Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Two people helped me get started in cherry drying.

Yesterday, I got an email message from someone I hadn’t heard from since 2009. His name is Rob and he’s one of the two people who helped me launch my cherry drying business here in Washington state.

The first person, of course, was Erik Goldbeck. Erik contacted me way back in 2006 about joining him in Washington for some cherry drying work. It was Erik who explained what the work entailed and why it’s done. He tried to get me up to Washington from my home in Arizona in the summer of 2006 and again in 2007, but he was unable to guarantee me work or the standby pay I needed to make the trip financially viable. It wasn’t until 2008 that Erik got enough contract work to bring a second pilot on board with guaranteed standby pay. He chose me and I prepared to come north to join him.

At Pateros
Here’s my helicopter, parked on the lawn beside a motel in Pateros, WA where I worked for 10 days that first cherry drying season.

Then two things happened. First there was a late season frost that destroyed half the crop. Suddenly Erik only needed one pilot. But Erik was not going to be that pilot. Almost at the same time, he was diagnosed with cancer. When I met him in person for the first and only time, he was in the hospital recovering from surgery, relearning how to walk. He sent me to Quincy, WA to handle the remaining cherry contracts he’d gotten for us. I was only there for seven weeks that first year and only flew five hours total.

The following year, 2009, Erik was out of the picture. (He died that summer; his illness and death had a profound effect on me.) I prepared to go to work for the same company he’d contracted with for much of the work the previous year. I had two contacts: Rob in the Quincy area and Dan in the Chelan area. They worked for a man named Ed, selling helicopter services to orchardists and getting helicopters to do the work.

About a month before my season start, Ed apparently decided he didn’t want to be in the business anymore. He shut down without any notice, leaving Rob and Dan unemployed, dozens of orchardists without any protection for their cherry crop, and more than a few pilots wondering what the heck they were going to do. I got in touch with Rob, who seemed disillusioned and fed up. He told me he was going to retire and then he did something I’ve always appreciated: he gave me the phone numbers for a bunch of orchardists in Quincy and Wenatchee who might need helicopters.

I worked the phones. I got enough orchardists interested in hiring me to make it worth coming north on my own. I created a contract based on the one Erik had with me. I collected standby pay. And in late May, I hooked up my old RV and headed north to Washington for the summer. I even managed to extend my season with a new contract that had me in the Wenatchee area until mid August.

At the end of the season, I sent Rob a “commission” check to thank him. I think he was surprised.

Each year, I built up my client base to add clients and orchards. By 2011, I had enough work to add a pilot for about three of my eleven weeks. The following year I added one for four weeks. The next year, there were three of us for a while. Then four. This year, which is my ninth season, I have four pilots helping me for my busiest part of the season: two in Quincy and two with me in the Wenatchee area, where I’ve been living full-time since May 2013.

But without the leads from Rob, I would never have been able to come back that second season and I wouldn’t be where I am now — living in a place I love, surrounded by good friends and friendly people, enjoying a life I’d only dreamed about having.

I tried to contact Rob a few times, mostly just to say hello. But I never got a response.

Until yesterday’s email, which was sent using the contact form on my blog.

I’d taken his two granddaughters, aged 6 and 3, on a helicopter ride during an event at the airport on Saturday. They “wanted to fly with the girl pilot.” He was writing to say hello and thank me. He mentioned that he was still retired and living at his orchard but he occasionally did some seasonal inspection work. I wrote back to tell him how good it was to hear from him and to thank him again for helping me get started.

Rob probably doesn’t realize how much he helped change my life for the better. Cherry drying was the good paying work I needed to make my helicopter business thrive. It gave me the excuse I needed to get away from Arizona’s brutally hot summers. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also gave me a chance to enjoy a few months of freedom every summer, living like a single person and making my own decisions. I fell in love with this area over those summers and it was a no-brainer to move here full-time when my marriage fell apart.

Rebuilding my life here has been one of the most pleasurable challenges in my life — and it wouldn’t be possible without the business I built here with Erik and Rob to help get me started.

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.

My Life as a Migrant Farm Worker

Well, it’s not quite what you might be thinking.

It’s true. I’ve become a migrant farm worker.

Original RV
My original setup was pretty pitiful. I didn’t realize then how much time I’d be spending on the road.

It all started back in 2008 when I made my first annual migration from Arizona to Washington state to do agricultural work: cherry drying. I’d learned about the work two years before, but it took that long to be assured of a contract after the long migration. And one thing was for sure: I wasn’t about to move my helicopter, truck, and trailer 1200 miles (each way) without some guarantee of work on the other end.

It was a win-win situation for me. Escape Arizona’s brutal summer heat while earning some money with my helicopter, which would likely be parked most of the summer anyway. How could I turn it down?

