2015 Cherry Drying Season Recap

A short, dry season means less flying time.

The Best Insurance
The tagline on my cherry drying business card is directly from one of my clients “The best insurance is a helicopter in your orchard.” This photo was shot in his orchard in 2009.

My cherry drying season unofficially ended Saturday afternoon. I say “unofficially” because although I’m contracted through month-end, the compressed cherry season had all orchards I was under contract to cover picked out by yesterday.

Timing and Rainfall

The season itself was very early. Although my earliest contract started only a day earlier than the previous year, other contracts started at least a week earlier than usual. My season contractually ended a full two weeks before normal. I typically get about 11 weeks of contract work, which is longer than the average pilot but shorter than the larger helicopter companies that aggregate services. (I have no desire to become like one of those companies.) I start on the river in Quincy and finish on Wenatchee Heights. This year, I got just 67 days — not even 10 weeks!

The season was compressed because of the weather. We had a very warm spring, some cooling, and then some brutally hot weather in late June. This really screwed up the growing season. Too many growers were picking at the same time. This not only dropped the prices they could get for their cherries but it made it difficult or even impossible (in the case of one of my grower friends) to get pickers.

One good thing for growers: there was very little rain. Indeed, I went out to dry on only 5 days during the 67 days I was on contract.

Despite the shorter and dryer than average season, this was my best season in the eight years I’ve been drying cherries in central Washington state. This is due primarily to additional acreage added by existing clients and a new client. More contracted acreage means more standby money and more potential work.

Other Pilots on My Team

The additional acreage under contract made it necessary to contract with additional pilots to ensure that I could promptly cover all acreage under contract. The additional standby money I collected made it possible to bring these pilots on board. I brought three pilots with helicopters in on four-week contracts and one pilot with a helicopter in for a five-week contract. Two were based on Quincy and two in Wenatchee. Their contacts overlapped so I had a total of five pilots with helicopters on my team during the two week period when we had the most acreage to cover.

I say “team” because we work as a team. Or teams. There’s the Quincy team and the Wenatchee team. I’m part of both teams — the person who helps out where needed and eats the extra cost of repositioning the helicopter. The pilots on each team know where all the acreage is. I dispatch them based on availability to get the quickest possible response time for my clients. If there aren’t a lot of orchards to cover, we’ll double up over one of them; my clients love seeing two helicopters over their orchard at the same time.

This year, we flew a total of just 19.1 hours. That’s for five pilots over a period of 27 man weeks. When you do the math, you realize that’s less than an hour a week per helicopter. It was actually worse for the Quincy pilots, who didn’t get to fly at all. All 19.1 hours was flown in the Wenatchee area.

Can you understand now why I insist that cherry drying is not a time-building job?

Come to Washington State Next Summer!

Are you a commercial helicopter pilot with an R44, Hiller, Bell 47, or JetRanger? If you are and want a “paid vacation with possibility of paid flying time,” you need to read this. I’m looking for experienced pilots who are more interested in a return on their asset investment than building time in that asset.

Fortunately, none of my pilots seemed to mind not flying much. I only hire experienced pilots with 500 or more hours PIC and I prefer owner/operators. None of the guys were in Washington to build time.

One of them, who was with me last year, too, already knew that there wouldn’t be much flying. He came to Quincy with an RV and truck, bicycles, and kayaks. On all the cloudless days we had, he kept busy.

The other guys soon learned that they could do the same. I’m not a babysitter — I let the guys do whatever they want, as long as they answer the phone when I call and launch promptly when dispatched. They did so we’re all good. When they weren’t flying or waiting out a possible rain event they were hiking, kayaking, touring Leavenworth or Chelan, visiting the farmers market, or just hanging out together. (I didn’t move here just so I’d be close to work three months out of the year. I moved here because it’s a great place to be.)

In general, they treat their time in Washington the way I did before I moved here: as a paid vacation with a possibility of flying work. All of the pilots who joined me this year have asked to come back next year and I’d be glad to have them back.

Some Stats

I have a master spreadsheet where I track my contract dates, income, pilots, billing, and contract labor expenses. That makes it easy to produce statistics each season. (I love stats.) Here’s a quick comparison of this year and last year.

