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.

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?”


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


“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.

On Weather Forecasts

Wisdom from a cherry grower.

Last night, I checked the weather forecast on the National Weather Service Web site for the area I’m in. It showed hot and sunny every day and clear every night for the next week.

I went to bed.

This morning, as usual, I started my day by checking the weather forecast at the same source. Overnight, the forecast had changed to a 20% chance of showers today, tonight, tomorrow, and tomorrow night.


I tracked down my client at his packing shed, bringing along a map of the orchard’s blocks. They’d started picking on Saturday and if it rained, I wanted to know which blocks I could skip. Unfortunately (for him), they’re picking by color and haven’t finished picking any of the blocks. So if it rained, I’d be drying all 86 acres again.

I said, “Well, it’s only a 20% chance of rain. The way I understand that is that it’ll rain on 20% of the area. This might not be in that 20%.”

He liked that. “I heard a saying about weather forecasts,” he told me. “Weather forecasts are too important to ignore, but not reliable enough to depend on.”

That says it all.

Meanwhile, I just checked the weather again. 30% chance of rain here tonight and now that 20% has stretched out to two more days.

And that brings up another point. Quite often, at the end of a cherry drying contract, if a grower isn’t done picking, he’ll check the weather before deciding whether he wants a pilot’s contract to be extended. If the forecast looks good, he’ll cut the pilot loose to save on standby pay, leaving his remaining crop unprotected.

Just imagine that grower if the all clear forecast I’d seen yesterday turned to this within 24 hours — after the pilot was gone:

Weather Forecast

Three Dries and I’m Out

I dry an 86-acre cherry orchard three times in one day.

I woke at 1:45 AM to the sound of thunder. There was rain in the forecast — scattered thunderstorms — so my senses were tuned in to any related sound.

Cherry Parking Spot

My landing zone is right in the orchard.

For the first week of my contract, the 86-acre cherry orchard belonging to my clients had been missed by several storms moving through the area. I was beginning to think that there was an invisible force field over the place, protecting it from rain. But at around 2 AM, when big rains drops started pattering on the roof of my RV, I realized that rain was indeed possible here. When those drops turned into a torrential downpour I knew I’d be flying at dawn.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I turned on the TV. With nothing more than the rooftop antenna, I can pick up six television channels, three of which are PBS. One of the PBS channels was showing a movie about how the Allied war effort was assisted by headhunters — and I don’t mean job recruiters — during World War II. I was watching a segment that showed how enterprising natives in the South Pacific used bamboo to “pave” a runway when my phone rang.

It was 2:30 AM.

The phone area code was the local 509. I answered it. It was the wife of one of the growers. She and her husband lived in a converted lumber mill that had been moved to the orchard some years ago. With the building’s bright blue metal roof, they were likely getting the same rain experience I was.

“It’s raining,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

“Well, when can you dry?”

She and her husband had obviously not received the memo. I don’t dry cherries at night. It’s dark at night. Flying five feet over the tops of trees when it’s dark is dangerous. My contract clearly states that I don’t fly when it’s dark.

“I don’t fly at night,” I told her. “I can fly at first light.”

“What time is that?”

I didn’t know exactly, but I knew it was after 4:30 AM. I told her.

“That’s two hours.”

“I know,” I said. “But I can’t fly in the dark. It’s dangerous. Do you want me get started at first light?”

Technically, I wasn’t supposed to fly until someone told me to. The guy who hired me was not living at the orchard and may not know the weather. If no one called me, I wouldn’t fly. By getting her permission for launch, I could get started as soon as possible.

She conferred with her husband. “Yes,” she said. “Start as soon as you can.”

I hung up, then grabbed my iPad and checked Emerald Observatory, the app I use to get local sunrise/sunset/twilight info. Twilight would start around 5 AM with sunrise around 5:40. I set the alarm on my phone to 4:30 AM in the unlikely event taht I fell back to sleep. I went back to watching the headhunter show.

At about 2:45 my phone rang again. This time, it was the husband. He told me that he’d spoken to the guy who’d hired me and confirmed that they wanted me to fly as soon as I could. I told him that would be closer to 5 AM than 4:30 AM. He seemed okay with that. We hung up.

