Cherry Drying: Why I Won’t Work with Middlemen

It just doesn’t make sense for me or the pilots I work with.

I’m in the process of hiring pilots to work with me during cherry drying season here in Washington State. Finding and hiring good, qualified, responsible pilots is a real chore every year made even more difficult by the preponderance of middlemen — guys who want to act as brokers between pilots and people trying to hire them.

I Am Not a Middleman

Parked in an Orchard
My helicopter, parked in a cherry orchard in 2009. I’ve been doing this work for years.

Let me set things straight from the start: I have cherry drying contracts with orchard owners. I work directly with them or their orchard managers to learn the orchards and fly them. I fly as a pilot over the orchards I’m contracted to cover.

During the busiest time of the season — usually mid June to mid July — I have overlapping contracts that make it impossible for me to cover all the acreage alone if rain is widespread. So I hire other pilots with helicopters to work with me, as part of my team, to get the job done. We work together — all of us know all of the orchards in our area. I don’t assign specific orchards to specific pilots. When it rains, I dispatch pilots, including myself, to service the orchards we get calls for.

My goal is to get a helicopter over an orchard as quickly as possible, so I dispatch based on pilot location and availability. All of my pilots are based within ten minutes flight time of all of the orchards in their area so they can get to orchards quickly and get from one orchard to the next quickly. If a pilot has flown over a specific orchard once, I’m more likely to assign that orchard to him again — but that’s mostly because the more often you work an orchard, the better you know it and the quicker you can service it.

Because I hire and pay pilots, I’ve been accused of being a middleman or broker. But although I am in the middle of the transaction, the pilots I hire are working for and with me. I give them their orders, I pay them. And what the pilots seem to like most about the arrangement is that I pay them in advance for standby and I don’t wait until my clients pay me to pay pilots what I owe them. In other words, they are my contract labor and I pay them based on my contract with them — not my contract with someone else.

There are at least two other helicopter operators in my area who do pretty much what I do: contract with growers to provide coverage, then hire pilots to help them provide that coverage. I worked for an earlier incarnation of one of them. What they do is a bit different from what I do, but I think it’s because of the sheer number of orchards they have and area they cover: Instead of getting all pilots in an area familiar with all orchards and dispatching based on location and availability, they assign specific orchards to specific pilots. As a result, one guy could be flying all day while another guy sits around waiting for a call. My belief is that if good customer service is your primary objective — and it certainly is mine — this is not the best way to utilize your assets (the pilots). Get all the pilots in an area to work as a team and get the acreage covered as quickly as possible.

On Working Directly for Growers

The best situation is to work directly for a grower, but not all pilots want to do that. There are a few reasons for this.

First of all, most orchards aren’t big enough to pay enough standby money to make it worthwhile for a pilot. Aggregation is the key. Get multiple orchards and add up that standby money. If you do it right, you should bring in enough money to make it worthwhile without contracting more acreage than you can handle. This is how I started.

It isn’t easy to aggregate when the contracts are in widespread locations or have overlapping dates. It’s taken me years to fine-tune my operation and, after seven years, it still isn’t perfect. (I don’t think it ever will be.) There are days when I have — and am paying for — more pilots than I need and actually taking a loss on the standby money I have to pay them. But when I average everything out, I do okay.

And although my clients usually pay within a reasonable time, the more clients I have, the more accounting there is to deal with. Invoicing, following up, collecting money, making deposits, paying pilots, filing tax-related documents, paying taxes. If I didn’t have an accounting degree, I’d probably have to hire (and pay) someone to do this, too.

And when you consider how short the season is — one to three months, depending on the contracts you can get and the area you can cover — it’s difficult for an operator outside the area, doing other work for the rest of the year, to build a solid client base.

The pilots who work for me are glad that I do all the setup and pay them what they’re owed, per the contract, on time. The ones who come back every year know a good deal when they have one.

Enter the Brokers

Unfortunately, there are a number of helicopter operators — either current or past — who have decided that there is money to be made by acting as a middleman between the people looking for pilots — like me — and the actual pilots.

I blogged about one of them back in 2013. He contacted me, claiming he had five helicopters with experienced pilots — he said 1000+ hours PIC time — available for cherry drying contracts. The real situation — which I pieced together from our subsequent communication and discussion with another pilot — was that he had zero helicopters and zero pilots; as soon as I told him what I wanted, he’d find pilots to fill the position. Then I’d pay him and he’d pay the pilots a piece of what I paid him. The red flag went up when he told me he wanted more money than we originally agreed upon. The reason: he couldn’t find a pilot willing to take what he was willing to pay after taking his cut from what I paid him. I figure his cut was probably $25 to $50 a day on a four-week contract and maybe $100 or more per hour on flight time.

