Cherry Drying, Cockpit Distractions, and Safety

My thoughts.

Today I had to withdraw a cherry drying contract from a pilot who wanted to fly for me because he insisted on being allowed to have a “pilot friend” fly with him during cherry drying missions.

Because more than half of the cherry drying crashes in this area have occurred with two people in the cockpit, this is something I simply don’t allow — and I specifically forbid it in the contact terms.

Why Just One Pilot?

I blogged about this back in June 2012. There had been a crash with a fatality just a few days before. Two pilots had been on board, although the dual controls were reportedly not installed. The aircraft hit wires and crashed into the trees. The passenger was killed; the pilot sustained serious injuries. In my blog post, I raised the question of cockpit distractions.

The previous July (2011), there had been three crashes during cherry drying work. Of the three, two of them occurred with two people on board.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Although performance might not be an issue in an R44 — which the guys who work for me fly — in these flying conditions, distractions can be. Cherry drying is done in an obstacle rich environment just a few feet over the tops of trees.

Cherry Drying Near Wires
Wires and poles and trees, oh my!

So many pilots whine about the danger of flying in “the deadman’s curve.” That’s not my concern when I’m hovering with my skids brushing the treetops. My concern is wires and wind machines and bird houses on poles and tall trees bordering the orchard. I’ve struck a pine tree branch with my main rotor blade and trimmed a treetop with my tail rotor. That’s how close I can get — which is obviously too close — to obstacles that could easy damage my aircraft enough to bring it down into the trees.

Now imagine having a chatty friend on board. Or the dual controls installed and someone “following along” with you on an instructional flight. Is this a good idea when you need to keep focused?

I don’t think so. I think it’s dangerous and I won’t allow it.

Training

The argument I hear most often about why two pilots should be allowed to fly cherry drying missions is training. How can a new pilot learn the ropes unless he experiences the flight?

Easy: teach him on a nice clear day, when weather is not an issue and there isn’t an orchard owner on the ground freaking out because he’s worried about losing his cherry crop. A day when there’s no stress and no demands to get the job done quickly and move on to the next orchard. A day when rain isn’t making the cockpit bubble nearly impossible to see through and you have to worry about the flight path of the other helicopter on the next orchard block.

Start with an overview at an obstruction-free orchard and show how you scout for obstacles in a new orchard and determine where to start work. Descend slowly and start your instructional passes high, showing the student how the downwash affects the trees. Work your way down to the point where the future cherry drying pilot should be flying.

Of course, you’re doing all this after some ground training where you’ve already sketched out how the job is done and discussed all aspects of the work.

This is how I learned to dry cherries. I spent 2 hours talking about the work with an experienced cherry drying pilot and some notepaper that we sketched all over. Then we flew for about an hour over some uniformly tall trees and practiced various maneuvers.

And this is how I teach new pilots to dry cherries. In a controlled, stress-free environment.

So the argument that having a pilot on board during an actual cherry drying mission is the only way to teach him simply doesn’t fly with me. (Okay, pun intended.)

Is This a Contract Killer?

Is the one person vs. two people on board argument worth preventing a contract agreement? Apparently, the pilot I withdrew the contract from and I think it is.

In his words, “If this is not possible I don’t see this working for my business.” That makes me wonder about his “pilot friend.”

It seems to me that a friend should understand that when you have work to do, he needs to stand aside and let you do it. I have friends who fly fire contracts and power line contracts and heavy lift contracts and spray contracts. I am one of their “pilot friends.” I’d love to experience one of these flights first hand. But I know that (1) their employers most likely prohibit fly-alongs for pretty much the same reason I do and (2) my presence could jeopardize our safety or their job. So I don’t even ask and they don’t offer.

The claim that having only one person on board won’t work for his business makes me wonder whether there’s some financial gain to be had from having that second pilot on board. Would that other pilot be paying for that flight time, perhaps as a student? In that case, it’s “double-dipping,” pure and simple — being paid by two separate parties for work on one mission. And frankly, there’s a bit too much of that in this industry for my taste.