I watched a bit more about headhunters, then decided to try to get back to sleep. I turned off the TV and tossed and turned for another 45 minutes. The rain and fierce wind had stopped; the sound of thunder rumbled from off in the distance. Wenatchee was probably getting dumped on again.

Just when I thought I wouldn’t get to sleep, I passed out.

First Dry

The phone’s alarm clock woke me rudely at 4:30 AM. It was still dark.

I rolled out of bed, did my bathroom business, and brewed coffee into a travel mug. I dressed in a tank top, my flight suit, and socks. I uncovered Alex and gave him his breakfast. I used the Internet to check the weather. Although it was getting light enough to see clouds, there were no rain echoes on the way. The forecast said there was a 50% chance of isolated thunderstorms all day. Small hail was mentioned. I put on my sneakers, grabbed my phone and a bottle of water and headed out into the predawn light.

Here’s some footage from my approach and landing at the orchard. You can see the northwest corner of the main orchard block.

I drove my truck down to the lower entrance to the orchard. The orchard was planted in a number of blocks on the side of a hill. The other day, I’d had a mishap on a muddy road between the upper entrance and my helicopter. The irrigation system turns the dirt roads to a snot-like mud that fills in treads on tires. I’d slid off the road without warning and it had taken some doing to get back on the road, turn around, and backtrack. I wasn’t about to get stuck and have to walk to the helicopter. It wasn’t just the idea of walking through an orchard in the semi-darkness. It was the simple fact that I’d need my truck’s headlights shining on the helicopter to get it prepped for flight.

The helicopter is parked in a grassy area alongside a pond. Prepping it was pretty easy. All I had to do was pull off the blade tie downs, take off the pilot side door, and do a good walk around. It was already preflighted.

I don’t have to take off my door to dry cherries. In fact, I usually don’t. And I usually regret not doing it. The trouble is, when the sun comes out, it shines into the cockpit, raising the temperature beyond what’s comfortable. I’m only flying at 5 to 10 miles per hour, so the helicopter’s vent is useless for airflow. Add humidity — remember, it just rained — and a pilot wearing a long sleeved Nomex flight suit and helmet and you have a sweat machine. On one flight, the sweat was pouring down my face, getting into my eyes. Because both hands are busy the whole time I’m doing this kind of flying, I couldn’t even wipe the sweat out of my face.

You think I’d learn, right? Well, the truth is, when I start flying, it’s usually chilly and miserable. I don’t expect the sun to come out. But it usually does and I usually roast. This time, with a 2 to 3 hour flight ahead of me, I wasn’t going to be dumb. I took the door off.

By 5:15, I was in the cockpit with the engine running. I hooked up my phone to the device that patches it into my intercom system and pulled on my helmet. I lifted off at 5:20 AM. It was just light enough to see.

Satellite View of Orchard

This view of the orchard from Google Maps is deceiving; it looks flat, but the east end is at least 300 feet higher than the west end. There’s another 5+ acres about 1/2 mile away.

The orchard is 86 acres and consists of over a dozen irregularly shaped blocks planted on the hillside. The trees are young but mature averaging in height from 10 to 15 feet. In general, their sizes are consistent within a block. The rows are widely spaced, making it easy to see the grassy aisles between them. The Rainier cherries, which require special care, were easy to identify by the long sheets of mylar spread out in the aisles between them, anchored in place by small piles of earth.

I’d never dried the orchard before, so I didn’t have a solid plan. I figured I’d start at the bottom and work my way up. This would make it easier to protect my tail rotor. I tend to fly very low — sometimes my skids are level with the treetops — and with a full tank of fuel and just me on board, my tail rotor hangs almost as low as my skids. As a result, whenever I flew downhill, I’d have to either fly higher or fly sideways. Higher is probably easier, but lower and sideways is more effective.

So I started at the southwest corner of the orchard settled in over the trees, and got to work. I had to maneuver around a small packing area. And then there was a block of Rainiers, so I had to climb to 15 feet above them so as not to bruise the fruit. Then back down. Then sideways as the row dipped. Then the end of the row, turn, and start back. Low, low, high over Rainiers, low, low, around the packing area. As I turned again, I looked up over the 86 acres I could see. This was going to be a long morning.