The first season was only seven weeks long and I only flew 5 hours on contract. It was barely worth the travel time and expense.

Cherry Drying Parking
In 2009, I picked up late season work in Wenatchee Heights.

But the next year was 11 weeks under contract and I’ve managed to get about the same every year. I’ve also managed to add contracts to the point where I now bring a second pilot in for 5 weeks and a third pilot in for about 10 days. Fly time varies, as you’d expect, with the weather. My goal is to have two pilots (including me) for at least 10 weeks and a third for a month.

The Work

The work situation is unusual. I’m required to stay in the area for the entire length of the contract, on call during daylight hours seven days a week. No days off, no going home on weekends. On nice, clear days with 0% chance of rain, I can wander a bit from base, as long as I keep an eye on weather forecasts and radar. Still, day trips to Seattle (150 miles away) or off-the-grid locations were pretty much out of the question. Heck, I couldn’t even hike in parts of Quincy Lakes, less than 5 miles from my base, because there was no cell signal there.

One pilot I know was in Seattle when he saw the weather coming in on radar. He hopped in his truck and sped east. I don’t think he planned to have the truck break down an hour away. He hitchhiked in and got started on his orchards about the same time I was refueling to finish up mine. Not sure if he learned his lesson. He was back the following year playing the same risky games.

When rain is possible, things are different. I stay close — often at my base all day. If radar shows rain coming, I’ll go out and prep the helicopter for flight — make sure its full of fuel, preflight it, and take off the blade tie-downs or hail covers (whichever it’s wearing). If radar shows rain on one of my orchards, I’ll suit up and wait in my truck beside the helicopter. Then, when the call comes, I can be in the air in less than 5 minutes.

Cherry Drying
Cherry drying is all about flying low and slow.

The work itself is dangerous and requires good hovering skills in all conditions. I’m hovering just over the trees at low speed, firmly inside the Deadman’s Curve. If the engine quits, a crash through the trees is assured. Some orchards are hilly, others have obstacles like buildings and poles and wires. I can be called out as early as predawn and can be flying after sunset — I’ll fly as long as I can see a horizon.

The summer days in Central Washington State are long, with sunrise around 5 AM and sunset around 9 PM on the summer solstice. Because the night is only 8 hours long and I never really know whether I’ll be flying at dawn, there’s no alcohol, even at the end of a long day — remember: “eight hours from bottle to throttle.”

But the standby pay is good, compensating me not only for getting my helicopter into the area but keeping it there and assuring it’s available when called. It used to bother me when I got calls from tourists in Arizona wanting to see the Grand Canyon in July and I couldn’t take them because I was 1200 miles away. Then I realized that I was being paid for my time in Washington and knew that it was nicer to be paid to sit around and wait than to fly cheap midwesterners — who else visits Phoenix in July? — to a place I visited more times than most people can imagine.

Maria and Penny
Here I am with Penny the Tiny Dog last year after a cherry drying flight.

I did all the work myself: prepping the helicopter, flying, refueling, putting the helicopter to bed. I’d take the truck to the bulk fuel place in Ephrata or Wenatchee and fill my 82-gallon transfer tank with 100LL so I always had some on hand. I’d move, park, and move the RV as needed, dealing with all the hookups, including the often nasty sewer line. I’d handle propane tank refills and minor repairs. I’d also tend to the truck, making sure it got its oil changed with Rotella (as requested), even though it meant a trip to the Walmart in Chelan, 60 miles away. In the meantime, I handled all the client relations stuff, including getting clients signed up, visiting their orchards so I knew where hazards were, invoicing, and collecting fees.

In between, I managed to have a nice, easy-going life, making lots of friends and doing fun (albeit local) things.

The Logistics

The logistics of being a “migrant” worker were daunting. Each May I needed to get my helicopter and RV from Arizona to Washington. Each August or September, I needed to get them both back to Arizona. That meant a total of three round trips.

Logistics
Here are all of Flying M Air’s assets: our helicopter, 1-ton diesel Ford Truck, and a 35-foot fifth wheel RV. It takes two trips for me to move them to a worksite.

I usually brought the helicopter north first, leaving it in Seattle for maintenance. Then I’d fly home on an airliner, hook up my RV to a truck, and make the 2-3 day drive north with my parrot, Alex the Bird. (Alex is gone now; he has a new home.) Then I’d take a flight from Wenatchee to Seattle and pick up the helicopter. With luck, I had decent weather and could come east through one of the passes: Snowqualmie or Stevens.

One time I had rotten luck and, after several aborted attempts to get over the Cascades, wound up flying all the way down to Portland and following the Columbia River through the Gorge. That was a costly ferry flight.

Later, I skipped the Seattle maintenance — saving a ton of money not only on ferry flying but maintenance itself; my Phoenix area mechanics seemed to be able to do the same work for a lot less money.