What does he do for his cut? The way I see it, two things:

  • Work as a sort of matchmaker to match a pilot with someone who needs a pilot.
  • Sit on all the money he receives from the person doing the hiring as long as he can before paying the person doing the work.

Why would a pilot take a cut in pay to work with someone like this?

And that’s just part of the problem. Another part is the qualifications of pilots the middleman finds. You see, he doesn’t really care how qualified or responsible the pilots he brokers out are. They’re not flying his helicopters. They’re not servicing his clients. If they screw up, it’s not going to cost him anything. So he’ll send any pilot and helicopter that seems to satisfy the person hiring.

And then there’s the issue of communication — possibly giving the pilot the wrong information about the job. Suggesting that there might be more flight time than what’s really possible. Or that the contract could be extended. Or that it’s okay to do training while on actual cherry drying missions.

All this results in a mismatch of expectations — and that’s never a good thing.

Isn’t that enough reason for me to avoid working with middlemen?

This Year

This year, I’m hiring four pilots for about four weeks each. I’ve filled three of the slots. The fourth slot is being difficult, with two pilots saying yes and then backing out because they were unable or unwilling to fulfill contract requirements. I’m negotiating with three pilots to fill that slot, but haven’t come to an agreement with any of them yet.

The reason it’s difficult? I’m picky. I want someone experienced and responsible, someone I know will show up over an orchard promptly and do the work as my clients expect it to be done. I want someone who takes the work seriously and understands that it requires good flying skills in any conditions and is not an opportunity to give a friend rides or do training. Safety and service are my two biggest priorities. Unfortunately, its not easy to find someone willing to come to Washington for a month who understands and respects that.

But I know things will come together in time. They always do. And I’m looking forward to working with my team to give my clients the best service possible.

No middleman required.

My Helicopter’s Annual Migration from California

I take a few days off and fly from California to Washington solo.

Last week, I flew my helicopter home from a frost contract in California. I took the opportunity to treat myself to two nights in a bed and breakfast I’d been wanting to stay in for some time. Then I made the solo trip home, taking a coastal route for part of the way. I thought I’d share some information about why I go to California every winter and the highlights of this particular trip.

My Annual Frost Migration

In 2013, I got my first contract as a frost control pilot in California’s north Central Valley. That year, my helicopter was still living in the winter in Arizona and, as I flew it westward with my dog, I realized with a bit of sadness that it would likely never be back in Arizona. When that contract ended, I flew it north to Washington for cherry season. I left my home in Arizona in May 2013 and bought the land for my new home in Washington before the ink on my divorce papers was dry in July 2013.

The helicopter spent that winter in a hangar in Wenatchee. In February, I flew it south again for my second season on frost. That contract required me to stay in the area, so I migrated down in the mobile mansion and stayed there for two months. I came back in April.

My helicopter moved to its new home on my property in Malaga in May 2014, at the start of cherry drying season. By October, it was tucked away inside my building, which I designed primarily to house it, the mobile mansion, and my collection of vehicles. When I got busy with construction on my place in December and needed to shift the RV into the helicopter’s parking space, I moved it back out and into a hangar at Wenatchee Airport. (Thanks, Tyson!) Then, in February, it was back to California for my third frost season. Like my first frost contract in 2013, I didn’t have to live there with it — I wanted to stay home to continue construction and enjoy the spring blooming season. But in late April, it was time to bring it home again.

A lot of folks ask me why I fly the helicopter to and from these agricultural contracts instead of putting it on a trailer. There are three reasons:

  • I don’t have a trailer that would accommodate the helicopter and I don’t want to buy one. A trailer that can support the helicopter and its blades/tailcone properly would cost about $30,000. I could fly a lot of hours for that amount of money. And I’d still have to cover the cost of the drive, although it wouldn’t be nearly as much.
  • I don’t know about you, but the thought of driving down the highway with a $350K investment towed behind me is pretty scary. All it takes is one asshole cutting me off to turn that shiny red machine into a heap of junk on the side of the road. Simply stated: I think flying is safer for it.
  • I like to fly. ‘Nuff said.