I was flying down every other aisle. Although the guy who taught me to dry told me to go down every row of trees, I soon discovered that going down every other aisle was usually just as effective, but quicker. In fact, it may be more effective because my downwash seemed to get under the trees when I flew over an aisle instead of a row. With nice wide aisles like these, I could actually fly lower, getting much better coverage as my downwash hit the ground between the trees and came back up through them.

But every other aisle was going to take a very long time.

I dried one block after another, following the little hills and valleys of each row, turning sideways when necessary to keep my tail rotor out of the trees behind me, rising out of the trees only to give Rainiers a gentler breeze. The sun came up but stayed hidden behind clouds. I was about 45 minutes into the job when shafts of sunlight pierced the cloud cover to brightly illuminate the mountains and sides of the valley to the west of me. Any minute, I thought. Any minute and the sun would be on me and the roasting would begin.

And the growers would start to panic because so many of their trees were still wet.

But we lucked out. The clouds surrounded those escaped rays of sunlight and reined them back in. It stayed cloudy.

Orchard House

One of the houses on my client’s orchard. This photo was shot on a much nicer day from near the reservoir at the top end of the property.

I started to notice people watching me. Some men at the sprayer staging area, which looked out over the lower part of the orchard. The couple who’d called me in the middle of the night. The folks at the big house on the south side of the orchard. I saw cameras flashing occasionally. I tried to ignore all of it. The clock was ticking and I had a lot of trees to dry.

I’d told the grower to expect a dry rate of about 30 acres per hour based on the layout of the orchard — hills and oddly shaped blocks slow me down. That put my total dry time near three hours. He’d been worried about that and had originally asked for a second pilot. But when I found a pilot and sent him a standby contract, he’d changed his mind. After all, he’d had me on contract last year for three weeks and it hadn’t rained once. He probably didn’t want to spend more money than he had to. As I periodically checked the clock, I realized that I’d be close to my estimate.

Finally, at about 8:10 AM, I was done. The sky had cleared considerably and there were big patches of blue sky. I rose up out of the last block, punched Wenatchee Airport into my GPS, and headed northeast. I called my client on the phone and told him I was done and going to get fuel.

The fuel situation is my fault. I didn’t want to end the season with a full tank of fuel in my truck’s transfer tank, so I’d let the level drop to only 40 gallons. I’d burned at least that. I figured I’d top off the tanks at the airport, since it wasn’t likely that I’d have to fly again immediately. I’d save my stored fuel for quick turns at the orchard.

The airport was only five minutes away. There was no traffic. I made my calls and landed near the fuel island where a man was fueling a Cessna. It wasn’t until I got out that I realized I’d had the controls in a “death grip” for nearly three hours.

“You look stiff,” the man at the Cessna said to me.

You know you’re hearing the truth when it comes from a stranger.

My client called me as I fueled. He was worried. It had taken a long time to dry the trees. That wasn’t a problem because the weather had stayed cool. But if the weather warmed up while the cherries were wet, we’d have a problem. He asked me if I could get a second pilot to help me. I told him I might be able to. My friend, Jim, had told me he might be available. He was in Chelan and it was unclear to me whether he was on contract.

I finished fueling up and went inside to use the bathroom. Another cherry pilot I’d met in Quincy was sitting in the waiting area, looking very bored. I’d spotted his Enstrom outside. We exchanged greetings and I went to take care of business. I also checked the radar in the pilot lounge. Lots of echoes in the area, but none threatening my orchard. It looked as if I was done flying, at least for the morning.

It’s nice to have the video camera on board and ready to go when you fly over sights like this.

I swapped my helmet for my Bose headsets, started up, and took off. The reflections of clouds in the calm Columbia River at Wenatchee were amazing and I managed to turn on my POV camera in time to capture them on my way back to the orchard.

By 9 AM, the helicopter was parked back at the orchard with the hail covers on its blades and I was enjoying my breakfast back in my RV. I’d logged 2.9 hours.

First Intermission

I did some work on a book I’ve been revising, checked the weather and e-mail, moderated blog comments, and wasted some time on Twitter. Then, feeling tired, I went into the bedroom and stretched out on the bed.

