An Insider’s Look at Helicopter Spray Operations

Fascinating work with a lot of very specialized equipment.

My friend Sean runs a helicopter spraying operation. (You might know about this kind of work by another name: crop dusting.) The business is highly regulated not only by the FAA to ensure that operators and pilots have the skills and knowledge to do the work safely from an aviation perspective, but also by state and local agencies concerned with the safety of the chemicals being sprayed. It also requires a ton of very costly specialized equipment, from spray rigs that are semi-permanently installed on the helicopter to navigation equipment that helps the pilot ensure chemicals are spread evenly over crops to mixing and loading equipment to get the chemicals into the helicopter’s spray tanks.

Sean's Helicopter with Spray Gear
Sean’s helicopter with spray gear. He was running rinse water through the system on the ground here.

A lot of people have asked me why I don’t go into this business. Although I’d love to fly spray jobs, I have absolutely no desire to invest in the required equipment, start selling spray services to potential clients, or deal with the government agencies that need to get involved for each job. Or have employees again.

Sean is just getting his business off the ground (no pun intended) after over a year of spending money on equipment and jumping through hoops with the FAA. While I wouldn’t say he’s struggling, he’s certainly motivated to complete contracts and collect revenue. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of work a pilot can do cost effectively without help. He needs at least one person on the ground to mix and load chemicals, refuel the helicopter, and keep the landing zone secure.

Sean was having trouble finding someone to do the job. It’s not because he isn’t paying — I think he’s paying pretty good. Trouble is, a lot of folks either (1) don’t want a job that doesn’t guarantee a certain number of hours a week or (2) don’t like physical labor. Because the job depends on when there’s a contract to fulfill and what the weather is like when the job needs doing, hours are irregular. And it is tough physical work.

Spray Gal
Here I am in my coveralls, hamming it up for a selfie between loads.

I know because I stepped up to the plate to help him with his first two big jobs. I thought I’d spend a bit of time talking about this work from the loader’s point of view.

The Job

The pilot’s responsibilities are to spread the loaded chemicals over the crops to be sprayed using the tools in and on the helicopter. I can’t speak much about that because I haven’t flown a spraying mission. I can tell you that in a light helicopter like the R44, the pilot is doing a lot of very short runs — sometimes only a few minutes — and is often spending more time getting to and from the spray area than actually applying the spray. For that reason, the landing/loading area needs to be as close to the crops as possible — usually somewhere on the same property. The pilot is taking off near max gross weight for most flights and landing relatively light. And there are a lot of take offs and set downs. As I told Sean the other day, doing spray runs is a lot like doing hop rides at fairs and airport events — you just don’t need to talk to your passengers.

The loader’s responsibilities — well, that’s something I can address since I’ve been wearing that hat for the past two weeks.

When the pilot is warming up the aircraft for the first flight of the day, the loader is mixing the first batch of chemicals. Sean’s current setup includes a mix trailer that holds 1600 gallons of fresh water, a Honda pump, a mix vat, and a dry mix box. With the pump running, I turn valves to add 50 gallons of water to the vat, which is constantly mixing. Then I add about 4-6 capfuls of an anti-foam agent (which is not HazMat) to the vat, followed by a specific amount of chemical provided in 32-ounce bottles.

Mix trailer
Sean’s mix trailer onsite at an orchard near Woodland, CA. This is the “business end.” The mix vat is on the left.

Luna Sensation
This is how the chemical we’re using is shipped: in 32-ounce bottles.

The chemical we’ve been using is a “broad spectrum fungicide for control of plant diseases” made by Bayer (yes, the aspirin people). It is highly regulated and must be kept under lock and key when not in use. It looks a lot like Milk of Magnesia, which was a constipation remedy my grandmother gave us when I was growing up. It doesn’t smell as good, though. (And I’m certainly not going to taste it.) If you’re not familiar with that, think of an off-white Pepto Bismol. We’re spraying this stuff on almond trees and there’s a definite deadline to getting it done.

Here’s where some math comes in. The guy who wrote up the specs for our client’s orchard wants 6.5 ounces of the stuff applied per acre. The helicopter can take 50 gallons of chemical mix at a time. That 50 gallons covers 2.5 acres. So how much do I need to put into the vat for each 50 gallon load? 6.5 x 2.5 = 16.25. Round that down to the nearest whole number for 16. This is an easy mix because the chemical comes in 32 ounce bottles and there are measuring tick marks on the bottle at 8, 16, and 24 ounces. That makes it easy to add half a bottle and get it right. But if it didn’t work out so smoothly, we could use a big measuring cup Sean has to get the right amount.

So I add the chemical and the mixer mixes it up. If I’ve finished the bottle, I need to rinse it, which I do by dipping it in the mixer and then swishing it around a few times before dumping it into the mix. Then I put the empty bottle away in a box; even the empties are accounted for at the end of a job.

