Drying Cherries

Up close and personal with a whole lot of trees — and fruit.

One of the things that has been keeping me very busy — at least lately — this summer is my work as a cherry drying pilot.

I generally don’t blog much about this work, primarily because there isn’t much of it and I feel a real need to protect myself against competition. I rely on the revenue from this work to help keep my business running. I also rely on the need to relocate to do this work as an excuse to get me the hell out of Arizona when it’s so freaking hot there.

What It’s All About

In brief: During the last three or so weeks that cherries are on the trees, if they get wet, they can become damaged — usually splitting or developing mold. Growers who don’t want to lose their crop hire helicopter pilots to stand by during cherry season. After a rain, they call us out to hover over trees. The downwash from our rotor blades shakes the branches, thus shaking off accumulated water.

There’s a lot more I can say about this, but I don’t think it’s necessary. As I mentioned here, the work can be dangerous and requires good flying skills. (There was an accident in an orchard just the other day that was likely caused by a failure to respect density altitude in a heavy helicopter. Both occupants survived uninjured; the helicopter didn’t.) It’s not for low-time pilots. And it’s a crappy way to build time — I was here 6 weeks before I was called out to fly at all and, now seven weeks in, I’ve only flown about 9 hours.

Oh, and did I mention how incredibly tedious the work is?

Some Snapshots

Anyway, yesterday I was called out twice to dry. There was a 15-acre orchard that I had to dry twice and a 40-acre orchard that I dried just once. Add that acreage together and you get 70 acres of cherry trees.

For my second call out, I mounted my GoPro “nosecam” on the helicopter. I actually have video from that viewpoint of both orchards I dried on that call. It’s not very exciting stuff. As I type this, I’m debating on whether to throw a few minutes’ worth into a video to share. I wouldn’t want to put anyone to sleep.

I did, however, pull out a few still images as photos to share here.

Cherry Drying
This is a typical view down an aisle of cherry trees. I fly very low.

Orchard and Rain
Here’s a shot as I approached the 40-acre orchard block. You’re looking at hundreds, if not thousands, of trees. It was still raining lightly as I flew up. I took the opportunity to land near the orchard and pull my door off. When the sun comes out, it gets very hot in the cockpit — especially when you’re wearing a Nomex flight suit and helmet.

Cherry Drying
Here’s another drying shot. These trees are younger than the ones in the smaller orchard and were heavy with fruit, which you may be able to see in this shot. The sun was out for much of this dry, so time was of the essence.

Serious Business

Cherry drying is serious business. My client is paying me good money to sit around and wait for the rain. When the rain comes, it’s my job to quickly and effectively dry his trees. If I fail to do my job, my client can lose his entire crop. That could be hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fruit, the difference between a profitable year and a year living on credit.

It’s a huge responsibility that I take very seriously.

The next time you eat fresh US-grown cherries, think about the folks in the production chain that put those cherries on your plate. I might be one of them.

Travel Insanity

Too many miles, too little time.

I’m just recovering from a crazy week with too much travel in too short a time span.

Our Flight Path

Our flight path, recorded on my iPad with GPSTrack. Can you tell where we did some scud running?

It all started last Saturday, when I flew with two companions from Phoenix, AZ to Wenatchee, WA by helicopter in one day. It was almost 11 hours of flight time with mostly very brief stops for fuel. Although I had very little stick time — one of my companions did almost all the flying — I was still alert and able to fly at a moment’s notice.

It got a little tense when we had to do some scud-running in Oregon that lasted far longer than I like to be spending scud running — as if I like it at all. It never got dangerous, but more than a few times, I began scouting the remote hillsides around us, looking for a place to set down and wait it out. I was very glad when the terrain finally descended, dumping us in an area where we could get back on course.

We spent the night in Wenatchee and I parted company with my travel companions, leaving them to catch an early flight to Seattle while I took care of other things locally.

Sunday was relatively restful. I needed to reposition the helicopter to Quincy, WA, where I’d be spending part of my summer. That was just a 15-minute flight. Then I spent some time socializing at Ferguson Flying Services, where my helicopter is parked in Quincy, and the Colockum Ridge Golf Course, where my RV would be parked soon. Then a friend/client picked me up and drove me the 5 miles to his winery in town, where I spent the afternoon socializing with him, his family, and the folks who came for wine tasting. A nice, mellow afternoon.