Bird Nest in Fan Scroll
It was not fun cleaning this out of my helicopter.

The last time I left the helicopter behind while fetching the RV, during the week I was gone some birds built a nest in my helicopter’s fan scroll and engine compartment. That was quite a mess to clean up.

The drive up was an adventure, too. I tried all kinds of routes. The fastest was Route 93 from Wickenburg, AZ (where I lived at the time) to Twin Falls, ID and then Route 84 to the Tri-Cities area of Washington and back roads from there. It was a long drive. If I made it to Jackpot NV on the first day — 679 miles from home — I’d have a shorter drive the next day. But most times, I couldn’t do it on my own.

Once, I arrived at my Washington destination after sunset and faced the task of parking a 35-foot long fifth wheel trailer in a parking spot between two railroad ties. I still don’t know how I did it in the gloomy light after driving more than 600 miles that day.

In August or September, I did the same thing in reverse. Take the RV home with my parrot, then fly back on an airliner to fetch the helicopter.

In 2009, my wasband and our dog Jack accompanied me on the return RV drive. My wasband was between jobs and it seemed like a great opportunity to enjoy a late summer trip — we so seldom had real vacations together. We went east to Coeur d’Alene, ID, where a friend of mine lives, then kept going and visited Glacier National Park. We camped there and in Yellowstone. Then, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, my wasband was in a big hurry to get home, cutting the vacation short by at least a week over what we could have done.

My wasband also occasionally accompanied me on the helicopter flight. I think he did it twice with me. Once, we flew from Seattle to Page, AZ. Another time, we flew from Seattle down the coast until the marine layer forced us inland. I thought he enjoyed those flights, but apparently he considered them “work” — during our divorce trial, he claimed he was working for me to fly the helicopter back. Not likely, since he wasn’t a commercial pilot and wasn’t legal to work as one. Maybe if I’d charged him for the opportunity to build flight time — as I charged every other pilot who flew that trip with me — he would have seen it differently. To me, however, it was just another helicopter “road trip” with the man I loved.

Silly me.

I wonder who’s helicopter he’s flying these days.

Today’s Migrant Farm Work

I started frost control — another kind of agricultural work — last year.

Cosmo View
I went to HeliExpo last year in Las Vegas during frost season and stayed at the Cosmopolitan, with an excellent view of the strip from my room.

My contract required me to put my helicopter in California, but didn’t require me to stay with it. Instead, I’d be paid generously for callouts and standby time. I moved it to the Sacramento area in late February and spent the following two months traveling between Phoenix and Sacramento, Wenatchee, and Las Vegas, spending most of my time in Arizona packing up my belongings for my move to Washington later in the year.

The contract terms weren’t good unless there was frost — and there wasn’t any last year. I just about broke even when you consider my investment in additional lighting for the helicopter and the cost of repositioning it and my RV. But at least I got my foot in the door as a frost pilot and got to see what it was like flying over almond trees in the dark.

Can’t say I liked it.

I moved to Washington in the spring, when the divorce proceedings were over and I’d relinquished exclusive use of my house to my wasband and his chief advisor — the woman who’d apparently convinced him to spend more than $100K to go after my money. (Seriously. I can’t make this shit up.)

I was still “migrant” for a while — I started in Quincy and moved to Wenatchee Heights, just as I’d done the previous five years. But when that late season contract was over, I moved to my future home, a 10-acre parcel of view property overlooking the Columbia River Valley and Wenatchee. It looked as if my migrant farm worker days were over — I could commute from my new home to my clients’ cherry orchards.

Almond Trees
The almond trees are beautiful when they’re blooming — and they smell nice, too!

I had no intention of doing frost control work under the same contract as last year. But I didn’t have to. I got a much better contract — one that paid better if I didn’t fly. With winter dumping snow on my home in Washington, I moved the RV and later the helicopter down to the Sacramento area again, setting up camp at a small local airport in a nice farming community. With rent at a startlingly low rate of only $200/month with a full hookup, the season would be very profitable even if I didn’t fly.

Best of all, I like the area: the weather was warm, the town was full of great restaurants (and even a beekeeper supply place), there was a nice dog park for Penny the Tiny Dog, and Sacramento was only 20 minutes away. I had a friend in Carmichael, only 30 minutes away, and more friends in Georgetown and Healdsburg, each only 90 minutes away by truck — or 30 by helicopter.

Frost is different from cherries. With frost work, you seldom fly during the day. Instead, you fly any time between 2 AM and 8 AM — most often right around dawn when it’s coldest. That means you have the whole day to do anything you like — hiking, bicycling, kayaking, wine tasting, whatever. As I write this, I’m planning a spa day in Geyserville, a trip to San Francisco, and at least one wine tasting trip to Napa Valley. I’ve joined a few local meetup groups and will be hiking and kayaking with new friends. All while “working” — or at least being paid to stand by in case it gets cold.

