A(nother) Full Day

Sometimes I can really pack it in.

Yesterday was one of those days when there’s simply no rest. Here’s a quick rundown.

A Natural Alarm Clock

I woke at 3:50 AM. It was the sound of three drops of rain hitting my RV roof that woke me. This was an unusual sound that I hadn’t heard in weeks and it took a moment for my sleeping mind to register why it was important.

Rain.

I’m on contract to dry cherries.

I was wide awake in a flash, reaching for my iPad, summoning the radar. Yes, it was drizzling on me, but was it raining on my orchards 5 miles to the west?

Not yet, the radar told me. But there was rain in the area.

I lounged in bed for a while, reading, catching up on Facebook crap (which I’m convinced has become a sick addiction for me, since I get very little pleasure out of it), and checking my calendar for the day. I had three things scheduled: a meeting with my earth-moving guy about the ground work for my utility connections at 7:30 AM, a charter flight at 8:30 AM, and an invitation to help a friend pack Rainier cherries at 10:00 AM.

But the rain made things a lot less solid. Getting called to dry cherries took precedence over anything else I might have to do.

Earth-Moving Plans

Jeff Parks, the guy who had installed my septic system last year and did all the earth work in preparation for my building, arrived at 7:30 sharp. By then, it was drizzling again.

I outlined what I needed and he suggested ways to get the job done. That’s one of the things I like about Jeff — if you want to do something one way and he has a better way, not only will he suggest it, but he’ll explain why it’s better. He’ll also take the time to go over the pros and cons of the different materials that can be used.

In my situation, I need to run a water line from the city water source to my building and my shed, an electric conduit from my transformer box to my building and my shed, and a septic system line from the takeout near the building to the building. I also wanted to install a second takeout near the shed so I could create a complete RV hookup there for guests. I wasn’t in a hurry to get this done, but I did hope to have it finished by August month-end, which was fine for Jeff.

We decided that I’d buy the materials with a shopping list he provided. I already had much of the conduit and pipe I needed. He’d get back to me with a solid estimate.

The Charter

My charter client knew I was a cherry drying pilot and called while Jeff was there to make sure we were still on for the flight. I told her we were, then told her that I’d call her cell phone if I needed to cancel.

But I didn’t have to cancel. At 8:20, I said goodbye to Jeff, locked Penny in the RV, and hopped into the helicopter. Ten minutes later, I was shutting down at Pangborn Airport across the river, ready to greet my passengers.

My passengers were two fruit buyers from the midwest that my client was entertaining during a visit to the orchards. I’d done short tours for a handful of the client’s guests last year. This year there were only two of them and the client didn’t mind my one-hour minimum. I’d pick them up at Wenatchee Airport, take them on a scenic flight around the area, and drop them off at Quincy Airport where my client would be waiting.

My passengers were pleasant men who really seemed to enjoy the flight. They asked me to show them a new orchard being planted north of the airport on some old wheat fields — I didn’t even know it was up there! Then we headed down river, past the Rock Island dam. I pointed out the features now visible due to the low water levels. (The Wanapum Dam is still being repaired so the lake level is extremely low and closed to the public.) We saw Crescent Bar, the Gorge Amphitheater, Cave B Inn and Winery, and Sunland before turning and heading back over Frenchman’s Coulee, Quincy Lakes, and Quincy. One of the passengers obviously knew the area very well because he kept pointing out various orchards and packing/storage facilities around us. After 45 minutes, I landed at Quincy where their ride was waiting. The last 15 minutes of their hour would get me back to Wenatchee.

Packing Cherries

Of course, I didn’t go back to Wenatchee Airport — or home. Instead, I flew to the orchard where my friends Donn and Kathryn were using their cherry packing line for the very first time. The reason I flew instead of driving there was because there was still rain possible and it would have taken 30-40 minutes for me to drive home (or to the airport for that matter) if I were called out to fly. By flying there, the helicopter was only 5 minutes away so I’d be able to respond quickly if called.

The Cherry Packing Line
Packing cherries can be labor-intensive, too.

The packing line was set up in a new building near their house on the orchard. There was a huge walk-in refrigerator where cherries picked the previous day and that morning had been stored. Then a conveyor belt that would take cherries from an ice water bath past quality control people who’d pick out the bad ones. Finally, the cherries came out on the far end where they fell into plastic-lined boxes.