Stat 2015 2014
First Contract Start Date 5/25/15 5/26/14
Last Contract End Date 7/31/15 8/13/14
Total Contracted Days 67 80
Maximum Pilots 5 4
Total Man Weeks 27 23
Days with Rain Events 5 9
Total Dry Time 19.1 38.3
Average Dry Time Per Pilot Per Week 0.7 1.7
Total Acres Under Contract 547 429
Maximum Acres Under Contract at One Time 364 336

As I mentioned above, this was my best season ever. I feel very fortunate to have built this niche market for my helicopter services and to have made this beautiful area my home. And I’m very pleased to be able to work with a number of professional, experienced helicopter owner/operators who understand the importance of good service as well as I do.

I’m looking forward to serving my existing client base with a great team again next year, protecting their valuable cherry crops from rain as I have for the past eight years.

The Hover Power Posts

Most of my blogging about helicopters is now published on one of AOPA’s blogs.

Just a quick head’s up to let pilot readers know that I am still blogging about flying helicopters. But instead of posting most of them here, they go right to AOPA’s Hover Power blog. The main reason: they pay me to write for them. Girl’s gotta make a living, no?

Here are the most recent posts, in reverse chronological order:

Keep in mind that you can always get an up-to-date list of my work published elsewhere on my Articles page.

If you have any ideas for topics you’d like to see me cover, why not take a moment to comment on this post with your suggestions? I’ll either cover it for Hover Power or here.

And if you’re an editor or publisher looking for a professional writer to create fresh content about flying helicopters for your magazine or blog, I hope you’ll contact me.

One Wrong Way to Look for a Pilot Job

Be prepared — and then don’t act outraged when you get an unexpected response.

TelephoneYesterday afternoon, I got a call from a number I didn’t know and answered as I usually do: “Flying M, Maria speaking.”

The caller seemed almost surprised that someone had answered the phone. Maybe I’d answered more quickly than he expected. He stumbled over his words a bit and I recall thinking that he might be someone looking for information about a charter flight. Lots of people who call who have no idea how to ask for what they want get off to a rough start.

But no, eventually he asked for “the boss.” Yes. In those words.

“That’s me.” I replied. Now my brain was wondering what he was selling. Anyone who asks for the owner or the person in charge of parts/maintenance/accounts payable/fill-in-the-blank is trying to sell me some product or service I don’t want. My phone is a cell phone and the number is on the FCC’s Do Not Call list, but that apparently doesn’t stop telemarketers from bothering me multiple times a week.

But no, after some more stumbling over words, I learned that he was a pilot looking for a job.

And that’s when I got annoyed. Here’s a guy who can barely communicate what he wants and obviously did no preparation for his call asking me for a pilot job?

I replied that there were no job openings at my company and that even if I had a job to offer, I wouldn’t offer it to him since he obviously couldn’t be bothered to find out who he was calling before he made a call to ask for a job. I told him he needed to work on his technique.

And then I hung up.

After the initial “I can’t believe how inept job seekers are these days” thought, I got back to what I was doing. I had pilot friends coming for dinner and was prepping for their arrival.

This morning, I got an angry email from the person who’d called. Apparently, he was in the U.S. from his home country (which I don’t think I need to share here), had trained in the U.S., and was outraged that I’d been so rude to him. He said:

I was going to let you know that my approach to you asking for a job was not good at all, I just wasn’t prepared before I called and of all the places I call the owner is never taking the phone.

Interesting that he admitted he wasn’t prepared. And odd that I hadn’t noticed his accent, which really comes through in the wording of his written communication.

He went on to say:

My point with this message is that the way you talked to me was just really disrespectfull [sic], rude and unmotivating for a new pilot.

Apparently, he believed that I should drop everything and give him the polite attention he thought he deserved as he interrupted my day to stumble through his job request. A request made without any advance preparation.

Yes, if he’d bothered to do any research at all on my company before calling to ask for a job, he would have learned that the company is a single pilot Part 135 operator with only one helicopter and one pilot. That should have told him how unlikely it was that I’d be hiring. But at the very least, he would have learned my name and could have used that instead of asking for “the boss.”

Or if he’d read the Help Wanted page on my company’s website, which is linked to the Contact page where he may have gotten my phone number and definitely accessed the contact form he used to email me, he would have seen that I was not hiring.