I factor in the cost of transporting the helicopter when I decide whether a contract is worth my while. I don’t take contracts that would put me in the red if I didn’t actually fly on contract. That would be dumb.

But with that said, I do often take either passengers for hire or pilots wanting to build time with me on those long repositioning flights. I’ve been doing this since 2008, when I started migrating between Arizona and Washington for cherry season. I cut various deals with various people, depending on what the market will bear. Sometimes passengers or pilots just pay for gas. Other times, they pay a rate that covers all my costs. Most of the time, I collect something in between. This helps make the contract a tiny bit more profitable, often while giving a new pilot a chance to build some flight time in an R44 and gain some valuable cross-country flight experience.

I know I flew solo from Arizona to California that first season (2013) and I’m pretty sure I flew solo from California back to Washington. But in 2014, I had pilots do the flying with me as a passenger on both flights. And on the way down in 2015, another pilot flew while I just sat in my seat, trying not to be bored.

I decided that for the return flight, I’d be be pilot and I’d treat myself to a flight up the coast.

After all, I really do like to fly.

Potential Passengers

I asked a bunch of people who I like if they’d like to join me on that return flight. I got a bunch of interesting responses.

Four people could not go because of work they simply couldn’t get out of. I’d planned my trip for mid-week, so that really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

One person, who is also a helicopter pilot, wanted to go but had to work. I think he would have gotten out of work if I’d let him share the flying duties with me. But I made it clear up front that I would be doing most of the flying. In fact, I didn’t even want the dual controls in because I didn’t want that counterweight. (I would have put them in for him.) Without the bonus of stick time, it wasn’t worth taking time off from work.

One person couldn’t come because his wife’s mom is seriously ill and they expect her to pass away soon. We agreed that it would be better if he didn’t come. (She hasn’t died yet, but she’s close.) And yes, I did tell him he could bring his wife.

One person couldn’t come because he didn’t want to spend $300 on a one-way plane ticket to Sacramento. He had that money earmarked for other things. “Next time,” he said. I’m not sure if he realizes that there probably won’t be a next time.

And there were the usual collection of pilots wanting to build time. When I told the ones who contacted me that I’d be doing the flying, they all passed on the opportunity to come along as a passenger.

So as Penny and I boarded the flight to Sacramento on Tuesday morning, we knew it would be just the two of us in the helicopter on the way home. I’d fly and drink up all the sights along the way. Penny would do what she always does on the helicopter: sleep.

Prepping for the Return Flight

My flight down to Sacramento didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. I was supposed to get into Sacramento at 11 AM, but the 6 AM flight out of Wenatchee was cancelled due to a bird strike on the starboard engine the night before. The morning pilot had seen some of the damage during his preflight walk-around and a mechanic confirmed that the bird — likely an owl — had been ingested into the turboprop engine. That plane wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Through some miracle, I managed to get on the next flight out later that morning. Then an afternoon connection to Sacramento. I stepped off the plane there at around 4 PM and was driving away in a rental car by 4:30.

My whole day in the area was shot to hell. I managed to do some errands before heading out to Rumsey where I was booked at a bed and breakfast for the night. I’ll blog about that in another post.

Wednesday’s forecast called for strong winds from the north. That would cause two problems:

  • Strong, gusty winds make turbulence. I really hate long, bouncy flights, especially when I’m trying to take a scenic route.
  • Strong winds from the north when I’m flying north meant longer flight times and more fuel stops. If I cruise at 110 knots and there’s a 40 knot headwind, that means I’m only doing 70 knots. Hell, I could drive faster than that.

Penny in the Helicopter
Penny lounges in the back seat of the helicopter while I prepped it for the flight home.

So I decided to spend another night in the area and leave early the next morning. In the meantime, I went to the airport, preflighted, wiped down the windows, and prepped it for flight. I’d be taking off as early as possible the next morning.

Locally, the wind was maddeningly calm all day.

The Flight Home

Penny and I were back at the airport at 6:10 AM on Thursday morning. Although the sun hadn’t peeked up over the horizon yet, as far as I was concerned, it was daytime.

I put Penny in the front seat beside me with a cooler full of drinks and snacks in the footwell there, within reach. The back was packed with some luggage and the equipment I’d left with the helicopter over the previous two months: blade tie-downs, cockpit cover, spare fuel pump, and miscellaneous equipment. My GoPro was mounted on the nose with the WiFi turned on. My iPad and iPhone were mounted within reach; I’d use Foreflight on my iPad to navigate and listen to podcasts and music on my iPhone.