Cherries Dropping into Box
At the end of the line, the cherries dropped into a box.


I shot this little video to show how the cherries moved down the line.

The quality control people worked at a feverish pace, picking out cherries that weren’t “perfect.” They checked for things like size, color, splits, bird pecks, and mold/fungus. Even stems — if a cherry didn’t have a stem attached, it was rejected. (I ate a lot of those.) The line moved quickly; we probably packed at least 10 pounds per minute.

My job was to work with Kathryn to fill the boxes, make sure they weighed 16 pounds (15 pounds of cherries plus the weight of the box and excess water), close them up, and put them on a pallet. The trickiest part was pulling one box away while putting an empty one in its place. It required the two of us to work in harmony to prevent cherries coming off the line from falling on the floor. It took us a few tries, but we finally got it working perfectly. We joked that she was Lucy and I was Ethel.

Drying Cherries

It started to rain while I was there. Then the inevitable phone call from one of my two clients still on contract. Could I dry, please? Fortunately, my helicopter was parked right across the street from the orchard. I excused myself from Kathryn and Donn and walked down the hill to where I was parked. On the way, I ran into the orchard owner. I told him I’d been helping with the cherry packing in the new shed and expected rain so I’d flown over.

I was airborne when the second client called. I was now responsible for flying over about 90 acres of cherries — about my limit for the 2-1/2 hours allotted.

I called Mike, my backup pilot. Although he was off-contract, he was in the Quincy area and could, theoretically, fly up to help out. But he was having engine trouble with his motorhome and needed to sort that out. So I tackled it on my own.

I flew until I was low on fuel — remember, I’d burned an hour’s worth that morning — then refueled at the airport 5 minutes away and flew until I was done. I explain what cherry drying is all about in other blog posts; click the cherry drying tag to learn more.

Back to Packing

No Swimming
I don’t know…do you think swimming is allowed here? Sky looks nasty, huh?

Afterwards, I landed back near Donn and Kathryn’s house, but this time on a dam around a reservoir in the orchard. I walked down to the packing shed where they were all still working. Kathryn took one look at me and asked, “Are you hungry?”

“I was hoping you’d ask,” I replied.

She brought me into the house and let me loose on salad fixings everyone else had had a while earlier. I made myself lunch and ate it alone while she went back down to work. Then, after a quick trip to the loo, I went back out to help.

Other helpers had taken my previous job so I filled in where needed, giving people breaks as they needed them. In the end, I wound up right where I’d started with Kathryn beside me. That’s where we were when the last few cherries came down the line. We all cheered. They’d packed 420 15-pound boxes — over 3 tons of cherries.

We cleaned up immediately. Extra cherries were handed out. The packing line ladies left. I passed on the cherries, preferring to come back later in the week to pick my own from the same trees — pickers aren’t always thorough. I’d get some blueberries that day, too. Kathryn invited me to join them for dinner in town later on. She’d text me. I looked forward to it, but not nearly as much as I looked forward to taking it easy at home.

When I flew off, the refrigerated truck that would take the cherries to Seattle had just arrived.

A Short Rest

At home, Penny the Tiny Dog was happy to see me. She always is.

I took it easy for a while. I made some soup and watched a documentary about abandoned cities on Netflix.

Kathryn called to tell me they’d decided on Pybus Bystro at 6:30. I told her I’d come if the weather held.

A friend called and I spent a half hour chatting with him. Then I noticed the weather was changing again. One look at the radar and I cut the call short.

I went outside and topped off the helicopter’s fuel tanks with 100LL from the tank on my truck.

I texted Kathryn and told her I wouldn’t be joining them after all.

More Cherry Drying

My other client called first this time. It was about 6 PM when I launched. The second call came while I was enroute.

Track
I hadn’t gotten very far when it started raining. Again.

The orchards are only 5 minutes away by air. I settled in over the trees of the big orchard and was at work for less than 15 minutes when I decided to track the flight with GPSTrack.

I was only 16 minutes into the logged part of the flight when it started to rain. Hard.

I flew over to a friend’s house and landed in his driveway, knowing he was out of town. I called my two clients and told them that I’d wait until it stopped or 7 PM, whichever came sooner. If I re-started after 7, I’d never finish before it got dark. Even then, it was iffy.