The phone woke me two hours later. It was my buddy, Jim. We’d spoken earlier in the day and he’d told me that he was still on contract in Chelan and that his client would not release him. I told him how much I’d flown. He’d dried 15 acres that morning and was waiting for more rain.

I looked outside. It had clouded up again. The clouds looked dark and heavy.

When I hung up, I started to connect to the Internet to check the weather radar. But there was a knock on my door. It was the woman who’d called at 2:30. She’d come to apologize. We chatted for a while and she came in to meet Alex the Bird.

And then it started to rain. Hard.

Second Dry

She left and I suited up. I checked the weather. The radar showed rain (duh) but not much of it. I grabbed my handheld radio and went to find my client. He was at the main packing shed, talking to some workers. I handed him the radio and told him how to use it. I also told him that there would be no second pilot.

“Last time, I flew every other row,” I told him. “This time, I’ll fly every third row. That should speed things up. If the trees aren’t very wet, they should be okay.”

He seemed to think that might work.

“You can call me on the radio if you have instructions,” I added. “It’ll work better than the phone. I’ll prep the helicopter. Call me when you want me to launch.”

I drove down to the helicopter and did everything short of removing the hail covers and door. The helicopter had been filthy from weeks out in dusty environments and now it was soaking wet, so I used the opportunity to wipe down the outside of the cockpit with a rag. It was still raining, but not too hard to walk around in.

The rain slowed to a drizzle and my phone rang. I was told to get started.

Round two began. I started in the same place but had a more effective route among the blocks. As I’d told my client, I flew every third aisle. I could see him and his dog and another man at the sprayer staging area. I’m not sure, but he may have had binoculars.

View from Sprayer Staging Area

This is the view from the sprayer staging area, a bench about halfway up the hill. You can see the pond where my helicopter is parked. The trees end at a drop-off into the valley. The opposite hillside is at least a mile away.

My radio came to life. “Hey, Maria, it looks like you’re getting two rows on either side of you. That’s four rows. So every third row should be real good.”

I told him that’s what I was doing and that it should make things go faster.

They did go faster. I climbed up the hill for the main area of the orchard pretty quickly. But I was about 45 minutes into it when the wind suddenly kicked up. All around me, the trees were blowing like crazy without any input from me.

The wind can be a nuisance — or even a danger — in this kind of work. If you’re hovering slowly, whenever your side or tail is to the wind, the wind is trying to whip the helicopter around so you point into it. The only way to stay pointing the direction you want is with the anti-torque pedals. The more the wind blows, the more dancing on the pedals. When the wind is blowing past a certain speed — 10 mph? 15? — or has a big gust spread, it becomes damn near impossible to maintain yaw control at cherry drying speed.

My client noticed me struggling. “How are you doing out there, Maria?”

“The wind is kicking up,” I said.

“Yeah, I see that. Do you need to land?”

“No,” I replied. “It isn’t that bad yet.”

But it got bad a few minutes later. The whole north side of the orchard was blowing like crazy. I couldn’t see a single spot that wasn’t in the wind. And I couldn’t maintain controlled flight down any of the rows as low as I wanted to be.

“I have to break off here,” I said. “I’ll find another spot that’s not as windy and keep working.”

“Yeah, that north side really gets the wind up over the ridge,” he replied.

I popped up high enough to survey the blocks I hadn’t dried. The next block south looked much calmer. I settled down over the trees at one end and got back to work. “The wind might do the job for me,” I suggested.

I dried that block and the one up the hill from it. The wind died down quite a bit.

My client came back on the radio. “Yeah, it’s still pretty wet under these trees,” he said. “Do you think you can come back here and finish it off?”

I looked back at the treetops. Sure enough, it had calmed down. “Yeah. Let me finish this block and I’ll be right over.”

Ten minutes later, I was flying back, trying to remember where I’d left off. There was a birdhouse on a pole — don’t ask; I don’t know — on one side of the block and I seemed to recall breaking off around there. I caught sight of of my client and his dog nearby as I settled over the aisle and got to work. My right skid passed less than 3 feet from the birdhouse. “I think I left off at this birdhouse,” I said into the radio. “Can you go down the hill a little and check the trees to make sure they’re dry just in case I stopped lower down the block?”