The helicopter started right up and I gave it plenty of time to warm up. Then I took off to the west along Cache Creek and opened my flight plan by tapping a button in Foreflight.

Although I didn’t often file a flight plan when flying solo, I’d forgotten to bring along my SPOT Messenger and I wanted some way of being found in the event of a mishap. My flight plan had me heading west along Cache Creek all the way to Clear Lake, then hitting the California Coast at Fort Bragg. But because it was so early and the California Coast is notorious for morning fog and I’d already passed some low clouds near Willits, I took a more northerly route.

Cache Creek at Dawn
Flying up Cache Creek just after dawn.

Clear Lake
The lower end of Clear Lake.

Willits, CA
Low clouds over Willits, CA.

Along the way, I played around with Periscope. This is a Twitter-owned video broadcast service that makes it possible for anyone to broadcast anything to the world in real time. My iPad was mounted in such a way that its camera looked right through the front of the helicopter’s bubble, so the picture wasn’t bad at all. Unfortunately, the rotor sound made it impossible to hear any narration from me, so although I saw viewers’ questions, I couldn’t answer them.

Faced with a choice of following a valley north or striking out across the hills to the coast and following that, I finally headed for the coast. I came down a little green canyon between Westport and DeHaven and banked to the right to start my flight up the coast. (I was broadcasting during this time, so my Periscope followers got to watch it live.)

California Coast
My first sight of the Pacific Ocean from the Helicopter since my trip to Lopez Island last August.

Flying Up the Coast
I flew up the coast at my usual altitude of 500 to 700 feet AGL.

I was surprised, at first, how smooth the flying was. I had been expecting some wind and, with it, turbulence. But just when I started enjoying the smooth air, the turbulence hit. With a vengeance. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the coast, I was bouncing all over my area of the sky.

I headed inland. For another 20 minutes, the bouncing continued. I tried higher elevations to avoid the effect of the wind over the hills — mechanical turbulence. This is the kind of turbulence that most often affects my flights, mostly because I fly so low to the ground. But climbing didn’t help. The only way out of it was going to be to fly somewhere where there was less wind.

Of course, while all this was going on, I was burning fuel at a higher rate than expected. That meant I wasn’t going to make my first fuel stop as far north as Crescent City. I used Foreflight to find a closer alternative. I could make Eureka or Arcata, both of which were on the coast. I checked weather there using the Aeroweather app and saw the wind was much calmer. By that time, the bouncing had stopped anyway and flight was smooth again. So I hooked up with the South Fork of the Eel River at Myers Flat, followed that down to the Eel River, and followed that down to Fortuna.

At the coast, a marine layer had moved in but was burning off quickly. I flew just below the clouds, north from Fortuna to Eureka, where I landed for fuel at Murray (EKA) and closed my flight plan. Their pumps are ancient and attendant-run, which didn’t bother me in the least. When I do long cross-country flights, I don’t mind paying more for someone else to do the pumping. I let Penny out and we went into the FBO for a bathroom break. They had a surprisingly large pilot shop there with lots of goodies. But I wasn’t in the mood to shop so I didn’t linger.

I chatted with the attendant about the weather. I really wanted to fly up the coast but I really didn’t want to do scud-running along the way. He thought it would clear up. I figured I’d head north along the coast as long as I could see, then strike out to the west. I whipped up and filed another flight plan, then added a quart of oil and fired up the helicopter. Minutes later, Penny and I were airborne again, heading north on the east side of Arcata Bay.

We stayed on the coast for quite a while. I turned on my helicopter’s nosecam as we flew up the coast past the Redwood National Forest and various other places. The views were amazing. There were sandy stretches of beaches, sheer cliffs, and rocky islands. I saw sea lions and sea birds. But I think it was the sheer number of waterfalls tumbling off the cliffs into the Pacific Ocean that really stood out for me. It was just the kind of trip I’d hoped for. It was only after I thought I’d shot at least a half hour of spectacular video that I reached down to shut off nosecam — and realized that it hadn’t been turned on. Duh-oh! I did manage to get some good shots and video later on, but not until after a fine mist started moving in.

Waterfall
There’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as a waterfall tumbling off rugged cliffs into the ocean.

The mist turned to rain around Gold Beach, OR and I decided to move inland in search of clearer weather. Unfortunately, there was no joy. I took an incoming call from a pilot friend based in California who’d just gotten some bad news about an engine overspeed on his R44. We chatted for a while as I flew between green hills and low clouds while a light rain pelted the cockpit bubble. Then the call dropped and I continued through the muck in silence.