As you might imagine, I’m wearing protective gear: rubber gloves and coveralls. This particular chemical isn’t very nasty and I’m not likely to breathe it so I don’t need to wear a respirator or anything like that. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be helping out.)

All this tank filling and mixing takes me less than 2 minutes.

Stopwatch
I timed one of our cycles. Lap 1 was skids down to skids up: my loading work. Lap 2 was skids up to skids down: Sean’s flight. Less than 4 minutes for a cycle.

When Sean is ready for chemical, I turn the valves on the trailer’s mix system to direct mixed chemical into a thick long hose with a specialized fitting at the end. I bring the fitting over to the helicopter, drop down to my knees (which is why I also wear knee pads), and mate the hose fitting to a fitting on the helicopter’s tank. I then turn a valve on the hose fitting to get the mix flowing into the helicopter. I watch the mix vat the whole time and turn the valve off when it gets near the bottom so I don’t run it dry. Then I get back up and use a pull cord on a pump on the same side of the helicopter to start up his pumping system. When that’s running, I give Sean a thumbs up and head back to the trailer, gently resting the hose fitting on the hose along the way.

I timed this once and it took just over a minute, but that’s because it took two tries to get the helicopter’s pump going.

Sean lifts off immediately — often while I’m still walking away — and I get back to work mixing the next batch. When I’m done with that, I wait until Sean returns. It’s usually less than 4 minutes. Then I’m turning valves on the trailer quickly, sometimes before he even touches down. My goal is to minimize load time so he can take off again quickly.

Landing
Here’s Sean coming in for a landing beside the trailer. And yes, his approach route for a while was under a set of wires. (The rest of the time, he was departing under them.)

I usually leave the pump on the whole time I’m in the loading area, although if Sean’s work area is more than a minute or two from the landing zone, I sometimes shut it off. I wear ear plugs or earbuds so I can listen to music while I work. I keep a radio in my pocket so I can hear Sean if he calls for something or warn him if there’s a problem with the landing zone.

Beyond Mixing/Loading

Every six or seven runs, Sean needs fuel. He often radios ahead, but if he doesn’t or if I don’t hear the radio, I can tell he needs fuel because he throttles down to idle RPM (65%) after landing or makes a hand signal. In that case, I’ll fill the chemical first and return the hose to its resting position, then turn on the fuel pump on his truck, and walk the hose over to the passenger side of the helicopter. Sean said fueling is usually done by walking around the back, but no one can pay me enough money to walk between a helicopter’s exhaust pipe and tail rotor while it’s running. So I walk around the front, dragging the hose under the spray gear to get into position. Then I pump fuel until he gives me a signal to stop. It seems to me that he’s half filling the main tank each time — that’s about 14 gallons less whatever he already has in there.

When I’m done, I cap the tank, carefully walk the hose around the front of the helicopter to the truck, and then go back to start that pesky helicopter pump. Thumbs up and he takes off. I usually remember to turn the fuel pump off. Then I mix another batch of chemical so I’m ready when he returns.

Occasionally his pump or mine needs fuel. He uses helicopter fuel — it’s just 100LL AvGas — for both pumps. He keeps a jug of it at the mix trailer. I do the fueling.

Keeping the landing zone secure is pretty easy. On our last job, we were in a nice concrete loading area for a hay operation. Trucks did come and go, but in most cases, they saw Sean landing or sitting in the landing zone and waited until he was safely on the ground or had departed. Twice I tried to signal trucks to stop when I saw him coming in but they didn’t — both times they didn’t see the signal until it was too late and Sean aborted the landing. In our current landing zone, which is a dirt patch at the edge of the orchard, there’s a truck that comes and goes to haul out dead trees cut into firewood; the driver of that rig seems to pay attention and stops when I signal him.

Getting Physical

The job is extremely physical. All day long I’m walking around the trailer, truck, and helicopter; climbing up and down on the trailer’s mix station and truck bed; and hauling heavy hoses, fuel jugs, and cartons of chemical. And dropping to my knees (and then getting up) when I load the helicopter. And don’t even get me started with the pull cord on the helicopter’s pump, which I apparently pull too hard half the time.

I move at a quick pace, but I don’t run. Running is dangerous. Too easy to trip on a hose or a skid. Too many very hard things to crack your skull on if you fall. Anyone who runs while doing this job is an idiot.

But it can’t be too physical, right? After all, I’m a 55-year-old woman and I’m not in the best of shape. And I’m doing it all — although I’m exhausted at the end of the day.

Hours and Break Time

The job is weather dependent. We can’t work if it’s raining or likely to rain. We can’t work when the wind is more than 7 or 8 knots. We didn’t work Sunday because it was raining on and off all day and very windy.

But when we can work, we start early. We’re typically at the landing zone about an hour before dawn. Usually, Sean gets there first since he has more to do to get ready. He fills his truck’s fuel transfer tank with 100LL from the local airport. That can take 20-30 minutes. Then he comes back to the landing zone and, if the water tank is less than half full, he hooks it up to his truck and drags it to his water source and fills it. That’s another 20-30 minutes. Then he brings it back to the landing zone and positions it based on the wind direction, slipping 4×4 pieces of wood under the trucks rear wheels to bring the front end of the trailer up.