But at 4:15, the craziness started again. I got a lift to Wenatchee Airport, where I caught a flight to Seattle with a connecting flight to Phoenix. My husband picked me up there at about 10:30 PM. Overnight at our Phoenix condo.

Monday morning, bright and early, we were on our way back up to Wickenburg. I spent the day finishing up some work on a chapter of my book and then packing. It wasn’t until nearly 9 PM that night that we were done and pulling the RV out of the hangar where it lives most of the year. We left it parked in front for the night.

Welcome to NevadaAt 6:45 AM, I was in the driver seat of the truck with Alex the Bird in the seat beside mine. We were starting a 1,295-mile drive from Wickenburg, AZ to Quincy, WA. My goal was to make Jackpot, NV that first day — a distance of 725 miles. I spent most of those miles on Route 93, a two-lane road with speed limits up to 70 miles per hour. There was no traffic and certain stretches of the road were straight and flat as far as the eye could see. We made Jackpot before nightfall. After dinner n the casino, I spent the night in the RV with Alex in comfort — in the casino parking lot.

My Rig, in Jackpot, NVThe next morning, I woke at 6:15, which is late for me. Anxious to get on the road, I rushed around making my coffee and Alex’s breakfast and then buttoning up the RV for another day on the road. It wasn’t until after I topped off the fuel tank across the street from the casino that I realized it was an hour earlier; that part of Nevada is on Mountain Daylight Time. So I got a very early start. I left Route 93 behind in Twin Falls, ID, and hopped on I-84. The route was mountainous and the truck sucked diesel at an alarming rate as I struggled to maintain speed up hills. I left the interstate just past Pendleton and got back on smaller, traffic-free back roads to head north. After 10 miles on I-70 and the last five miles through familiar farmland, I rolled into the parking lot at the Colockum Ridge Golf Course RV Park just after 3 PM.

My Route

My route, as captured by GPSTrack on my iPhone.

I was fortunate to have had good weather all the way. Towing 13,000 pounds of fifth wheel RV on wet pavement is no fun — as I learned last year. It was just starting to rain when I finished hooking up my utilities at 4 PM.

Do I need to say how exhausted I was? I’d snacked my way from Wickenburg to Quincy, eating only snacks on my low-carb diet: jerky, almonds, and cheese sticks. The only real meal I’d had was at the casino in Jackpot. My digestive system was a mess for the next two days.

And of course, I developed a bad cold, which I think I’m just coming out of now.

But on the bright side of this, I managed to get all my assets in position for the first half of the cherry drying season. I set up my RV office and yesterday I managed to knock off another chapter of the book I’m working on. I’m also in the area early enough to set up helicopter tours and wine tasting trips with the local wineries.

It’s been a rough week, but now I’m settled in. It feels good to be at my home away from home.

About the Cherry Drying Posts

And why they’re were password protected.

Drying CherriesA few weeks ago, it came to my attention that this blog was the primary source of information about cherry drying by helicopter. Every day, pilots who wanted to learn more about cherry drying were stopping in to read up.

Normally, I’d be pleased. But I also began to realize that these same pilots were using the information I provided to compete with me for cherry drying work.

That would simply not do.

The truth of the matter is, there simply isn’t enough work to go around. Every year, I struggle to get my contracts together and signed and then struggle some more to get my standby pay. Other pilots I know who have been doing this work far longer than I have go through the same process. None of us can afford to have competition for what little work is out there.

In my case, it’s particularly tough. I travel from Arizona to Washington and back at considerable cost. This year, I made the trip with only one contract signed. If I hadn’t been able to secure other work, I would have taken a heavy loss.

In this tough economy, I depend on this work to keep my business afloat. Without it, I’d likely have to sell the helicopter. Right now, there simply isn’t enough tour and charter work out there to cover the cost of my fixed expenses, such as insurance, annual maintenance, and hangaring.

So I’ve password-protected the posts, making them inaccessible to most visitors. I’ll likely remove the password once my friends and I stop doing this work.