I pay a generous per-hour flight rate for cherry drying work. The rate is considerably higher than any charter or utility rate a pilot could charge for flying the same helicopter. I pay that because the work is risky and because that’s what the market will bear. Isn’t this enough to head off any need for double-dipping?

As for me, I want my pilots safe and their flights accident-free. I can’t serve my clients when one of my pilots crashes in an orchard and his helicopter is put out of commission. It’s my goal to minimize the risk — that’s why I require pilots with at least 500 hours of flight time and at least 100 hours in the helicopter they’re flying. That’s why I don’t allow two people in the cockpit when flying in an obstacle-rich environment.

It’s not all about money and milking the system to maximize revenue. It’s about the safe and reliable performance of a mission to best serve clients — and live to fly another day.

About the Wind Machines

An important part of crop protection.

The economy of this area of Washington State is based primarily on tree fruit production: apples, cherries, pears, and apricots. Indeed, Columbia River Valley around Wenatchee is one of the biggest apple producing regions in the world.

Fruit trees bloom in the spring, are pollinated by migratory bees, and form fruit. Throughout the summer, the fruit develops and grows. Months later, when the fruit ripens, it’s picked, sent to processing plants, and either shipped out immediately, as in the case of cherries, or stored for later shipment, as in the case of apples.

The timing of all this is determined by the weather and can fluctuate by several weeks every year. The trees get a cue from temperature to start budding and once the buds are formed, there isn’t much that can stop the seasonal progression.

Except frost.

Frost can kill flowers and developing fruit. A bad enough deep freeze over the winter months can even kill trees.

And that’s where frost protection comes in. Growers are deeply concerned about frost destroying a crop so they take steps to protect the crop from frost. In this area, they rely on wind machines to circulate the air in parts of an orchard prone to pockets of cold air.


This video shows wind machines in action at a pear orchard in Cashmere, which is near here. It looks to me as if the trees are in bloom. Unfortunately, the sound is turned off so you can’t get the full effect.

Wind machines look like large, two-bladed fans on a tall pole. Usually powered by propane, they’re often thermostatically controlled — in other words, they are set to turn on in the spring when the temperature drops down to a certain point. The blades spin like any other fan and the fan head rotates, sending wind 360° around the machine’s base.

The idea, of course, is that the cold air has settled down into pockets and that warmer air can be found around it and above it. By circulating the air, the warm air is brought around the trees and frost is prevented.

In California, they use helicopters to protect the almond crop from frost. (As a matter of fact, as I type this my helicopter is in California for a frost contract for the third year in a row.) The principle is the same, but the orchards tend to be much larger and I can only assume that it isn’t financially feasible to install and run wind machines in that area. (Hard to believe it’s cheaper to use helicopters, though.)

This year, some unseasonably warm weather has triggered a very early bloom. My clients tell me that their cherry crop is running 2 to 3 weeks early. Right now, cherries are in various stages of bloom throughout the area; apricots are pretty much done with their bloom. (Apples and pears will come next.) And since winter has not let go of its tenuous grip on us, the temperature has been dropping down into the low to mid 30s each night this week.

Well, not at night. It actually starts getting cold around 4 or 5 AM, as you can see in this weather graph:

Weather Graph
The National Weather Service weather graph page for this area shows the forecasted highs and lows over time.

The result: the wind machines kick on automatically when it starts getting cold: around 4 or 5 AM.

Want to hear what a wind machine sounds like close up? This video has full sound as a field man starts and runs up a wind machine. He’s wearing ear protection for a reason. Stick with it to see the spinning head on top.

Wind machines are not quiet. In fact, from a distance, they sound exactly like helicopters. And as they spin, they sound like moving helicopters — so much so that when I first heard them in action back in Quincy in 2009 or 2010, I thought they were helicopters and actually got up to see what was going on. I suspect that to someone on the ground, they sound exactly like a helicopter drying cherries would sound.