By that time it’s nearly dawn and I’ve arrived. I prep my work station by setting out chemical and anti-foam bottles in the trays on one side of the trailer and boxes for the empty bottles on the other. I suit up in the coveralls and get my knee pads on. While he’s preflighting the helicopter, I’m mixing the first batch of chemicals so I can load as soon as he starts up.

We work pretty much nonstop until we’re out of water. More math: If the trailer’s tank holds 1600 gallons and we’re using 50 gallons per load, we can do roughly 32 loads (1600 ÷ 50) before we’re completely out of water. That’s two 8-bottle cases of chemical. It’s also 80 acres. If you figure an average of 6 minutes per spray run/loading cycle, that’s about 3-1/4 hours.

When we’re out of water, I get my break because Sean has to fetch fuel and water using his truck. There’s nothing too difficult about doing any of it, but since I can really use a break after working that hard for that long, I won’t volunteer to do it. Instead, I strip off my protective gear, wash my hands (if I can), and take Penny for a walk. (She waits in the truck while I’m working.) Or sometimes I run out and get a bite to eat. Or eat a snack I’ve brought with me. That break lasts about an hour. Then it’s back to work all over again for another 3+ hours.

At the end of the day, we run three rinse cycles through all the equipment. I “mix” batches with just water. The first one usually includes some anti-foam stuff because the foam really gets out of hand if I don’t. The second two are straight water. I purposely overfill the mix tank on the third run to make sure the water gets all the way up the sides. Each load gets pumped into the helicopter and sprayed out to clean the spray rig.

Container
The most difficult thing I did on Saturday was to get this container open so I could lock up two cases of chemical.

Then we wind up the hoses, secure the helicopter — or bring it back to base if Sean is near his hangar — lock up any unused chemicals and empty bottles, and call it a night. By that time, it is night; we often do the rinse cycles in the dark. I bring a lantern so I can see.

It’s long day. A very long day. I’ll start at 6 and finish by 7 with two hour-long breaks in the middle of the day. That’s 11 hours of active work.

On Saturday, we worked for most of the day. Yesterday was Sunday and we would have worked all day if the weather was right. There are no “weekends” in this line of work.

So yeah: this job wouldn’t be very attractive to someone who prefers to sit on his ass all day.

But I’m getting a great workout. I know I am because every single muscle in my body was screaming at me this morning when I got out of bed. No pain, no gain, right?

Right?

Why I’m Doing It

Although Sean is paying me for this work and the pay isn’t bad, I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for two reasons:

  • Sean is a friend and he really needs to get this business off the ground. Without a helper, he’d have to mix and load by himself. He’d likely only get a fraction of the acreage done each day. The first orchard I helped him with was 1,000 acres and he did have another part time helper. This one is about 500 acres and there is no other helper. It would take him well over a week to do it by himself. Together, we’ll knock it off in less than 4 days.
  • I have a natural curiosity about how things work. The best way to learn about something is hands on. I know a lot more about the spray business now than I did two weeks ago and that’s a real motivator for me.

We’re down in Turlock, CA for this job. It’s 100 miles from Sean’s base near Woodland, which is also where I’m camped out for the next few weeks. Although I wanted very much to bring my camper down here with me and live in the orchard, Sean needed me to tow the mix trailer while he towed his helicopter.

Spray Gear
Here we are on Friday morning, just before dawn, ready to head down to Turlock with the mix trailer behind my truck and helicopter trailer behind Sean’s.

I’m very glad I let him have his way. We’re staying in very comfortable rooms at what’s probably the nicest Best Western I’ve ever stayed in. After months of mostly living in my camper, I admit that it’s nice to have a good, long, hot shower every day. So that’s a bonus.

And isn’t that what life is all about? Doing different things? Seeing different things? Experiencing different things?

That’s what it’s all about for me.

But I admit that I do hope Sean finds a new helper for his next job. I’m not staying in California much longer and I’m ready to hang up my spray loader cap.

Helicopterless (Again)

I take my R44 down to Chandler, AZ for its first overhaul.

N630ML at TorranceHere’s the first photo of me with Zero-Mike-Lima on the day I picked it up in Torrance, CA.

It’s hard to believe that it was nearly 12 years ago that I took delivery of my second helicopter, the R44 I usually refer to as Zero-Mike-Lima. That January 2005 day ended a two-plus-month period where I was “helicopterless” — I’d sold my R22 (Three-Niner-Lima) in late October 2004 and was waiting rather impatiently for its bigger replacement to emerge from Robinson’s Torrance, CA factory.