August 2013 Update: Since writing this blog post, I’ve moved to Washington state. I’m very secure in my cherry drying work with great clients that I serve faithfully year after year. Indeed, I’ve built the kind of relationships with my clients that I’m proud of. I have so much work during the busiest part of the season that I’m actively looking for other helicopter pilots with their own helicopters to work with me. If you’re an owner/operator with an R44 helicopter, at least 500 hours helicopter experience, and a month or so free every summer and you want to get started in this work, visit the Help Wanted page on Flying M Air’s website to learn more about opportunities.

The rest of this post still applies.

Some Important Things to Know about Cherry Drying

I do need to say a few things about cherry drying for the folks looking for information.

  • Cherry drying requires a helicopter. If you don’t have a helicopter, you cannot dry cherries. Any company that has helicopters for this kind of work already has pilots. Inexperienced pilots cannot expect to be hired for this kind of work by a company that already has helicopters and pilots.
  • Cherry drying is not a good way to build time. I got less than 20 hours of drying time this summer. I got around 5 hours each of the previous two years. Do you really want to blow a whole summer sitting around in farm country waiting for it to rain just to get 5 to 20 hours of flight time?
  • Cherry drying is not for low-time pilots. When you work, you’re hovering 5 feet over treetops, sometimes in very windy conditions. That means tailwinds and crosswinds and LTE. There’s a lot of dancing on the pedals. There’s a real need to know the helicopter you’re flying.
  • Cherry drying is dangerous. All operations are inside the deadman’s curve. If you have an engine problem, you will crash. Read these accident reports to get a better idea of what can happen: SEA05CA122, SEA04LA102, LAX02LA169, SEA00LA101, SEA00LA103, WPR09LA371, and WPR11CA146

I know a lot of helicopter pilots — especially low-time helicopter pilots — out there are desperate for work. If you’re one of them, I can assure you that cherry drying isn’t the solution you’re looking for.

One Way Not to Research a Pilot Job

Some people are so dumb.

I got a call today from an unidentified helicopter pilot who’s “just about to get” his CFI. He called my number and asked to speak to a pilot who happens to own another helicopter charter operation in Washington State. When I told him that person didn’t work for me, he seemed satisfied to talk to me.

He wanted information on cherry drying. He’d heard about it and he wanted to do it. I told him that if he wanted to be a cherry drying pilot, he needed a helicopter.

“So you get a helicopter and then you can do cherry drying?” he asked.

I decided I wasn’t going to give him very much information. “Yes.”

“Is that what you do?”

“Yes.”

Long pause. He was evidently expecting more. Then: “So you have a helicopter company?”

“Yes.”

“How many helicopters do you have? Four or five?”

Cherry Parking Spot

One helicopter is enough for me.

“No. I have one. I can only fly one helicopter at a time.”

“Oh!” he sounded surprised. “So you’re just a tiny company.”

I don’t think I’m being unreasonable when I say that the word tiny applied as a label to my company by a 200-hour pilot rubbed me the wrong way. I probably should have hung up on him there. But I decided to feed him some of my patented sarcasm. “If it makes you happy to say that I have a tiny company, fine.”

He wasn’t quite bright enough to pick up on the sarcasm. “Well, it doesn’t make me happy,” he said, sounding more than a little baffled. He hurried on. “So you have a bunch of pilots and they fly that helicopter.” It was a statement, not a question.

“No,” I corrected him. “I am the only pilot. One helicopter, one pilot. Makes sense, no?”

“Oh. And you do cherry drying?”

I was getting very tired of the conversation. “Yes. I come here and sit around for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week for weeks at a time. When it rains, I fly. That’s cherry drying. And believe me, it isn’t for low time pilots.”

Perhaps he [finally] began to sense the hostility in my voice. Suddenly, he was done. I guess he realized that I wasn’t going to hire him. He thanked me for my time and hung up.

I wonder if he ever found the person he was looking for.

Weather Forecast FAIL

You simply can’t trust any source.

My summer job as a cherry drying pilot depends on weather. When it rains, I fly. When it doesn’t rain, I don’t. If there’s absolutely no chance of rain, I can goof off.