Yes, I was rude. I’ll admit it. (It’s already been established here and elsewhere that I can be a real bitch sometimes.) But when someone acts like an idiot, how should I respond? By gently coddling him so he makes the same mistake again with the next person he bothers?

Don’t you think this guy will think twice before he makes his next call? That maybe — just maybe — he’ll do a little homework first and learn more about the company he’s calling and whether they’re hiring? Or possibly find out who he should be speaking to to ask for a job?

And am I wrong, but do cold calls ever work when looking for a job? Any job?

The other day, I blogged about the importance of networking for career advancement. Networking can help job seekers make valuable contacts they can use when looking for work. It makes time-wasting cold calls unnecessary.

Am I sorry I was so rude to this guy? Maybe a little. He was probably slightly handicapped by a language issue.

But to me, he wasn’t different from any telemarketer who disrupts my day by trying to sell me something I don’t need or want.

And if he thinks I was rude to him, he should hear me when I’m annoyed at one of them.

So You Want to Be a Helicopter Pilot, Part 10: Network

Who you meet, how you meet them, and what they think of you can impact your flying career.

[Note: Hard to believe that nearly four years have gone by since I wrote most of this series, but I find that the older I get, the faster time flies. I’d planned on writing additional parts, but life got in the way. I’m ready to continue now and, with four years to think about it, I’m pretty sure I’ve got some good content to add.]

Networking is an important part of building any career, including flying helicopters. The people you meet can help — or hinder — your career advancement.

How Networking has Helped My Flying Career

I’ve been flying helicopters for about 15 years now and have accumulated a modest 3,200 hours of flight time, mostly in my R44 and the R22 I owned before it. I’ve been networking with other pilots, owners, and operators since I realized I wanted to build a career as a pilot and it has paid off.

It’s networking that got me an interview with Papillon at the Grand Canyon back in 2004. What I said at the interview got the job.

It’s networking that got me started as a cherry drying pilot back in 2008. I met a pilot doing this kind of work and when he needed a pilot, he remembered and called me.

It’s networking that got me started doing frost control work back in 2013. I spoke to another pilot doing that kind of work and asked him if he knew of any jobs. He gave me the phone number of an almond grower and gave me the information I needed to write a mutually beneficial contract with a new client.

It’s networking that gets me just about all of my new business. Other than maintaining a website for my business, I don’t advertise anymore. I get new clients through word-of-mouth. When I want to explore the possibility of a rides gig, I look through my address book for friends and acquaintances who might have the connections I need to get a toe in the door.

And it’s networking that makes it relatively easy to find new pilots to work with me for cherry drying. I start my search by asking around. I remember the pilots I like — and the ones who rubbed me the wrong way — and make offers — or ignore requests — accordingly.

How to Network

Networking is actually kind of easy. Just meet and talk to new people involved in the industry. Need some ideas to get started? Try these:

  • Get to know other pilots at your flight school or job. Don’t be shy. Socialize. The guy you see in the pilot lounge at your flight school today might be someone working at the Gulf when you’re looking for work — and give you the contact you need to get an interview there. The CFI leaving to work at Papillon next week could be the chief pilot at a charter operation in a few years.
  • Join a helicopter organization. HAI and Whirly Girls comes to mind — although I admit that I don’t belong to either one of them for reasons I’d rather address in a separate blog post. These organizations are full of helicopter pilots and others in helicopter-related jobs. You can meet other members at events.
  • Attend helicopter aviation conferences and seminars. HeliExpo is an obvious suggestion, but other helicopter organizations and publications (such as Vertical Magazine) also sponsor events. And don’t forget the FAA! The Wings program occasionally has lectures for helicopter pilots; try attending one.
  • Aircrane
    I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with the pilot of one of these. Don’t you think it might be interesting to learn more about his work?

    Attend helicopter-related events. I’m thinking of helicopter fly-ins and other airport events. Although relatively rare, they do exist and they’re often full of helicopter pilots who are friendly and enthusiastic. I can think of three pilots I’m still very good friends with who I met at a helicopter event at Falcon Field Airport in Mesa, AZ years ago. One of them has worked for me drying cherries here in Washington.