Although there aren’t any orchards on my end of the road, my property does look out at quite a few orchards, some of which have wind machines. There are at least 5 within a mile of me — I can see 4 of them from my side deck. I can also see others much farther out into the distance. And when the close ones are running, I know it. It’s not loud enough to wake me up in my snugly insulated home, but it sure did wake me up when I was living in my thin-walled RV outside. And it’s definitely not something you can pretend you don’t hear.

Fortunately, wind machines are a seasonal nuisance — much like other orchards noises: sprayers, tractors, helicopters, and pickers. Although frost season runs through May in this area, the machines only kick on during cold weather. Looking at the forecast, I can expect to hear them tomorrow morning and probably Wednesday morning, but not likely on Monday or Tuesday morning.

Weather ForecastNWS Wenatchee forecast for this week.

In the meantime, I’ve already gotten the heads up from my California client who might need me down there on Monday. After all, they don’t have wind machines.

For a helicopter pilot working in this area, wind machines are one of the obstacles that can be a hazard when drying cherries. They tower higher than the trees and their blades can be “parked” at any angle or direction. Although some growers will try to use wind machines to dry trees while waiting for pilots, my contract states I won’t fly in an orchard with wind machines spinning so they’re usually turned off when I arrive — or right afterwards. But if the blades aren’t parked, they can move. And one pilot I know learned the hard way about what happens when a helicopter’s main rotor blade hits a wind machine. (He’s okay; the helicopter is not.)

To sum up, wind machines are an important crop protection device that can be a bit of a nuisance with predawn operation in the spring. But I don’t mind listening to them. Like so many orchard owners in the area, my livelihood depends on a healthy cherry crop. If that means tolerating some noise 10-20 mornings out of the year, so be it.

Kind Words from a Client

Really made my day.

These days, I make most of my living doing cherry drying work in Washington State. It’s an extremely short season — I consider myself lucky to get 10-11 weeks of work — and 2015 will be my eighth season doing it.

Each year I’ve managed to build up my client base from the handful of clients originally contracted by the guy who brought me up from Arizona to help him in 2008. I now have a total of 10 clients managing 15 orchards. At the peak of the season, I hire three pilots to help me provide adequate coverage for all of it. This year, I might hire a fourth.

Each year, as cherry season approaches, I get more and more stressed. Will last year’s clients sign up with me again? Can I get more acreage to cover? Can I find enough reliable pilots to help me? Will a late-season frost wipe out half the crop, as it did in 2008?

Even when I have all the answers to those questions — usually yes, yes, yes, and no — and cherry season is under way, the stress doesn’t stop. I watch the weather incessantly — several apps on my phone with forecasts and a very good radar app to watch storms moving around the area. I stare at the sky and watch the clouds. I worry about my helicopter being fueled, preflighted, and ready to fly. I worry about the guys working for me and I worry about their helicopters. I worry about whether I trained the new pilots well enough and whether they’ll be able to find the orchards I showed them.

And when a weather event is possible, I worry even more. Which direction is the weather moving? How hard is it raining? Is it windy, too? Will it drench all of the orchards at once? Do my clients have people on hand to monitor the moisture and call me to fly? Will it stop raining early enough in the day to finish drying before it gets dark? Are my pilots really at the airport waiting to launch? Did the pilots get the GPS coordinates for the orchards so they can get there fast enough? Can that new pilot cover the acreage I assign to him effectively in a reasonable amount of time?

Then the rain happens and the phone starts ringing. I fire up my helicopter and launch, sometimes even as I’m dispatching the other pilots. I hover over the trees, at first trying to judge how wet they are after this particular event, trying to get my speed just right to dry them enough without wasting time. I do my job, stealing glances at the radar on my iPad so I know just which client will call next and when. I listen to the radio to hear from my pilots or other pilots in the area. I answer the phone and place calls, sometimes while still hovering within 10 feet of the tops of cherry trees.

Cherry Drying

And I’m always beating up on myself if I can’t get someone to an orchard as fast as I’d like. Last year, I felt that I’d failed one of my best clients. I even worried that I would lose his contract for this year. So this year, when I emailed him to ask if he wanted my services again this year, I pointed out where I could have done better and told him how I planned to handle it.