I bought the four-place Robinson to grow my flying business by adding Part 135 charter services. It was a good thing I was still making good money as a writer because it took a long time for that business to take off (pun intended). It wasn’t until 2008 when I discovered a few good niche markets — wildlife survey and cherry drying — that the helicopter started making enough money to pay for itself. Until then, my writing work subsidized it. I’m so glad I stuck with it, though, despite the enormous costs. My writing career went into decline around 2010 and my flying career picked up the slack. This year, 2016, was my best year ever, even topping my best years as a writer.

Unfortunately, although Robinson helicopters have relatively low day-to-day operating costs, they do have a bit of a cost “time bomb” set to go off at 12 years or 2,200 hours of flight time. That’s when they need to go back to the factory or to an authorized service center for overhaul. The current price tag for this is about $240,000 (depending on core values). Ouch!

Smart owners who expect to keep the helicopter past overhaul will start saving up for this huge expense as soon as they can. I started saving when my flying business became profitable and had socked away more than half of what I needed by 2012. Some unexpected expenses unrelated to the helicopter put bit of a drain on those savings, but I managed to replenish everything I spent and more, leaving me in good financial shape for overhaul time. I’m pleased to say that I needed to borrow a lot less than I expected to and had no trouble securing the financing I needed at good terms.

Of course, it isn’t January and the helicopter doesn’t have 2,200 hours on it. Although I was primed to reach 2200 hours in the eleventh year — I flew almost exactly 200 hours per year from 2005 through 2012 — When I stopped ferrying it between Arizona and Washington state and left it idle during Washington’s dreary winter season, my annual flight hours dropped off considerably. That enabled me to stretch it out into the twelfth year.

Right now, as it sits waiting for overhaul, it has 2,068 hours on its Hobbs meter. I didn’t quite reach 2,200, but I came pretty darn close.

You’re probably wondering why, if I didn’t reach 2,200 hours, don’t I wait until January to bring it in for overhaul? The reason is simple. Overhaul could take as long as 3 months to complete — after all, they strip the helicopter down to its frame, rebuild the engine and transmission, and replace many important components. If I dropped it off in January, I wouldn’t get it back until the end of March. But I need it back sooner, in February, for my annual frost contract. (Another niche market I picked up in 2013.) And since I don’t usually fly much in the winter months anyway, it made no sense to wait and possibly lose out on the frost work — which also gives me an excuse to hang out in California for part of the winter.

I flew the helicopter down to Chandler last week. It was a two-day flight that I did with a friend. I’ll blog about it and share photos in another blog post.

Into the Hangar
I watched Robinson helicopter mechanic extraordinaire Paul Mansfield roll Zero-Mike-Lima into the hangar where it will be overhauled around sunset last Tuesday.

So now I’m helicopterless, at least until the end of January.

There is a silver lining, however: there’s an extra 576 square feet of empty space in my garage. I’ve already begun filling it with boats and RVs that I’m storing for friends and others for the winter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s how to turn assets into money without selling them.

Banking Stupidity

Yesterday’s snafu, which cost me about 3 hours of my life.

I hate when things don’t work the way they should — or even the way you’re led to believe they should. That bit me yesterday and caused a time suck for me. Here’s the story.

I recently moved all my banking to a local bank with branches throughout the state. I was tired of dealing with the mobile app deposit limits imposed by my business and personal banks (BofA and CapitalOne 360 respectively), neither of which had local branches. I figured that having all my accounts in one bank would make it easier for me to do my banking. And I found a bank I really liked, one where I was greeted with enthusiasm when I walked in and gave me service beyond my expectations. One with the online banking, bill pay, and banking by mobile app features that I needed to simplify my financial chores.

All Accounts in One Place
How refreshing to be able to see and work with all of my bank accounts in one place.

I set up the business accounts first and then the personal ones. To access all of my accounts via online banking, they set me up with their Business Manager system. I could see and work with all of my accounts (two checking and two savings) with one login. I could even easily (and immediately) transfer funds between accounts to handle surpluses and shortfalls in my checking accounts. All good so far.

I immediately set up my bill pay information for business and personal bills. I even set up e-bills and auto-pay, which would automatically pay bills on time without me having to remember to set up a payment. I’ve used this capability with online banking for years and it’s a great tool for anyone with a busy life, especially if you travel as often as I do. When I set this up, I was very careful to use the correct checking account for each payee — business bills to be paid from my business account and personal bills to be paid from my personal account.

So imagine my surprise when I got a letter from Premera Blue Cross saying they’d rejected my premium payment because they don’t allow payments from business accounts.

I wasted about 15 minutes confirming that I’d set up the autopay to pay from the correct account. I had.

I wasted another 5 minutes confirming that the payment that had been sent in September was sent from the correct account. It was.

I then spent a total of 30 minutes on the phone with Premera, most of which was on hold — of course — to tell them that they were wrong, that the payment had come from a personal account. They told me that the payment instruction — this was an electronic payment — indicated that it was from “Flying M Air L.” I had to explain at least three times in three different ways that it was a personal account held in the same bank as my business account. (Being on hold for so long put me in a pissy, frustrated mood that got me shouting at the guy and didn’t help my blood pressure reading when I stepped into the doctor’s office 20 minutes later.) The Premera customer service guy told me he’d start an investigation with the accounts receivable people but I was okay for now since my account was paid up for the month. He’d call back (which of course hasn’t happened yet.)