It’s almost like a paid vacation — with the added bonus of being able to build night flying time.

It’s a Living

My agricultural work has been very good to me. It saved my business from failure and has made it possible for me to save up enough money for the helicopter’s overhaul.

Once my home is built and my possessions are stored away inside it, I can go back to a modified version of my earlier plan: eight months out of the year flying frost and cherries in in the Sacramento and Wenatchee areas and four months goofing off. But instead of hanging around my old house in an Arizona retirement community with a bunch of seniors, I’ll travel and actually see some of the world on my own terms.

It’s the semi-retired lifestyle I’d expected at this stage of my life, delayed about two years by my wasband’s inexplicable greed and stupidity, and enjoyed without the company of a sad sack old man.

A New Year, A New Book

A new project to get my year off to a good start.

2013 was the first year since 1991 that I did not publish a new book.

There are several of reasons for this, none of which I want to get into here. That would make interesting fodder for a future blog post. Don’t worry; I won’t leave you hanging for long.

But it isn’t as if I haven’t been writing — I have been. In addition to this blog, which I’ve tended to quite faithfully since I started it in October 2003, I’ve been working on another book project since late 2012, when I found myself with an outrageous personal story to tell. Unfortunately, I’ve had to put that project aside; I hope to finish it when I know the ending.

Papillon HelicopterToday, however, I started work on the book I’ve been thinking about for the past month or so. Tentatively titled Flying the Canyon: My Season as a Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour Pilot, this book will share my experiences from one of the most interesting summers of my life.

Here, I’ll let the book’s draft introduction tell you more:

In the summer of 2004, I realized one of my dreams: I became a helicopter tour pilot at the Grand Canyon.

I was 42 when I got the job and I worked with a bunch of young people — mostly men — some of whom were young enough to be my kids. I met the challenges of working in a sometimes difficult but usually breathtakingly beautiful flying environment, dealing with the personalities of co-workers and management, and trying to please passengers from all over the world. The work was rewarding, frustrating, and enlightening. The flying experience was something I think every helicopter pilot should have.

I also had a very odd experience on one of my flights — an experience that would leave the lingering scar of PTSD on me for many years to come.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work, but by the end of the summer, the novelty had worn off. Friction inside the company made the job less pleasant than it had been. I realized that I was a square peg in a round hole. My real work as a freelance writer was being neglected and my editors were beginning to lose their patience. I was sad to leave, but it was time.

This book is the story of my season at the Grand Canyon. It begins before the beginning by sharing the stories of when I decided I wanted to learn how to fly and the things that I did to gain the skills I’d need to be a tour pilot. It then goes on to tell about my experiences as a pilot at the Canyon — including the unusual occurrence on June 10, 2004 — and my direct interactions with fellow pilots, management, and passengers. Finally, it shares how my feelings about being a Canyon tour pilot changed as the summer came to a close and the events that affected my decision to leave.

Because I’d blogged many of my experiences soon after they happened, much of what I share in these pages is rich with details. But rather than just restate my blog posts, I’ve filled in the gaps between them with the behind-the-scenes stories that I couldn’t make public at the time.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a helicopter tour pilot at the Grand Canyon? Here’s what it was like for me.

As I write, I’ll be pulling a lot of my blog posts about those days offline, probably for good. In a way, my blog has acted as a temporary archive for these stories. Once the book is complete and published, the book will be the permanent archive. I hope to do this with much of the contents of my blog.

Captain MariaToday, I churned out over 4,000 words, completing the introduction (which I just shared here), a Prologue, and Chapter 1, which briefly covers my experiences learning to fly and getting my commercial pilot rating. My goal is to have the entire book finished by month-end — a goal I know I can reach if I can stay focused on my work. (With little else do do this winter, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to find time!)

I’ve toyed with the idea of shopping it around to a mainstream publishing house but will likely self-publish under the Flying M Productions “Real-Life Flying” imprint. The book will be available in print and as an ebook in Kindle, Nook, and iBooks formats. I had quite a bit of success with one of my three self-publishing projects back in 2012, so I’m pretty confident I’ll meet or beat that success with this book.

Of course, since I need to work on the book each morning, that might cut into my blogging time. So expect to see fewer posts here over the next month or so as I write, edit, lay out, and publish this book. More information on where to buy it will be available before month-end.

Comments? You know where to put them!

Cherry Drying: My Sixth Season

The whole season in summary.

I’m just finished up my sixth season as a cherry drying pilot in North Central Washington’s Wenatchee area. I thought I’d take a moment to summarize how things went.

