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:


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


  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 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 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.

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.