Later, I spent another 20 minutes on the phone with my bank’s customer service department. After not being able to figure out, at first, what was going on, they eventually told me that since I’d used a business log on to create the bill pay instructions, any payments would indicate that they came from my business no matter which account I used. If I wanted payments to show my name instead of my business name, I’d have to create a personal account login and use the personal banking app to manage payments. Fortunately, this wouldn’t change my ability to see and work with all of my accounts from the business login. I just couldn’t create personal payment instructions there.

So this morning, I spent over an hour recreating all of my payees and payment instructions on the bank’s website for personal accounts. And deleting those same instructions from the bank’s website for business accounts.

It’s dumb and its frustrating but at least (I think) it’s fixed.

Now don’t get me started on the bank websites’ crappy user interfaces.

But despite all of this stupidity, I am much happier with my current banking setup. Honestly: why did I wait so long to make this change?

Another Rides Gig

The ground crew really makes a difference.

Last Saturday, I made my fifth appearance at Wenatchee Wings & Wheels, an annual event in East Wenatchee. I was offering helicopter rides out of the soccer field on the north side of Eastmont Park for $40 per person.

My History with Wings & Wheels

The first year I did this event was way back in 2012. It’s an October event, long past the end of my cherry drying season in Washington, and back in those days I still lived in Arizona. In previous years, I’d had to pass up participation because I was expected home by August. But in 2012, my divorce was underway and I was finally free to do whatever I liked with my time. So although I went home in mid-September to deal with divorce bullshit and start packing, I left the helicopter behind in Washington. I went back in October with a friend to do the event and then fly the helicopter home.

Wings & Wheels is a car show with an aviation theme. Or at least it was back in 2012. The event was held at the airport and had a great turnout. I was prepared and had asked my friend Jim from Coeur d’Alene to bring his helicopter. He brought along his wife to handle the money and a friend to work with my friend as ground crew.

We flew all day — long past the time when I was hoping to start the flight home. So my friend and I stayed the night and got an early start in the morning. The helicopter was stuffed to the gills with gear, as well as a 40-pound box of Honeycrisp apples one of my clients had given me. We took the most direct route and made it back to Phoenix in 8 hours.

The following year, I was living in Washington. But the powers that be in East Wenatchee had decided to put the event in Eastmont Park near downtown. The best they could offer me was a static display — I flew the helicopter in on Friday evening and left it until Sunday. People could go look at it and I could sell rides for Sunday at the airport. I sold out on all of the rides by noon on Saturday and did them on Sunday. I don’t remember how many I did, but I think it might have only been about 20. A bust, as far as I’m concerned.

In 2014, the airport started hosting its own airport event in June: Aviation Day. That first year, I enlisted the help of two of the cherry drying pilots who work with me. Between the three of us, all flying R44s, we took just over 300 people for rides. That remains my absolute best event in terms of the number of people flown — although I had to split the revenue with my fellow pilots — and that annual event continues to be my busiest every summer.

But in October, the Wings & Wheels folks wanted me to fly, too. They set me up in the soccer field on 3rd and Georgia. I had a reasonable turnout in 2014 and a better one in 2015. But this year was my best so far.

This Year’s Rides at Wings & Wheels

A few things combined to make last Saturday’s event a real winner.

First of all, the weather was perfect. Cool with very little wind meant that my helicopter had good performance and I didn’t have to alter my departure/arrival route. It also meant that a lot of people had come out for the event.

Second, the event was advertised on the radio and in the newspaper. Wenatchee has several radio stations and they’re really good about advertising local events. Although I hadn’t sent out any press releases, the City of East Wenatchee apparently had and had mentioned helicopter rides. So lots of people heard about it on the radio or read about it in the newspaper (or its website) and took advantage of a beautiful day to come on out with their families.

Third, there were a lot of families. A rides event is a great place for a kid to get a first helicopter ride without mom and dad breaking the bank. The rides were $40/person. More than a few people told me or my ground crew that they’d rather spend the money on a memorable helicopter ride than a few amusements at the carnival that had also set up in the park.

Fourth was my ground crew. They were responsible for collecting the money, doing passenger safety briefings, and loading/unloading passengers. I do “hot loading” at all of my events — that means the engine is running and the blades are turning the whole time. The ground crew is responsible for keeping the landing zone secure and keeping passengers and onlooker safe. (The park people helped out by setting up T-posts with caution tape to create a landing zone boundary.) Without a good crew, I cannot make a rides event work. (More on that in a moment.) This year’s crew was excellent.

At Wings & Wheels
Alyse, from my ground crew, took this photo of me just before departing on my first flight of the day.

Paassenger Photo
Here’s a photo from one of my back seat passengers that was shared on Flying M Air’s Facebook page. In this shot, we’re going upriver on the East Wenatchee side.