What Cherry Drying is All About

I’ve blogged about this extensively and you can quickly zip to other cherry drying related posts by following the cherry drying tag. In a nutshell, it’s like this:

Split Cherries
These Rainier cherries are split and cannot be sold. Cherry drying by helicopter can prevent this.

During the last three or so weeks before a cherry is harvested it is susceptible to damage by rain. Growers are most worried by splits, which can occur when water accumulates in the cherry’s stem cup and is absorbed through the skin. The cherries get too fat for their own skin and split. Other damage can include mildew and rotting.

Because of this, growers want to get the cherries as dry as possible after a rain. So they hire helicopter pilots to hover over the cherry trees after it rains. The downwash of the helicopter’s main rotor blades shakes the water off the leaves and cherries, allowing them to dry much quicker without absorbing so much water.

Keeping the cherries dry is vitally important for a successful crop — as this year so clearly demonstrated. During the relatively short cherry season, dozens of helicopters are on standby with pilots waiting to fly when it rains. And when the rains start falling, all hell breaks loose over the cherry trees.

The Flying M Air Team

One of the things I pride myself on is the ability to provide prompt service and quick dry times to my clients. I do this by never contracting to cover more than 100 acres per helicopter and by utilizing helicopters well-suited to cherry drying missions. Because of this 100 acres/helicopter policy, I need to contract with additional helicopter crews to help out during “crunch times.”

Robinson R44
I’ve been providing cherry drying services in my Robinson R44 since 2008.

My Robinson R44 can thoroughly dry an average of 40 acres per hour. (Of course, actual drying capacity varies depending on tree size, row density, orchard obstacles and terrain, and the wetness of the trees. The more I dry, the better feel I have developed for all this.) That means that if it rained on all my clients at once and they all called at the same time, I could dry 100 acres in about 2-1/2 hours. That’s a long time, but still within requirements. Fortunately, it seldom rains everywhere at once and I’ve never had all my clients call at once.

Of course, I do contract for more than 100 acres at a time. That means I need help to get the jobs done promptly. This was the second year in a row that I had two other helicopter crews helping me complete my cherry drying contracts.

MTAS Hiller
The MTAS Hiller was on contract with Flying M Air for its second year.

Mike and Ron manned the MTAS Hiller for the second year in a row. For the first four weeks of their contract with me, they covered three orchards in Quincy, WA. For the fifth and final week, they provided backup coverage for orchards in East Wenatchee and Wenatchee Heights.

Canyon State Hughes 300
Woody at the controls of Canyon State’s Hughes 300.

Woody manned the Canyon State Hughes 300 for the first time. He was on contract with me for just 8 days during what I think of as a “super crunch” time when overlapping contracts made me responsible for about 250 acres of cherry trees. Although I prefer working with helicopters that have big two-bladed systems — such as the Robinson R44, Hiller, Bell 47, and JetRanger — this little Hughes got the job done using the Flying M Air technique of flying very low and very slow over the treetops. If Woody does come back next year, however, he’ll likely return in either a Hiller or R44.

If you’re a helicopter owner/operator with an R44 and at least 500 hours experience in helicopters (50 or more of which is in your R44), you might want to check the Help Wanted page at Flying M Air next spring. I’m always looking for good, reliable pilots with helicopters to help out.

Old Clients, New Orchards

This year, I contracted with all of last year’s clients except one. He decided to skip helicopter services. That was a loss of 55 acres. (Not sure how he did because I didn’t ask.)

Two of my clients added orchards to their contracts. One added three orchards totaling 61 acres. Another added one orchard that was 23 acres.

So I had a net gain of 31 acres. If I hadn’t lost that 55 acres, I would have had to hire on another helicopter without enough standby pay to cover it, so it’s kind of good that I lost it.

My contracted orchards stretched from George, WA to Monitor, WA. Most were in Quincy, Wenatchee Heights, and Malaga. The crunch time fell from June 20 through July 24, with super crunch falling in the middle of July.

I was based at Quincy for the first half of my season and then moved to Wenatchee Heights for the second half.

Busy, Busy!

This was our busiest season ever. My teammates and I flew a total of about 62 hours for the total of 16 weeks we were contracted (10 for me, 5 for MTAS, and 1 for Canyon State).

Now if you do the math, you’ll find that 62 ÷ 16 comes out to just about 3.9 hours per week. That’s not very much flying. But still, it was the most we’ve flown in a cherry season. My first two years I flew only 5 hours in 7 weeks (less than 1 hour per week average) and 5 hours in 10 weeks (about 1/2 hour per week average). There’s not a lot of flying in cherry drying work. It’s definitely not a time-building job.

Cherry Drying Action Photo
Here I am in action, hovering with my skids nearly in the trees.

The busiest time was what I refer to as the week from hell. It was the last week in June and I personally flew almost 30 hours in just 6 days. On several of those days I dried more than one orchard three or four times. I flew orchard after orchard, sometimes stopping only long enough to refuel and head back out.