  • Visit pilots at work. Years ago, on a road trip in Idaho, I passed a field filled with helicopters — a fire base. A Boeing Vertol 107 was parked there and I, a new pilot at the time, wanted to see it close up. I drove into the base, parked, and tracked down the pilot. Because he wasn’t busy, he very graciously took me aboard his ship, showed me how the snorkel pump worked, and let me sit in the co-pilot seat while he sat next to me and explained the mind-boggling array of switches, circuit breakers, and gauges. Although my goal that day was not to network with other pilots, I could easily have done so — there were a dozen or so waiting around for a fire call. Of course, if the base had been active, I would have stayed away. But there’s no reason you can’t visit pilots on duty but not actively working. Think of EMT and ENG bases, too. Often, the pilot is just sitting around, waiting for a call and wouldn’t mind a visitor. Just make sure you’re welcome before you barge in.

The Role of Social Networking

Social networking takes all kinds of networking to a new level. You can network 24/7 with pilots all over the world through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and online forums. Helicopter-specific groups on Facebook, for example, is a good way to share stories, photos, and questions with other pilots.

I’ve met more than a few helicopter pilots on Twitter and Facebook; while my social networking hasn’t advanced my career — or theirs — yet, who’s to say it won’t? In the meantime, I’ve gotten a ton of solid advice from pilots with far more experience than I’ll ever have. That, and the real-life friendship with some of these people, is worth the time and effort I put into online social networking.

Don’t Be a Dick

But be careful! Your activities — both online and in the real world — can come back to haunt you. It all depends on how you approach networking, how you treat your fellow pilots, and what your attitude is or seems to be.

I blogged about a pilot who proved what an inconsiderate and dangerous asshole he could be back in 2009. I’d flown into Sedona, AZ with my brother and his wife and a helicopter pilot didn’t like where I parked. He retaliated by hover-taxiing right past my family, within 15 feet of where they were standing, when he had several other safer departure routes. I reported his action to the airport management. When I reported him to my POI at the Scottsdale FSDO, I was told that he’d caught by an Inspector being rude to the receptionist. The Inspector had attempted an attitude adjustment, but I doubt he got anywhere with this particular jerk.

As regular readers of my blog know, I absolutely abhor online forums. The reason: every single discussion turns into a nasty exchange of inane comments, normally prompted by the comments of a troll who has to prove how smart he is by saying something that gets under the skin of someone else. The replies are fired out fast and furiously and inevitably turn mean. Why people put up with that crap is beyond me. I seldom find any content worth reading in an online forum. But that’s likely because I lack the patience necessary to wade through the bullshit for the gems hiding underneath. Unlike the trolls that haunt these forums, I have a life.

I remember the names of the assholes I meet in this industry. I remember the trolls in the forums, too. And I have a lot of friends in the industry. And we talk.

And what we share affects hiring decisions. Just saying.

I wrote a bit more about attitude in Part 5 of this series.

Networking Works — But It Can’t Work Miracles

I’ve had a good amount of success with networking to further my career, but I have to admit that career advancement isn’t the main reason I network with other pilots. I’m a relatively friendly person and I really like talking to people with similar interests. I’m also interested in learning new things from people who know, through experience, things I don’t know. I guess you can say I’m a natural at networking.

But I do admit that I’m frustrated annoyed by people who contact me directly, by email or phone or even blog comments, obviously trying to use me as an “in” for a job. News flash: contacting a stranger to ask for a favor is not a good networking strategy. I admit that I’m more likely to delete these incoming emails than answer them. Maybe it’s because I’m getting curmudgeony in my old age.

You can’t expect networking to work miracles, especially if you use a heavy handed approach. Just because you had a nice conversation with the Chief Pilot of a charter company while the two of you waited out a thunderstorm in the pilot lounge of an FBO doesn’t mean he’s going to hire you for the next position that opens. Especially if you come across as someone who’s only talking to him because you think that job offer is possible.

But if you make networking a natural part of your professional life, things will happen — normally, when you least expect it.

Cherry Drying: Why I Won’t Work with Middlemen

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

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

I Am Not a Middleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Working Directly for Growers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Brokers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Year

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

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

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

No middleman required.