I’ve created a sloppy little map of the setup at the park (see below). The car show — which was huge — was in the baseball fields, on the grass. I didn’t get to see it, other than from the air. North of that were some food vendors and other booths for other things. I didn’t really get to see any of that, either. Then there were some tennis courts and then our landing zone. The red box outlines the area the park people secured for us with posts and tape. East of us was a dirt area with RC trucks racing around and beyond that was a handful of carnival rides.

On departure, I took off to the east, avoiding the trees to the north of my area and trying to avoid the dirt track and carnival. Then I made a circle around the car show area, mostly to make sure everyone on the ground knew there were helicopter rides before heading out to the river. You can see this with the green line. I flew up the East Wenatchee side to the north end bridge and then flew back down the Wenatchee side to the south end bridge. Then I came east and returned to my landing zone by way of a few empty school fields north of the landing zone. You can see this with the blue line.

Wings & Wheels Layout
Here’s the general layout of the event.

We made the paper the next day, too.

The Importance of a Good Ground Crew

In the past, I’ve worked with a variety of different people as my ground crew.

When I did events in Arizona, my wasband often helped out. He knew the drill pretty well but could also be counted on to complain incessantly after each event. On large events, I’d get someone else to work with him. I pay my ground crew and often pay based on the number of rides we do. (Although my wasband always refused to take any money, he later told the divorce judge that working for free at a handful of events over the years made him a part owner of my company. Lying in court about the actual number of events — over a hundred? — didn’t work well for him, either.) We often do dinner, too, on my dime. And, of course, I provide chairs and a cooler full of refreshments for the crew while I fly.

The best ground crew are the people who understand that the goals are:

  • Safety. This is my number one concern. Accidents are not an option. Not only can they ruin an event and likely prevent me from doing future events in the area, but they’re bad for public relations. People are already afraid of helicopters, mostly because they don’t understand how they fly. To have someone get hurt an event confirms those fears. I’ve never had a mishap and I want to keep it that way.
  • Crowd control. When lines form, people bicker. At least I was told that they did in Arizona. In Washington, people are much more laid back and easy going. I’ve never had a local ground crew complain about a crowd, even when wait time exceeded an hour.
  • Quick turnarounds. The quicker my ground crew can unload passengers and load up the next group of passengers, the quicker I can take off. My ride times are pretty fixed at 8 to 10 minutes. Shortening them would make passengers think they didn’t get their money’s worth. So to keep things moving, the ground crew has to keep things moving on the ground. I’ve worked with slow ground crews before and it is frustrating — especially for the folks waiting to get off who can’t depart without an escort and the ones watching the helicopter idle while they wait for their turn.
  • Maximize passenger count. This is where I either make money or lose it. At the $40/person pricing, I lose money on every flight with just one person on board, so I simply won’t do flights for singles. (You can’t make money on quantity if you lose money on individual flights.) With two people on board, I make money. With three people on board, I make good money. The best ground crews are the ones that consistently put three people on board each flight. This not only helps make the event profitable, but it reduces the wait time for passengers. Got a couple up next? Find a single farther back in the line and put him on board, too.

From the Ground
An onlooker who didn’t fly with us posted this photo on Facebook of us flying by.

I had my friend Alyse and her friend Diana work with me at this event. This was their first time working with me. Both women are pretty sharp and caught on right away. Although they weren’t as quick as I’d like at turnarounds — at least in the beginning — they somehow managed to get three people on almost every single flight. I’ve never had that done before at an event — I consider myself lucky if half the flights have two people and the other half have three. (The last Aviation Day event had just two people on most flights.) So not only did I fly a lot more people than I had in previous years, but I also earned more money per hour flown. In fact, on a per-hour basis, it was my most profitable event ever.

My Thoughts on Rides Gigs

I have a lot of thoughts about rides gigs. Although I only do 2 to 4 of them per year, I’ve been at it for 15 years. Without consulting my logbooks, I figure I’ve done about 50 of them by now. I did three this year: Aviation Day (at the airport), Farmer-Consumer Awareness Day (at a field in Quincy), and Wenatchee Wings & Wheels.

Every event is just different enough to keep it interesting. But I have to admit that flying the same route over and over — and answering the same handful of questions — all day long is not my idea of fun. If I didn’t make money at these events, I wouldn’t do them.

One thing I really do like about them is the fact that for at least half of my passengers, their flight with me is their first time in a helicopter. Occasionally, it’ll be their first flight in any aircraft. I like the fact that I can give them an affordable first experience and that I can often take away any fears about helicopter flight that they might have. It’s not crazy, like a roller coaster. It’s smooth, with an amazing view of someplace they see every day from the ground. I especially like it when the kids point out places they recognize but have never seen from the air. It makes the experience fresh for me, too.

As for the regulars, well, it’s nice to be able to see that there are some folks who return every year for another flight, even though it’s the same flight as the previous year. I must be doing something right if they keep coming back.