His response made my day (names changed to protect privacy):

ABC is very pleased with the opportunity to work with Flying M Air again for the 2015 season!

I’m sure that Joe can attest to this also, when the call is made to dry cherries you or a member of your team is on site drying within 15 minutes.

That’s a relationship that I want to continue!

All the stress and worry somehow seem worthwhile now. Our work is appreciated. I have another season full of clients to serve this year.

And the cherries are early. Can’t wait to taste some!

Being an Inspired Pilot

An interview and more.

Inspired Pilot LogoA few weeks ago, I was contacted by Marvyn Robinson, a U.K. pilot and podcaster. He wanted to interview me for his podcast, Inspired Pilot.

I was flattered, of course. (I’m flattered any time someone contacts me with a request like this.) How could I not say yes?

About the Podcast

The About page on the Inspired Pilot website explains what the podcast is all about:

This will be a weekly show where I interview inspiring pilots, pilots with inspiring journeys from all around the world. Each week we will highlight the life of our featured pilot, follow their journey and how they got to where there are now.

We’ll examine how and why they got started, the decisions made along the way, experiences gained and lessons learned. All this with the view to INSPIRE seasoned pilots, mere mortal low hour pilots like myself, wannabe pilots and pilot enthusiasts alike, by guests sharing their inspiring journeys.

Just to give you an example of the spectrum of our guests, we are going to be talking to pilots from all areas of the aviation industry, from airline pilots, bush pilots, flight instructors, private pilots, bizjet, military and even retired pilots.

The whole idea behind the podcast is to inspire other pilots. The people chosen to be interviewed are supposed to be inspiring. So again, how can I not be flattered?

Who Needs Inspiration?

Every pilot knows at least one other pilot — or wannabe pilot — who just couldn’t seem to get it together to achieve his or her aviation goals. These people often have legitimate or imagined excuses for not moving forward. (I was married to one of these people for a while so I’ve seen it firsthand.)

For many people, the excuse is a life change. For example, a guy is taking flight lessons part time and gets married or his wife becomes pregnant. All of a sudden, his priorities change and he puts flying on the back burner. Many times, he never goes back to it.

For other people, the excuse is simpler: money. Learning to fly isn’t cheap and not everyone has disposable income to throw at what might only be a hobby. When the economy tanked, flight schools were hit hard because fewer people could afford lessons. Renting an aircraft once you become a pilot isn’t cheap either. It has to fit into your budget.

For a select group of people, there are medical issues that can stop a prospective pilot in his or her tracks. Uncorrectable vision, diabetes, untreatable high blood pressure, heart problems — there are a multitude of conditions that pilots simply are not allowed to have.

These are the people Inspired Pilot was created for. To get them excited about flying. To get them thinking of ways to work around the hurdles that face them. To inspire them to achieve their flying goals.

These are the people I want to inspire.

It’s More than a Piece of Paper

I’m one of the people who want to fly. I’m not interested in collecting pilot ratings just because I can.

For example, I learned to fly an open cockpit gyro last spring. It was a ton of fun. I got to fly that gyro again last week. George, who owns it and taught me to fly it, told me what I need to do to get my rating in it. I’m very close — all I need is a check ride.

But why get a rating for something I seldom have an opportunity to fly? That piece of paper is meaningless to me. I’m perfectly satisfied to fly the gyro occasionally with George. In the unlikely event that I buy a gyro or have access to one on a regular basis, I might reconsider getting that piece of paper. Until then, why bother?

And then there are just the folks who claim they want to fly and even move toward the goal of becoming a pilot and perhaps even become pilots — but then don’t do what it takes to stay current and safe. These are the nervous pilots, the pilots who are afraid to push the limits of their experience, the pilots who use the slightest possibility of inclement weather as an excuse not to fly. They’re pilots only because they have a piece of paper saying that they are. (This was the situation with my wasband.)

But are you really a pilot if you seldom fly? If you can come up with more excuses not to fly than reasons to fly? If you never seem to want to fly?