Green Hills Near Umpqua
There was no way to keep the rain off the nosecam’s lens cover. This was the view as we headed northeast near Umpqua, OR.

I hooked up with I-5 near Yoncalla, OR. From that point, it was a bit of IFR — I follow roads — flying. It wasn’t that I had to follow the road — I could see fine. It’s just that there was no reason to fly further east because mountain obscuration made it impossible to cross the mountains anyway.

I stopped for fuel at Creswell. I’d stopped there before. I pumped my own fuel, used the restroom, and checked the oil. It was still raining lightly. One of the interesting things there is a vending machine that sells aviation oil. I didn’t need to use it — I learned long ago to always carry at least two spare quarts and actually had six on board for this flight — and I wish I’d taken a photo of it.

We were there less than 15 minutes. I continued north along I-5, now in Oregon’s “central valley.” I broadcast another Periscope video just past Eugene, then peeled away abeam Harrisburg to the northeast. Although I couldn’t see the mountains at all, I still had high hopes of crossing the Cascades at the foot of Mount Hood’s north side. After all, how big could this weather system be?

Apparently, it could be pretty big. I got within 40 miles of Mount Hood and still couldn’t see it. If anything, the clouds were lower and thicker. I heard some helicopter pilots chatting on one of the frequencies about low ceilings. One was doing training and the other was doing powerline survey work. They shared information about holes in the weather but since I didn’t know any of the places they talked about, none of it helped me.

Near Mt. Hood
My track took me pretty close to Mount Hood. I never saw it. My track is the teal dots in this map capture; the red dots represent geotagged photos.

So the scud running began. I wasn’t in the mood for it at all, so I didn’t put much effort into it. Instead of following valleys to the northeast that might have got me closer to my destination, I just headed north, hopping over hills and ducking under clouds along the way. I knew that eventually I’d reach the Columbia River, my old standby for crossing the Cascades. And sure enough, just when I thought the ceilings couldn’t get any lower, I found myself at the edge of a drop down to the water. There were clouds below me, but a big enough hole to dive right through. I descended at about 1500 feet per minute and leveled out about 400 feet over the river’s surface.

Columbia River
Leveled off over the Columbia River not far from Multnomah Falls.

My reward: an amazing view of Multnomah Falls, off to my right. (Sorry — no photos. My nosecam faces forward, not sideways.)

I followed the river northeast, flying in a sort of tunnel created by the walls of the gorge and the low clouds. I overflew the Bonneville Dam and Cascade Locks and the town of Hood River, which I really liked before it got so upscale. At Lyle, one of my least favorite places on earth, I turned to a more northward direction. That eventually put me over the Yakima Indian Reservation. I don’t know if it’s pretty. By this time — more than 7 hours of travel, including stops — I was tired and just wanted to be home. But the sky gods were going to make me work for it. They threw just enough headwind and turbulence in my way to make me ready for another fuel stop at Yakima.

The FBO’s fuel guy did all the work. I got something to drink and relaxed a while in a comfy chair while Penny looked around for dropped popcorn. We’ve spent entirely too much time at McCormick at Yakima.

Fueled up and feeling refreshed, we headed out again, continuing north. Although I could have gone direct to my home from Yakima, I had a small task to do along the way — I needed to check out a possible landing zone for an anniversary flight in June. The location was off I-90 across the river from Vantage.

That done, and feeling great to be back in very familiar territory, I dropped down and raced up the Columbia River, only 100 or 200 feet from the surface. Wanapum Reservoir was full again — it had been drained for dam repairs all last year — and it was great to do one of my favorite flights. I passed Sunland, where the folks who sold me my property live in the summer months, Cave B and the Gorge Amphitheater, and Crescent Bar. I saw a huge herd of elk down on West Bar before beginning my climb to clear the wires that crossed the river between the mouth of Lower Moses Coulee and Rock Island.

Then I was climbing up toward my home and my old landing zone was in sight. I set the helicopter down on the grass and let Penny out while I cooled down the engine and shut everything down.

Old Landing Zone
I shot this from my deck while having a very late lunch.

It was almost 3 PM.

I left the helicopter outside while I went in to make myself a good meal and relax. The wind kicked up and, for a while, I thought it would have to spend the night outside. But the wind died down after 6 and I got my ATV hooked up to the platform and repositioned it on my driveway’s landing zone. Then I started up the helicopter and moved it onto the platform. When the blades stopped spinning, I locked them in place and used the ATV to pull everything into the garage beside my RV.