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Two people helped me get started in cherry drying.

Yesterday, I got an email message from someone I hadn’t heard from since 2009. His name is Rob and he’s one of the two people who helped me launch my cherry drying business here in Washington state.

The first person, of course, was Erik Goldbeck. Erik contacted me way back in 2006 about joining him in Washington for some cherry drying work. It was Erik who explained what the work entailed and why it’s done. He tried to get me up to Washington from my home in Arizona in the summer of 2006 and again in 2007, but he was unable to guarantee me work or the standby pay I needed to make the trip financially viable. It wasn’t until 2008 that Erik got enough contract work to bring a second pilot on board with guaranteed standby pay. He chose me and I prepared to come north to join him.

At Pateros
Here’s my helicopter, parked on the lawn beside a motel in Pateros, WA where I worked for 10 days that first cherry drying season.

Then two things happened. First there was a late season frost that destroyed half the crop. Suddenly Erik only needed one pilot. But Erik was not going to be that pilot. Almost at the same time, he was diagnosed with cancer. When I met him in person for the first and only time, he was in the hospital recovering from surgery, relearning how to walk. He sent me to Quincy, WA to handle the remaining cherry contracts he’d gotten for us. I was only there for seven weeks that first year and only flew five hours total.

The following year, 2009, Erik was out of the picture. (He died that summer; his illness and death had a profound effect on me.) I prepared to go to work for the same company he’d contracted with for much of the work the previous year. I had two contacts: Rob in the Quincy area and Dan in the Chelan area. They worked for a man named Ed, selling helicopter services to orchardists and getting helicopters to do the work.

About a month before my season start, Ed apparently decided he didn’t want to be in the business anymore. He shut down without any notice, leaving Rob and Dan unemployed, dozens of orchardists without any protection for their cherry crop, and more than a few pilots wondering what the heck they were going to do. I got in touch with Rob, who seemed disillusioned and fed up. He told me he was going to retire and then he did something I’ve always appreciated: he gave me the phone numbers for a bunch of orchardists in Quincy and Wenatchee who might need helicopters.

I worked the phones. I got enough orchardists interested in hiring me to make it worth coming north on my own. I created a contract based on the one Erik had with me. I collected standby pay. And in late May, I hooked up my old RV and headed north to Washington for the summer. I even managed to extend my season with a new contract that had me in the Wenatchee area until mid August.

At the end of the season, I sent Rob a “commission” check to thank him. I think he was surprised.

Each year, I built up my client base to add clients and orchards. By 2011, I had enough work to add a pilot for about three of my eleven weeks. The following year I added one for four weeks. The next year, there were three of us for a while. Then four. This year, which is my ninth season, I have four pilots helping me for my busiest part of the season: two in Quincy and two with me in the Wenatchee area, where I’ve been living full-time since May 2013.

But without the leads from Rob, I would never have been able to come back that second season and I wouldn’t be where I am now — living in a place I love, surrounded by good friends and friendly people, enjoying a life I’d only dreamed about having.

I tried to contact Rob a few times, mostly just to say hello. But I never got a response.

Until yesterday’s email, which was sent using the contact form on my blog.

I’d taken his two granddaughters, aged 6 and 3, on a helicopter ride during an event at the airport on Saturday. They “wanted to fly with the girl pilot.” He was writing to say hello and thank me. He mentioned that he was still retired and living at his orchard but he occasionally did some seasonal inspection work. I wrote back to tell him how good it was to hear from him and to thank him again for helping me get started.

Rob probably doesn’t realize how much he helped change my life for the better. Cherry drying was the good paying work I needed to make my helicopter business thrive. It gave me the excuse I needed to get away from Arizona’s brutally hot summers. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also gave me a chance to enjoy a few months of freedom every summer, living like a single person and making my own decisions. I fell in love with this area over those summers and it was a no-brainer to move here full-time when my marriage fell apart.

Rebuilding my life here has been one of the most pleasurable challenges in my life — and it wouldn’t be possible without the business I built here with Erik and Rob to help get me started.

More Helicopter Charter Company Advice

You need a business plan? Do it right.

I need to start this blog post by reporting that at this moment, there are 2,214 items in my email Inbox, 64 of which have not yet been read. See?

Inbox
My email inbox is really out of control.

So maybe you can understand why you’ll find this paragraph on the Contact Me page of this site:

I cannot provide career advice of any kind, whether you want to be a writer or a helicopter pilot. The posts in this blog have plenty of advice — read them. There’s a pretty good chance that I’ve covered your question here in a blog post.

Yet the contact form on that page continues to be used by pilots requesting career or business-related information. Apparently these people have failed to read or understand the paragraph right above the contact form, which says:

First, read the above. All of it. Now understand that if you contact me by email for any of the above reasons, I’m probably not going to respond.

I don’t know any way to be more clear than that.

So yes, I get dozens of email messages every month from people who either can’t read or comprehend the above-quoted paragraphs. And I delete just about every single one.