I wasn’t happy about it.

Yes, I like to fly because I make money doing it. But no, I don’t like my clients to be put through the wringer by the weather, worrying and spending money on my services and still losing cherries because there’s simply no way to keep them dry when it rains all day long. So yes, I hope I never have another cherry season as busy as this one. My clients, for the most part, are too nice.

As for my competition, they were flying around like crazy people, too. I heard them all on the radio, playing follow the leader to guide unprepared pilots to the orchard blocks that needed drying. Some operators will contract for blocks as small as 2 and 3 acres, so their pilots often spend more time flying from orchard to orchard — without compensation — than actually drying. I’d rather take contracts for a small handful of big orchard blocks so I spend more time over the trees than in transit.

Early, Compressed Season

This was also the earliest season ever. My first contract started May 29; it usually starts the end of the first week in June. And my last contract ended by August 10; last year, it ran until August 25.

It was also a compressed season. Estimated start dates for mid to late season orchards, which were provided at the beginning of the season, creeped forward little by little, causing an uncomfortable overlap in scheduling — which is why I brought Woody’s company on board. That explains how my season started a week earlier than usual and ended two weeks earlier.

Late Season Rain

We also had an unusual amount of late season rain. Indeed, many growers don’t bother getting helicopter standby coverage because it so seldom rains in late July and August. But this year it did. Huge rainstorms hit on the evening of August 1, the morning of August 2, and the evening of August 4. I made five flights, covering my contracted orchard five times and another orchard three times (at my client’s request).

It was a good thing I did. My client reported that on the day of the last storm, I was one of only two helicopters flying in the area. While the packing plant reported minimal splits for his cherries, other orchards that did not have helicopter hover service reported up to 50% splits.

Maybe some lessons were learned? I guess we’ll see next year.

That’s It In a Nutshell

That’s pretty much how the season went for me.

It was my best season ever — but will it be as good next year? Or will we have a bad crop and lose contracts due to frost — as was the case in 2008? Or not have many rain events — as was the case in 2008 through 2010? Or will some upstart company come in and undercut operators like me by taking contracts for as many as 300 acres per helicopter at half the standby pay, crossing their fingers that it doesn’t rain and they’re not actually called to dry? That’s happened more than a few times in the past and those fly-by-night operators never seem to come back for a second season.

It’s all a gamble, a crap shoot. It’s why I don’t put all my eggs in one basket, why I save as much as I can for leaner days when the revenue just isn’t flowing.

But that’s just part of being a small helicopter operator. I love the challenge — especially when things work out just right.

A Dinner with Friends

Salmon, local wine, and home-made cherry pie with friends.

If you’ve been following this blog or my Twitter or Facebook accounts, you know that I’m in Washington State on the last of several cherry drying contracts. I’m not the only helicopter pilot doing this work. At the peak of the season, there were probably about 20 of us working in central Washington state for a handful of service providers. My company, Flying M Air, is probably the smallest of those service providers; this year I was able to add a second pilot for about half my season.

My friend, Jim, has been doing this work for about fifteen years. He starts the season in the Mattawa area and ends it in the Chelan area. He usually starts before me and finishes before me.

This year, I met Lisa, who was new to this work. She worked for the same service provider as Jim, starting down in Kennewick, moving up to Brewster for a while, and then ending the season in Malaga.

Unfortunately, I only met Lisa last week, on Thursday. I say “unfortunately,” because we really hit it off. She came up to my RV for dinner that evening and accompanied me to the Beaumont Cellars Dinner on the Crushpad event the following evening. We went wine tasting and had dinner together again on Sunday. By then, I felt as if I’d known her a long time.

The End is Here

On Friday, my contract in Wenatchee Heights was extended two weeks. It made sense; they’d barely started picking the 86 acres I was responsible for. Since this particular client picks by color, it would take at least two weeks to finish picking. Lisa was told she’d be needed until Wednesday. Jim, the last pilot left in Chelan, was waiting to get cut loose any day.

Moonset over Squilchuck

My view at dawn.

Weather moved in Sunday night. Asleep in my RV at the edge of a cliff over looking Squilchuck Valley, I was awakened by the wind at 3:30 AM. I looked out the window and realized I couldn’t see any stars. I fired up the Intellicast app on my iPad and was shocked to see the green blob indicating rain mostly to the south of my position. I dozed fitfully for an hour, expecting to hear rain on my roof at any moment. It may have been drizzling when I finally fell back to sleep.

At 7 AM, I woke to the sound of voices, trucks, and construction noise. The mostly blue sky was full of puffy clouds. Down in the lower part of the orchard, the pickers were already at work. There was no rain in the forecast at all.

Jim called at about 10 AM. I knew instinctively what he would say and beat him to the punchline: “You’re calling to tell me they cut you loose.”