RVs
Recreational vehicles? Must be. It’s an RV garage, after all.

Track Log
Here’s my track log for the entire flight. I was about 20-30 minutes into the flight when I remembered to turn it on, so it doesn’t accurately show my starting point.

According to my GPS tracklog, I’d traveled about 750 miles in 6-1/2 hours of moving time. It had been a great flight with lots of different flying conditions and things to see to keep it interesting. I’d enjoyed it, despite the moments of turbulence. It’s a shame that I had to do the flight alone. I’m sure every single person I invited would have loved it.

Next time? Maybe — if there is a next time.

Cherry Drying, Cockpit Distractions, and Safety

My thoughts.

Today I had to withdraw a cherry drying contract from a pilot who wanted to fly for me because he insisted on being allowed to have a “pilot friend” fly with him during cherry drying missions.

Because more than half of the cherry drying crashes in this area have occurred with two people in the cockpit, this is something I simply don’t allow — and I specifically forbid it in the contact terms.

Why Just One Pilot?

I blogged about this back in June 2012. There had been a crash with a fatality just a few days before. Two pilots had been on board, although the dual controls were reportedly not installed. The aircraft hit wires and crashed into the trees. The passenger was killed; the pilot sustained serious injuries. In my blog post, I raised the question of cockpit distractions.

The previous July (2011), there had been three crashes during cherry drying work. Of the three, two of them occurred with two people on board.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Although performance might not be an issue in an R44 — which the guys who work for me fly — in these flying conditions, distractions can be. Cherry drying is done in an obstacle rich environment just a few feet over the tops of trees.

Cherry Drying Near Wires
Wires and poles and trees, oh my!

So many pilots whine about the danger of flying in “the deadman’s curve.” That’s not my concern when I’m hovering with my skids brushing the treetops. My concern is wires and wind machines and bird houses on poles and tall trees bordering the orchard. I’ve struck a pine tree branch with my main rotor blade and trimmed a treetop with my tail rotor. That’s how close I can get — which is obviously too close — to obstacles that could easy damage my aircraft enough to bring it down into the trees.

Now imagine having a chatty friend on board. Or the dual controls installed and someone “following along” with you on an instructional flight. Is this a good idea when you need to keep focused?

I don’t think so. I think it’s dangerous and I won’t allow it.

Training

The argument I hear most often about why two pilots should be allowed to fly cherry drying missions is training. How can a new pilot learn the ropes unless he experiences the flight?

Easy: teach him on a nice clear day, when weather is not an issue and there isn’t an orchard owner on the ground freaking out because he’s worried about losing his cherry crop. A day when there’s no stress and no demands to get the job done quickly and move on to the next orchard. A day when rain isn’t making the cockpit bubble nearly impossible to see through and you have to worry about the flight path of the other helicopter on the next orchard block.

Start with an overview at an obstruction-free orchard and show how you scout for obstacles in a new orchard and determine where to start work. Descend slowly and start your instructional passes high, showing the student how the downwash affects the trees. Work your way down to the point where the future cherry drying pilot should be flying.

Of course, you’re doing all this after some ground training where you’ve already sketched out how the job is done and discussed all aspects of the work.

This is how I learned to dry cherries. I spent 2 hours talking about the work with an experienced cherry drying pilot and some notepaper that we sketched all over. Then we flew for about an hour over some uniformly tall trees and practiced various maneuvers.

And this is how I teach new pilots to dry cherries. In a controlled, stress-free environment.

So the argument that having a pilot on board during an actual cherry drying mission is the only way to teach him simply doesn’t fly with me. (Okay, pun intended.)

Is This a Contract Killer?

Is the one person vs. two people on board argument worth preventing a contract agreement? Apparently, the pilot I withdrew the contract from and I think it is.

In his words, “If this is not possible I don’t see this working for my business.” That makes me wonder about his “pilot friend.”

It seems to me that a friend should understand that when you have work to do, he needs to stand aside and let you do it. I have friends who fly fire contracts and power line contracts and heavy lift contracts and spray contracts. I am one of their “pilot friends.” I’d love to experience one of these flights first hand. But I know that (1) their employers most likely prohibit fly-alongs for pretty much the same reason I do and (2) my presence could jeopardize our safety or their job. So I don’t even ask and they don’t offer.