You want more about this? Read this.

So Outrageous It Needs an Answer

That said, here’s today’s question from a reader in Germany, a question I found so outrageous that I fired up my blog composition app and started typing.

Hi Maria,

i like your blog and read it nearly every week. I am a helicopter pilot too and try now to realize my own company next to my job at airbus helicopters.
I am just at the point: How can i buy a helicopter R44 like you ???

I know it is not easy but i have to create a concept for my bank.

Where do I begin?

How I Bought My Helicopter

How did I buy my R44? I sold my R22 and an apartment building I owned, took the proceeds plus a $160,000 loan from AOPA’s aircraft lending program, and handed it over to Robinson Helicopter. I then paid back that loan over eight years at about $2,100/month — while I covered my living expenses and all the costs of operating my business.

How did I buy the R22 and an apartment building? I worked my ass off as a writer, working 12-hour days, for more month-long stretches than I care to remember, writing books about how to use computers. I wrote 85 of them in 25 years and some of them did very, very well. But instead of pissing the money away on stupid things to keep up with the Joneses, I invested it in real estate and my future.

Through hard work and smart money management, I became a helicopter pilot without incurring a penny of debt and I acquired the assets I needed to build my helicopter charter company.

That’s what I did. Are you ready to do that, too?

Me and My Helicopter

First of all, I my entire guide for starting a helicopter charter business can be found in a post coincidentally titled “How to Start your Own Helicopter Charter Business.” Someone interested in doing this should probably start there. You want to know how you can do what I did? That blog post, which was written way back in 2009 and has been sitting on this blog waiting for folks to read it since then, explains exactly what I did.

So even though this person claims to read my blog “nearly every week,” this person hasn’t bothered to use the search box at the top of every single page to find blog entries that might have been missed that might have the information wanted. Instead, I’m expected take time out of my day — time that might be used to clear out some of the crap in my inbox — to explain how to write a business plan for a helicopter charter company.

Because that’s what needed here: a business plan.

Business Plan Resources

Most people can’t do what I did to start their own helicopter charter company. Those are the people who need business plans because they need a lender to give them the money that they need to acquire the assets that they need to start their business.

There are no shortcuts. Either you have the money and can spend it or you need to find a lender who will give it to you. And that lender is going to need some proof that you know everything about your business before you even start it.

That’s what business plans do: They help you understand every aspect of the business you want to start. They also prove to a lender that you’ve thought it through and that it has the potential to make a profit so they can get their money back.

There are countless sources of free information about creating business plans. Many of them are online. Google “How do I create a business plan?” and see for yourself. An especially good resource is the U.S. Small Business Administration‘s Create Your Business Plan page. These are also the folks who can help you get a loan through their own program.

Like reading books? (I hope someone still does.) A search of Amazon.com for “creating a business plan” yields a list of more than 2,900 books on the topic. Isn’t it worth investing a few dollars to help you do this right?

I Can’t Do It for You

Living the Dream?
People tell me that I’m “living the dream” and lately I think I agree. But it wasn’t luck or charity that got me here. I did it all myself, despite numerous obstacles, and I’m proud of it. When you achieve your goals through your own efforts, you’ll be proud, too.

If this post comes across as a snarky rant, it’s because that’s the way I feel about this. I’m really tired of people trying to get me to help them achieve their goals.

No one helped me. No one. In fact, too many people close to me tried to hold me back.

A professional pilot friend told me I was a fool to think I could start a career as a pilot so late in life. (I was 39 when I got my private pilot certificate.) He told me I’d never make any money.

My mother cried when I bought my first helicopter. She was convinced that I’d die in a fiery crash. (She also cried when I left my full-time job as a financial analyst to become a freelance writer.)

My wasband tried to talk me out of buying the R44. He should have know as well as I did how impossible it was to build any kind of charter business with an R22. He also tried to keep me from traveling to Washington state each summer — by endlessly trying to make me feel guilty about the trips — where I finally found the work I needed to make my company profitable. (I only wish I’d chosen my business over him about 10 years earlier.)

No one told me what I’d later learn through trial and error about advertising, getting maintenance done, finding clients, and building a niche for my services. (I’ve blogged extensively about all these things here.)

Every helicopter charter business is different. The only business I know about is mine — and I’ve shared most of what I know on this blog. It’s here for anyone willing to take the time to look for it. (Hint: there’s a Search box at the top of each page.)

I cannot be expected to cook up an all-purpose formula that will work for anyone who wants to create a business like mine where they live. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. Any business with that formula would fail. Why? Because if the business owner doesn’t fully understand his/her business, he can’t possibly make it succeed.

So my advice to those of you interested in starting a helicopter charter business is this: stop looking for someone to do the hard part for you. Do your homework. Analyze the market. Gather information about costs. Check out the competition. And then write a complete, thorough business plan.

If you can succeed at doing that on your own, you might have a shot at succeeding in your business.

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.