my favorite orchard departure path.

Enjoy this in full screen at high resolution if you can.

First Cherry Drying Flights of the Season

Two flights, two hours.

I’ve been on contract for cherry drying services since May 26. It’s the earliest contract start I’ve ever had.

Although the first orchard I was on contract for dodged a few storms right at the beginning of the contract, the weather settled down and was very nice for two full weeks. Too nice, if you ask me. The east side of the Cascade Mountains is almost as dry a desert as the one I left in Arizona.

During that time, two other small orchards came on contract, giving me responsibility for three orchards totaling 60 acres. The only drawback is that 30 acres are in Quincy, about 10 miles from my home in Malaga, where the other 30 acres is. So there’s a bit of uncompensated flight time between orchards.

I’m Ready for the Calls

With a 20% chance of rain in the forecast for Thursday, a few growers — including one who isn’t on contract yet — called to check in. Normally, I don’t bug my growers unless they owe me paperwork or money; when there’s a chance of rain, they sometimes call just to make sure I’m really around.

What they don’t realize is that from the first day of my first contract to the last day of my last contract, I’m walking weather advisory service. I know the chance of rain for the next 3 days (50% today, 20% tonight, 0% Saturday and Sunday, 20% Monday) and what’s on radar now (dissipating storm system headed for Quincy orchard and building storm system heading for Malaga, both from north in counter-clockwise rotating weather pattern). I have weather on my phone, iPad, and computer and always have at least one of them within arm’s reach.

Helicopter Ready to Go
Rain in the area? I know about it and am ready to fly.

While under contract, I’m never more than an hour away from my helicopter, even on nice days with no chance of rain. If there’s rain in the forecast, I’m never more than 30 minutes away. If there’s any chance at all of rain within the next 30 minutes, I’m hanging out with the helicopter. If it’s raining on any of my orchards, I’m suited up and the helicopter is preflighted, untied, and ready to go. No matter what the weather is, I don’t drink — not even a glass of wine with dinner — during daylight hours. Of course, by the time the sun goes down, I don’t feel like that glass of wine anyway.

As for the helicopter, it’s completely up-to-date on all maintenance that would have it down for more than a few hours. Both fuel tanks are topped off — I refuel after every flight — giving me an endurance of at least 3 hours over the trees. I have the hinge pins off the pilot door so I can pull the door quickly — I’ve discovered that it’s better to fly with the door off, especially if it might get sunny during a flight; I’d rather be a little wet than roasting in the sun.

Thursday’s Flights

Under Constuction
There’s always something to do with a home under construction.

With a 30% chance of rain forecasted for Thursday, I hung out at home, which is where my helicopter is now based. The builders were still working on on my building and I had plenty to do to keep busy.

By around 1 PM, it started clouding up. I watched various storms on the radar, including a nasty cell near Peshastin and another near Cashmere. But all the storms were moving south to north and both of those points were west of me and my orchards. No threat. Still, I spent some time getting scrap lumber I planned to use for projects stowed away under my RV and closing up the windows in my Jeep and truck.

When I saw a storm come out of nowhere and apparently drop a ton of rain right on top of one of my orchards — which I could see from my home — I suited up and went out to prep the helicopter.

When the call came, I was actually sitting in the helicopter with the key in the ignition. I told the grower I’d be over as soon as I could. I was hovering over his orchard less than 10 minutes later.

I don’t particularly care for this orchard. In 23 acres, they’ve managed to throw in a cornucopia of obstacles: 4 buildings, 2 sets of wires (plus a nearly invisible one running from a pole to a house right at treetop level), 3 wind machines, a bird house, tall border trees, and a pipe that, for some reason rises about 5 feet over the tops of the cherry trees beneath it. It was just after negotiating around this pipe that my main rotor blades trimmed some narrow branches on one of the border trees.

And then there was the wind. Dead calm one minute and gusting like crazy the next. I made a 180° turn at the end of a row of trees and got a headwind gust that lifted me 30 feet. Sheesh.

It takes about 45 minutes to dry this orchard and I was glad when I was done. I sped over to the airport, parked at the fuel island, and topped off both tanks. My client called while I was at the airport to thank me for my speedy response. I told him I hoped I could respond that quickly every time he called and reminded him that I lived less than two minutes away by air.

After refueling, assuming I was done for the day, I headed home.

Refueling
The fuel island at Wenatchee Pangborn on a rainy day. My home is at the base of the cliffs behind the helicopter’s tail rotor in this photo.

Radar Storm
It should not have been a surprise to get a call from my Quincy client, considering this storm cell passed right over his orchard.

I was home less than a hour when a call came from the owner of my Quincy orchard. I felt sorry for the guy — he was going to start picking the next day. He’d almost made it through the whole contract without having to call — something he’d done only once in the seven years I’d been flying for him. Now he needed his cherries dried and they were especially vulnerable this close to picking time. Even though it hadn’t finished raining there yet, I hopped in the helicopter and flew over.

I landed in a parking lot nearby. The orchard is on Crescent Bar, which is a resort area. Unfortunately, a crack in the Wanapum Dam forced the Grant County Public Utility District (PUD) to drastically reduce water levels to the point where the boat ramp and dock are nowhere near water. This is destroying the summer season for businesses down there, including the condos, shops, restaurants, and rental companies. But it also means that no one will raise an eyebrow if someone lands a helicopter in a parking lot on a Thursday evening in June. In fact, it’s likely to be the most interesting thing anyone down there has seen this season.

I didn’t even have time to shut down. My client saw me and called to get me started.

This is an old orchard with some trees even older than me — can you believe that? The land is somewhat hilly and there’s a house and a shop building inside its boundaries. Also some wires on one end in an odd place. Other than that, no obstacles to speak of. What’s weird, however, is that some rows run east/west while others run north/south. This is a bit of a pain since I follow the aisles between rows. But after drying this orchard at least 10 times over the years, I’d learned a good, efficient pattern.

Unfortunately, my client wanted be to dry in a different order. He called with instructions. I did my best to follow them. The idea was to dry the trees with the most fruit first. Since it takes just over an hour to dry the entire orchard, that made sense, especially with the fruit so vulnerable.

Drying an Orchard
My client took about a dozen photos of me in action over his orchard. Of course, he was on the ground looking up.

While I was flying, my phone reminded me that I was due to have dinner at a friend’s house in an hour. I’d already called to postpone the date; I just hadn’t told Siri.

Down below me in various places, they were preparing for the next day’s pick. Outhouses lined the entrance road. A refrigerated truck trailer was parked at the loading dock. Cherry lugs and picking ladders were placed strategically in the area to be picked first. Cherry bins were laid out on trailers. A handful of swampers were moving around, doing odd jobs.

If you want to learn more about the picking process at this orchard, be sure to check out this video I made a few years ago.

The wind was a real factor in this orchard, too. Although it had been calm when I arrived, when I was about 2/3 done it really kicked up. I could easily see the windy spots — it was where the tops of the trees were moving nowhere near me. The trees in that area were young and I suspected that the wind alone might be enough to shake the water off. But I wasn’t taking chances. I kept flying.

I was very glad when I finished the orchard. I did my usual “victory lap” past the shop to say goodbye. Then it was back to the airport for fuel before making the 3-minute flight home.

More to Come?

The weather looked iffy for the rest of the day and I thought there might be a chance of more rain. So after a snack, I settled down in my La-Z-Boy, still in my flight suit, to relax. It was probably around 8 PM when I fell asleep.

I woke up, shut the door, and went to bed around 11 PM. I’d only flown 1.9 hours; I was clearly out of shape.

Little did I know, but there would be much more to come the next day.