The claim that having only one person on board won’t work for his business makes me wonder whether there’s some financial gain to be had from having that second pilot on board. Would that other pilot be paying for that flight time, perhaps as a student? In that case, it’s “double-dipping,” pure and simple — being paid by two separate parties for work on one mission. And frankly, there’s a bit too much of that in this industry for my taste.

I pay a generous per-hour flight rate for cherry drying work. The rate is considerably higher than any charter or utility rate a pilot could charge for flying the same helicopter. I pay that because the work is risky and because that’s what the market will bear. Isn’t this enough to head off any need for double-dipping?

As for me, I want my pilots safe and their flights accident-free. I can’t serve my clients when one of my pilots crashes in an orchard and his helicopter is put out of commission. It’s my goal to minimize the risk — that’s why I require pilots with at least 500 hours of flight time and at least 100 hours in the helicopter they’re flying. That’s why I don’t allow two people in the cockpit when flying in an obstacle-rich environment.

It’s not all about money and milking the system to maximize revenue. It’s about the safe and reliable performance of a mission to best serve clients — and live to fly another day.

About the Wind Machines

An important part of crop protection.

The economy of this area of Washington State is based primarily on tree fruit production: apples, cherries, pears, and apricots. Indeed, Columbia River Valley around Wenatchee is one of the biggest apple producing regions in the world.

Fruit trees bloom in the spring, are pollinated by migratory bees, and form fruit. Throughout the summer, the fruit develops and grows. Months later, when the fruit ripens, it’s picked, sent to processing plants, and either shipped out immediately, as in the case of cherries, or stored for later shipment, as in the case of apples.

The timing of all this is determined by the weather and can fluctuate by several weeks every year. The trees get a cue from temperature to start budding and once the buds are formed, there isn’t much that can stop the seasonal progression.

Except frost.

Frost can kill flowers and developing fruit. A bad enough deep freeze over the winter months can even kill trees.

And that’s where frost protection comes in. Growers are deeply concerned about frost destroying a crop so they take steps to protect the crop from frost. In this area, they rely on wind machines to circulate the air in parts of an orchard prone to pockets of cold air.


This video shows wind machines in action at a pear orchard in Cashmere, which is near here. It looks to me as if the trees are in bloom. Unfortunately, the sound is turned off so you can’t get the full effect.

Wind machines look like large, two-bladed fans on a tall pole. Usually powered by propane, they’re often thermostatically controlled — in other words, they are set to turn on in the spring when the temperature drops down to a certain point. The blades spin like any other fan and the fan head rotates, sending wind 360° around the machine’s base.

The idea, of course, is that the cold air has settled down into pockets and that warmer air can be found around it and above it. By circulating the air, the warm air is brought around the trees and frost is prevented.

In California, they use helicopters to protect the almond crop from frost. (As a matter of fact, as I type this my helicopter is in California for a frost contract for the third year in a row.) The principle is the same, but the orchards tend to be much larger and I can only assume that it isn’t financially feasible to install and run wind machines in that area. (Hard to believe it’s cheaper to use helicopters, though.)

This year, some unseasonably warm weather has triggered a very early bloom. My clients tell me that their cherry crop is running 2 to 3 weeks early. Right now, cherries are in various stages of bloom throughout the area; apricots are pretty much done with their bloom. (Apples and pears will come next.) And since winter has not let go of its tenuous grip on us, the temperature has been dropping down into the low to mid 30s each night this week.

Well, not at night. It actually starts getting cold around 4 or 5 AM, as you can see in this weather graph:

Weather Graph
The National Weather Service weather graph page for this area shows the forecasted highs and lows over time.

The result: the wind machines kick on automatically when it starts getting cold: around 4 or 5 AM.

Want to hear what a wind machine sounds like close up? This video has full sound as a field man starts and runs up a wind machine. He’s wearing ear protection for a reason. Stick with it to see the spinning head on top.

Wind machines are not quiet. In fact, from a distance, they sound exactly like helicopters. And as they spin, they sound like moving helicopters — so much so that when I first heard them in action back in Quincy in 2009 or 2010, I thought they were helicopters and actually got up to see what was going on. I suspect that to someone on the ground, they sound exactly like a helicopter drying cherries would sound.

Although there aren’t any orchards on my end of the road, my property does look out at quite a few orchards, some of which have wind machines. There are at least 5 within a mile of me — I can see 4 of them from my side deck. I can also see others much farther out into the distance. And when the close ones are running, I know it. It’s not loud enough to wake me up in my snugly insulated home, but it sure did wake me up when I was living in my thin-walled RV outside. And it’s definitely not something you can pretend you don’t hear.