“You’re a mind-reader,” he said. “Today’s my last day.”

We chatted for a while and then I remembered that Lisa had an opportunity to do a trip with a friend and would probably be open to letting Jim take over her contract for the next two days. He was also open to that, so I hung up and called Lisa. I told her what we were thinking.

“That’s great,” she said, “but today’s my last day, too. They’ll be done picking in about an hour.”

It was then that I realized that both of them would be gone by the next day.

Errands, Favors, and a Cherry Pie

The end of a cherry drying contract comes with logistical challenges.

Lisa’s challenge was easy. All she had to do was pack up, move out of her motel room, and drive the company pickup truck back to Spokane. Her employers would be sending some pilots in time-building mode out to Malaga to pick up the helicopter. She needed to send them the GPS coordinates for where the helicopter was parked so they could find it. She was toying with the idea of leaving that afternoon so she could spend some time with her family before her trip.

Jim’s challenge was a bit more…well, challenging. His helicopter was four hours from its 100-hour inspection, which needed to be done by his mechanic in Seattle. Flying to Seattle was usually a challenge in itself — the weather in the Cascade Mountains was typically miserable with low ceilings, making it a difficult, if not dangerous, flight. A weather window was required, but you never knew when that would be. After dropping his helicopter off in Seattle, he’d have to come back to Wenatchee to fetch his truck and drive it home to Coeur d’Alene. Of course, both his helicopter and truck were in Chelan, about 40 miles farther up the Columbia River. He needed to move his truck to Wenatchee to stage it there for his return from Seattle by airline. Then he needed to get back to Chelan so he could fly out with his helicopter the next day. He suggested a farewell dinner that evening and I promised to drive him back to Chelan.

I had a bunch of errands to run in Wenatchee and I got around to starting them that afternoon. While I was out and about, Lisa called. She’d decided not to leave that day; she’d leave first thing in the morning instead. What she really wanted to do was make a cherry pie. We’d already planned to do that before she left, but that was before she was cut loose early. I had an oven in my RV, so it made sense to do it at my place.

We decided to do it that afternoon. And instead of Jim and me going out to dinner in a restaurant, I’d pick up a piece of salmon and salad fixings and make dinner for all three of us. I was finishing up my errands and heading back to my RV when Jim called and I told him our revised plan. He was on board.

Lisa showed up around 5 PM. Since Jim was still a half hour out, we each took a bowl and headed into the orchard. Five minutes later, we had enough cherries for a pie — and then some.

Back in the RV, I gave the cherries my usual three-soaking bath in cold water to clean them thoroughly. Then Lisa went to work with my junky cherry pitter. It didn’t surprise me much when it broke when she was only half finished. She pitted the rest by hand. By the time Jim showed up, her hands were stained with cherry juice, making her look like a mass murderer.

Jim helped me put a filled propane tank back into its cabinet on my RV and hook it up. The strap that holds it in place bent and he was determined to fix it — which he did. If I wanted to be mean, I would have shown him the strap on the other tank which had similarly broken but had not been fixed. But instead, we went inside and kept Lisa company while she worked on the pie.

We also drank wine. Both Lisa and I had bottles that we’d opened recently but had never finished. We polished them off, one after the other over the course of the evening. I even opened another bottle to keep the wine flowing.

The Salmon Recipe

When the pie was safely in the oven, I got to work on dinner. That’s when Jim gave me a recipe that another one of the pilots had shared over the summer. Oddly, I happened to have all the ingredients. I reproduce it here because it was so excellent:

Ingredients:

  • Salmon filet
  • Mayonnaise
  • Onions, sliced thinly
  • Bacon, cut into pieces

Instructions:

  1. Place the salmon on a piece of aluminum foil.
  2. Spread mayonnaise on the fleshy side of the salmon.
  3. Sprinkle the onions and bacon pieces over the mayonnaise.
  4. Fold up the foil to make a packet.
  5. Place the packet on a preheated grill set to medium heat. If possible, cover the grill to keep the heat in.
  6. Cook until the salmon is done.

The Summer’s Best Dinner

I’d bought a beautiful 1-3/4 pound Coho salmon filet. It was too large to fit on my portable grill in one piece, so I cut it into three portions and made three packets. I absolutely lucked out with the timing. The fish was fully cooked, but still moist. The onions and bacon were cooked to perfection.

I served it with a salad of mixed greens, cucumber slices, vine-ripened tomato, bacon bits, goat cheese, and bottled balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

At one point, Jim said it was the best dinner he’d had all summer. I thought about it and had to agree.

It was the conversation that made it perfect. We talked about flying and about the surreal situation of a cherry drying contract. They seemed to think I had the best setup, living in my mobile mansion on a cliffside with a view, with 86 acres of cherries just steps away. I agreed that it would be tough to go home in September.