Yesterday’s forecast called for haze with mostly sunny skies with a 0% chance of rain. I stayed in most of the morning, working on a book revision, and knocked off two chapters. By then, it was 1 PM and I was ready to head down into town to do some errands, have lunch out, and do some grocery shopping.

But it was overcast. It was overcast most of the day. In my mind, overcast ≠ mostly sunny.

The clouds were high and moving quickly. There were patches that looked thick. There were some straggling low clouds that moved along with the ones above.

There was no haze. In fact, yesterday the air was the clearest it had been in over a week. The wind was probably to thank for that. It wasn’t very windy, but it was windy enough to have to close the window beside my desk. It was downright chilly.

I looked at the weather forecast again. Still the same, no chance of rain.

Radar does not show clouds.
One of my clients thought that radar images showed cloud coverage. Although there are usually clouds where the radar echoes appear, radar is supposed to show precipitation. In dry climates, however, rainfall often evaporates before it hits the ground, so you can’t rely on radar echoes to indicate rain unless they’re very strong echoes. Color indicates strength. You learn to read radar very quickly when weather is a major part of your life.

Then I looked at the current radar. There were plenty of light green echoes moving southwest to northeast at a good clip. Sometimes those echoes were right over me, although it wasn’t raining. I did not feel comfortable driving into town when weather radar and cloud coverage indicated that rain was a possibility.

By 4 PM, I was tired of waiting. Despite the cloud cover and those light radar echoes, the forecast still said there was a 0% chance. It was obviously not going to rain.

I got in my truck and headed down to Wenatchee.

I hit a few stores to pick up a few things. Then I had an excellent meal at Smokeblossom on Wenatchee Avenue. Afterwards, I headed to East Wenatchee where there’s a Safeway supermarket I like.

I was filling up my truck with diesel at Safeway’s fuel pumps when my phone rang. It was my client.

“Hey, Maria. Is it raining up there?”

I’m living across the street from his orchard, so I should know the weather. I was embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t there, but I wasn’t about to lie. “I’m down in town,” I told him. And then I looked up. From my position, I could clearly see up the canyon toward the orchard. And it sure as hell looked as if it were raining. I reported what I saw and added, “I’m just getting gas in my truck now. I’ll head right back up there and give you a call.”

As I finished fueling, rain started falling on the truck. It was a light drizzle.

I sped back across the bridge, winding my way through traffic, and got on the road that would take me back to the orchard. It was raining on me the whole time. Just enough of a drizzle to put the wipers on their lowest setting. The road wasn’t wet, though.

I drove into the orchard and parked beside some trees. I got out of the truck and looked at the cherries. Some tiny drops were on them. I got back in the truck and drove over to another area. More tiny drops. It didn’t seem like a big deal, but I wasn’t a decision maker.

My client arrived a while later. He took one of the quads and toured the orchard. I went back to my trailer and closed it up. The rain pattered gently on the roof. The temperature dropped to 65°F.

I waited. It was getting late. I’d arrived at the orchard at about 6:30 PM. Sunset was around 8:20 PM. I’d have enough light to fly until 8:50 PM. I needed nearly 2 hours to dry the orchard. It was unlikely that they’d launch me while it was still raining. I kept checking the weather. The radar kept showing bands of possible rain coming our way. At 7 PM, the forecast updated to admit that there was a 20% chance of showers. While it was raining.

My client called at 7:30 and I walked across the street to the shed to talk to him. “False alarm,” he said. “Not wet enough to worry about.”

Of course, it was still raining. We discussed what we’d do if it started raining harder or rained in the middle of the night. Then we parted and I went in for the night.

I didn’t get a chance to do my grocery shopping.

It rained until 11 PM or later. I think it may have rained a bit in the middle of the night, too. In the morning, as soon as it got light to see, I walked across the street and checked out the cherries on the closest trees. Some were bone dry. Others were soaking wet.

I flew 1.8 hours this morning.

WeatherToday is a beautiful day, with thin high clouds and puffy thick ones floating out to the northeast at about 10,000 feet. The forecast says mostly sunny. Again.

I think I’ll head out and do my grocery shopping early, just in case.