Fortunately, wind machines are a seasonal nuisance — much like other orchards noises: sprayers, tractors, helicopters, and pickers. Although frost season runs through May in this area, the machines only kick on during cold weather. Looking at the forecast, I can expect to hear them tomorrow morning and probably Wednesday morning, but not likely on Monday or Tuesday morning.

Weather ForecastNWS Wenatchee forecast for this week.

In the meantime, I’ve already gotten the heads up from my California client who might need me down there on Monday. After all, they don’t have wind machines.

For a helicopter pilot working in this area, wind machines are one of the obstacles that can be a hazard when drying cherries. They tower higher than the trees and their blades can be “parked” at any angle or direction. Although some growers will try to use wind machines to dry trees while waiting for pilots, my contract states I won’t fly in an orchard with wind machines spinning so they’re usually turned off when I arrive — or right afterwards. But if the blades aren’t parked, they can move. And one pilot I know learned the hard way about what happens when a helicopter’s main rotor blade hits a wind machine. (He’s okay; the helicopter is not.)

To sum up, wind machines are an important crop protection device that can be a bit of a nuisance with predawn operation in the spring. But I don’t mind listening to them. Like so many orchard owners in the area, my livelihood depends on a healthy cherry crop. If that means tolerating some noise 10-20 mornings out of the year, so be it.

Kind Words from a Client

Really made my day.

These days, I make most of my living doing cherry drying work in Washington State. It’s an extremely short season — I consider myself lucky to get 10-11 weeks of work — and 2015 will be my eighth season doing it.

Each year I’ve managed to build up my client base from the handful of clients originally contracted by the guy who brought me up from Arizona to help him in 2008. I now have a total of 10 clients managing 15 orchards. At the peak of the season, I hire three pilots to help me provide adequate coverage for all of it. This year, I might hire a fourth.

Each year, as cherry season approaches, I get more and more stressed. Will last year’s clients sign up with me again? Can I get more acreage to cover? Can I find enough reliable pilots to help me? Will a late-season frost wipe out half the crop, as it did in 2008?

Even when I have all the answers to those questions — usually yes, yes, yes, and no — and cherry season is under way, the stress doesn’t stop. I watch the weather incessantly — several apps on my phone with forecasts and a very good radar app to watch storms moving around the area. I stare at the sky and watch the clouds. I worry about my helicopter being fueled, preflighted, and ready to fly. I worry about the guys working for me and I worry about their helicopters. I worry about whether I trained the new pilots well enough and whether they’ll be able to find the orchards I showed them.

And when a weather event is possible, I worry even more. Which direction is the weather moving? How hard is it raining? Is it windy, too? Will it drench all of the orchards at once? Do my clients have people on hand to monitor the moisture and call me to fly? Will it stop raining early enough in the day to finish drying before it gets dark? Are my pilots really at the airport waiting to launch? Did the pilots get the GPS coordinates for the orchards so they can get there fast enough? Can that new pilot cover the acreage I assign to him effectively in a reasonable amount of time?

Then the rain happens and the phone starts ringing. I fire up my helicopter and launch, sometimes even as I’m dispatching the other pilots. I hover over the trees, at first trying to judge how wet they are after this particular event, trying to get my speed just right to dry them enough without wasting time. I do my job, stealing glances at the radar on my iPad so I know just which client will call next and when. I listen to the radio to hear from my pilots or other pilots in the area. I answer the phone and place calls, sometimes while still hovering within 10 feet of the tops of cherry trees.

Cherry Drying

And I’m always beating up on myself if I can’t get someone to an orchard as fast as I’d like. Last year, I felt that I’d failed one of my best clients. I even worried that I would lose his contract for this year. So this year, when I emailed him to ask if he wanted my services again this year, I pointed out where I could have done better and told him how I planned to handle it.

His response made my day (names changed to protect privacy):

ABC is very pleased with the opportunity to work with Flying M Air again for the 2015 season!

I’m sure that Joe can attest to this also, when the call is made to dry cherries you or a member of your team is on site drying within 15 minutes.

That’s a relationship that I want to continue!

All the stress and worry somehow seem worthwhile now. Our work is appreciated. I have another season full of clients to serve this year.

And the cherries are early. Can’t wait to taste some!