Jim was happy that his contracts had gone long enough to cover his annual insurance bill and the cost of his upcoming maintenance. He added up the hours he’d flown during the ten or so weeks he’d been in the area. It wasn’t a lot — cherry drying is not a time-building job — but it was more than usual.

Lisa said it was the best summer she’d ever had and that she’d do it again if she could. Her future holds bigger and better things, though: she’s starting officer school with the Coast Guard in January. She was already looking forward to the trip she’d be starting on Wednesday with a friend.

After dinner, Lisa sliced up the pie, which had been cooling on the stovetop. I produced some Haagen Daaz vanilla ice cream from my freezer. The cherries were big and plump and tender — not the mush you usually find in a cherry pie. It was a perfect finish to a great dinner.

The Party’s Over — and So Is the Summer

The party broke up after 10 PM. Lisa left to drive back to her motel for one last night. Jim and I climbed into my truck and started the long drive to Chelan. We talked politics on the way. We don’t agree on all points, but we’re both too stubborn to give in to the other. We’re also too smart — and too close as friends — to let our disagreement hurt our friendship.

I dropped him off at the house he’s renting. In the morning, his boss would pick him up and drive him to the orchard where his helicopter is parked. Then, weather permitting, he’d make the one-hour flight to Seattle. I’d pick him up at Wenatchee Airport at 5:12 PM and bring him back to his truck. The plan set, I started on my way back.

I got back to my RV just after midnight. The moon was up by then, casting a gray-blue light over the valley spread out before my RV. I listened to the crickets and looked out over that valley for a while. I had 12 days left in my contract and there was a slight chance that it would be extended again.

Yet with my friends gone, I felt as if my summer was over, too.

Weather Forecasting: A Bad Joke?

Each “source” of weather tells a different story.

My work this summer is highly dependent on weather. Simply stated, if the weather is picture perfect and there’s no chance of rain, I pretty much have the day off to do what I like. But if there’s any chance of rain, I need to stick around my base just in case rain starts. And if it’s raining, I go to work.

So, as I mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’m really in tune with the weather.

Or at least I try to be.

The trouble is, I track the weather using multiple sources on my computer, iPhone, and iPad. And it’s very seldom that they all agree.

Today is a perfect example. Here are screenshots for the various sources, all captured within the save 5-minute period. What interests me is what it says for Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.

National Weather Service

The National Weather Service website is my preferred source of weather data. It’s a no-frills site that doesn’t have very good weather graphics — radar, etc. — but does have well-described weather forecast data.

National Weather Service Forecast

Note that in this forecast, they’re showing a 20% chance of rain on Monday.

The Weather Channel

Everyone loves the Weather Channel website. I don’t. It’s full of ads and info that most people who are serious about weather forecasts has no interest in. But it is a source of weather info and I do occasionally consult it — usually for radar graphics.

The Weather Channel Forecast

Note that this forecast indicates a 20% chance of rain on Sunday and only 10% on Monday.

Intellicast

Intellicast is the pessimist of weather forecasting. I’ve discovered that if any forecast shows a chance of rain, it’ll be Intellicast. I use the Intellicast app on my iPad, but there’s also an ad-heavy website.

Intellicast Forecast

In this case, Intellicast matches the Weather Channel’s forecast regarding rain: 20% Sunday and 10% Monday.

WeatherBug

WeatherBug ForecastI use Weather Bug on my iPad and WeatherBug Elite on my iPhone. They usually have the same forecast.

This screenshot is from the iPad version. It’s showing a 20% chance of rain on Monday, just like the National Weather Service. As you might imagine, the iPhone version shows the same information (although in a different way).

Which One is Right?

In this example, at least there is some agreement between the different programs. The way I read this is that rain is possible sometime on either Sunday or Monday or both. Chances are slim but is possible — at least as of now.

Of course, I’ll watch all of these sources throughout today and tomorrow to see how they change. These forecasts will change. They were, after all, different yesterday.

Will they ever all agree? No. I’ve experienced rain when the forecast for one said no rain and another said there was a 10% chance.

Monday, July 25, was a good example. I went to bed on Sunday after seeing a 10% to 20% chance of isolated thunderstorms for Monday, yet was awakened at 4:30 AM on Monday by a pouring rain that didn’t really let up until 2 PM that afternoon. All the pilots flew all day that day; it was a nightmarish situation where all the orchards got wet and needed service. (I also got calls from orchard owners who weren’t under contract with me, begging me to come. I couldn’t — I service my clients first and it took all day to take care of them. A lot of cherries were lost that day.)

So I’ll be watching the weather closely for the next few days, never wandering far from base.

Who knows? Maybe tomorrow raindrops on my rooftop will put me on active standby before my morning coffee.