He told me he would. A few minutes later, he reported that the trees downhill from the birdhouse were good and dry.

From that point, the dry flight was routine. I averaged about 10 knots, keeping as low to the trees as I could, flying every third aisle. The work went much more quickly.

I was halfway finished with the last block, which is about a half mile south of the rest of the orchard, when it started to rain. I reported that to my client.

“Yeah, it’s raining here, too.” The poor guy didn’t seem happy.

“I’m going to finish up here in case it’s just a light passing shower,” I told him. If it didn’t rain much, the trees would not need to be dried again and I’d be done.


But it wasn’t a light shower. By the time I was finished, it was a good, solid rain.

I came in to my landing zone and set down. When I got out, my client was there with my radio. It was still raining, although not very hard.

“When this passes,” he said resignedly, “I’ll probably have you do it again.”

I nodded. “Just give me a call.”

He and his dog left on his ATV. I put the helicopter’s door back on and moved the truck up to refuel. That’s when I discovered that I didn’t have 40 gallons in the tank. The last guy who’d filled it had obviously not filled it. It was dry after pumping about 25 gallons.

I looked at the helicopter’s fuel gauge I had enough fuel for 2 hours of flight time. I’d just flown 1.9 hours. I had a choice: I could hope the fuel I had was enough for another pass or I could fly back down to the airport and get more. Trouble was, I’d forgotten to bring my wallet and had no way to pay for fuel at the airport.

Either way, I was heading back to my RV. I didn’t bother with the tie downs or even locking the doors. I just drove back up. Along the way, I convinced myself that I had enough fuel on board for another dry and a trip to the airport.

A Short Intermission

I didn’t bother getting changed, although I did take off my muddy sneakers. I heated up some ribs I’d bought at the supermarket the day before and munched them, standing up. I was just digging into a piece of apple pie when my phone rang. It was my client giving me the order to fly.

Third Dry

By this time, it was after 5 PM. There was very little wind. As I started up the helicopter, I could see a tiny patch of blue sky just to beyond the ridge to the south. That’s where our weather had been coming from all day.

I’d finally remembered to bring along an iPod and I plugged it into my intercom system. It would play a random selection of my favorite music as I flew.

I lifted off to my start point. Just that morning, the orchard had been virtually unknown to me. Sure, I’d known its boundaries, but I didn’t know it intimately. Now I knew where the wind machines, birdhouses, and pine trees would create hazards along the way. I knew which aisles were prepared for the next day’s pick with rows of cherry bins. I knew where the muddy dirt roads cut between the blocks of trees. I knew where I’d have to fly sideways to keep my tail rotor out of trees and where I could fly sideways to simply reduce the time it took to dry short rows.

The last flight went quickly. It might have been because I knew the orchard so well now and, on every dry, I’d come up with a better plan of attack. Or it might have been the endless stream of my favorite rock, jazz, and pop music streaming into my helmet’s earphones that got me in the groove. Or it might have been because I was flying faster to make sure I didn’t run out of fuel before I ran out of cherry trees to dry. For whatever reason, I was finished in 1.8 hours.

End of Day

I zipped down the valley to Wenatchee Airport. A Cessna was moving away from the fuel island. A fire fighting helicopter had recently landed and its crew was getting out for the night. It was after 7 PM.

I topped off both tanks and had the engine started again before the gyros had even spun down. Moments later, I was on my way back to my landing zone. The sky was clearing quickly; there was lots of blue. Still too many clouds to the northwest for a good sunset, though.

Back at the orchard, I buttoned the helicopter up tight for the night, putting the hail covers back on the main rotor blades. There was still a chance of thunderstorms, so I wasn’t taking any chances.

At the RV, someone had left a ziplock bag of homemade peanut butter cookies atop my BBQ grill.

It felt good to get back to the RV and put on comfy clothes. It was after 8 PM and I was very tired. I started sautéing some baby broccoli with olive oil and garlic for supper. Before it was done, however, I realized that I was too tired to eat. So I got Alex the Bird and the RV settled for the night, stowed the uneaten broccoli in the fridge and went to bed.

I was out cold by 9 PM.