In my experience, a real pilot wants to fly.

If you’re not driven to fly, if you don’t feel a need to get up in an aircraft and explore your world from above, if the responsiveness of an aircraft under your control doesn’t excite you or fill you with joy — well, then you really shouldn’t waste your time and money becoming a pilot. There might be other activities that do for you what flying does for real pilots — bicycling, skiing, painting, writing, golfing, skydiving, whatever. Pursue the activity that means the most to you — because you will never be an inspired pilot.

The Podcast

All that said, if you want to get inspired — or even if you just want to hear what I said on the podcast — you can find it here: 12: Maria Langer – Commercial R44 Helicopter Pilot & Blogger – Inspired Pilot.

On Pilots and the Sacred Trust

A violation of trust, an act of murder.

Like most other frequent airline travelers, I was horrified to learn this morning that the cause of this week’s German Wings airplane crash in the French Alps is most likely the deliberate action of the “co-pilot” (i.e., First Officer), who locked the “pilot” (i.e., Captain) out of the “cockpit” (i.e., flight deck) and put the airplane into a steep descent that ended when it hit a mountain.

The only good thing to note about this is that men, women, and children on board likely never felt a thing as their lives were extinguished, like a candle’s flame between two calloused fingers.

As a pilot, this was more horrific to me. Why? Because the pilot who is responsible violated what I consider a sacred trust.

Let me try to explain. When I fly my helicopter, there is nothing more important to me than my passengers. By climbing aboard my aircraft, whether it’s for a 7-minute “hop ride” around town or a cross-country journey lasting hours, they have proven to me that they trust me with their lives. I don’t take that trust lightly. Maybe I pay closer attention to details, like the wind speed and direction or the way the helicopter lifts off the ground into a hover with their weight distribution. Maybe I fly a little higher, to reduce mechanical turbulence on a windy day and ensure that I’m well outside the “Deadman’s Curve” in the unlikely event of an engine failure. Maybe I keep my bank angle on turns a little flatter and my approaches and departures a little shallower to ensure a smooth flight.

I want my passengers to be not only safe, but comfortable. I want their memories of flying with me to include only the pleasant experiences they have during the flight.

I know a lot of pilots who don’t seem to think this way. Their goal is to impress their passengers with what they consider their flying skill. They want to give “E-Ticket rides.” For some reason, they think this is what their passengers want — and maybe some of them think they do.

But what passengers really want is to get off the aircraft in the same condition they got on it: safe, unharmed — and yes — alive.

And that’s what I call a sacred trust. The passengers trust the pilot to ensure their safety. If the pilot does anything to compromise that safety — whether it’s buzzing a backyard barbecue or diving into a mountain in France — he’s violated that sacred trust.

Pilots who even consider doing dangerous or suicidal things with passengers on board should not be in control of an aircraft.

Airplane
I’m about to get on this airplane for a flight from CA to WA. Do I need to worry about the mental state of the pilots?

As a pilot, I’m upset that a young German pilot decided to kill himself and the 149 people who trusted him with their lives in such a horrific act. I’m worried about what future passengers will think about their pilots’ mental state of mind. I’m worried that people will use this incident to fuel their fears of flying, to avoid flying altogether. I’m worried that the FAA or airline management or other authorities will enact knee-jerk rules and regulations — like the one that made cockpit doors impregnable — that further burden responsible pilots with tests and paperwork that add to their stress and workload.

Most of all, I’m angry about the half-informed media coverage and their “experts,” jumping to conclusions and exploring crazy conspiracy theories, grasping for someone to blame, instilling fears in viewers and listeners and readers.

Again.

Let’s get this straight: it’s all about a pilot who betrayed his passengers’ sacred trust.

This is not just suicide by airplane. This pilot committed murder, pure and simple. In doing so, he sullied the reputation of other professional pilots who take their responsibilities as a pilot seriously.

And that’s what upsets me most of all.

28-Feb-15 Update:Pilot Who Downed Airliner Vowed ‘To Do Something’ To Be Remembered” might shed some additional light on his state of mind.