It was still raining at 6:55 PM when I started back up.

I speed-dried. I knew I’d never get it all done thoroughly, but I figured I could get most (or all) of it done if I was a bit less thorough. The result wasn’t as good, but was better than leaving 20 or 30 acres completely uncovered. Partial coverage was better than no coverage. Besides, rain was expected overnight and I was likely to be called out first thing in the morning.

Speed Drying
In speed drying, I go down every third aisle instead of every second. Sometimes I do every third one way and every second the other. Less coverage is better than no coverage. Keep in mind that this satellite image is three years old; the orchard configuration is a bit different these days.

I got through all of the big orchard and one of the two smaller orchard’s blocks. By then, it was getting dark. The sun had set around 8:45 PM and clouds on the western horizon made it darker than it would normally be. My landing zone at home wasn’t lighted and I really didn’t want to land in the dark. I also didn’t want to hover five feet over cherry trees in hilly terrain in semi-darkness with a windscreen full of raindrops. So I let the last orchard block go.

It was drizzling when I headed home.

Home

The helicopter was lit up like a Christmas light parade float on the flight home. Strobe light (required during flight), navigation lights (required after sunset), landing light, pulsing lights on my skid shoes. I wouldn’t be surprised if neighbors called me in as a UFO. But it felt good to get on the ground, especially since I knew I was done for the night.

I shut down, let Penny out for a run, and then went in. My friend Bob called while I was pouring a glass of wine. We chatted for a while and I invited him to join me Thursday evening to pick cherries and blueberries. It was after 10 PM when he reminded me that I’d probably be up early.

I finished my wine and went to bed, exhausted.

It had been a very full day.

Orchard to Orchard

Do you see now why I love what I do and where I do it?

This one video should give you not only a glimpse of what it’s like to fly in a helicopter in one of the most scenic areas of Washington State, but it should give you a good idea of why I love doing what I do.

It shows the entire flight — all one minute and 47 seconds of it — from the time I depart one orchard at the top of Wenatchee Heights to the time I settle in over the trees at another orchard in Malaga. I’ll admit it here: this is my favorite orchard departure path.

Enjoy this in full screen at high resolution if you can.

First Cherry Drying Flights of the Season

Two flights, two hours.

I’ve been on contract for cherry drying services since May 26. It’s the earliest contract start I’ve ever had.

Although the first orchard I was on contract for dodged a few storms right at the beginning of the contract, the weather settled down and was very nice for two full weeks. Too nice, if you ask me. The east side of the Cascade Mountains is almost as dry a desert as the one I left in Arizona.

During that time, two other small orchards came on contract, giving me responsibility for three orchards totaling 60 acres. The only drawback is that 30 acres are in Quincy, about 10 miles from my home in Malaga, where the other 30 acres is. So there’s a bit of uncompensated flight time between orchards.

I’m Ready for the Calls

With a 20% chance of rain in the forecast for Thursday, a few growers — including one who isn’t on contract yet — called to check in. Normally, I don’t bug my growers unless they owe me paperwork or money; when there’s a chance of rain, they sometimes call just to make sure I’m really around.

What they don’t realize is that from the first day of my first contract to the last day of my last contract, I’m walking weather advisory service. I know the chance of rain for the next 3 days (50% today, 20% tonight, 0% Saturday and Sunday, 20% Monday) and what’s on radar now (dissipating storm system headed for Quincy orchard and building storm system heading for Malaga, both from north in counter-clockwise rotating weather pattern). I have weather on my phone, iPad, and computer and always have at least one of them within arm’s reach.

Helicopter Ready to Go
Rain in the area? I know about it and am ready to fly.

While under contract, I’m never more than an hour away from my helicopter, even on nice days with no chance of rain. If there’s rain in the forecast, I’m never more than 30 minutes away. If there’s any chance at all of rain within the next 30 minutes, I’m hanging out with the helicopter. If it’s raining on any of my orchards, I’m suited up and the helicopter is preflighted, untied, and ready to go. No matter what the weather is, I don’t drink — not even a glass of wine with dinner — during daylight hours. Of course, by the time the sun goes down, I don’t feel like that glass of wine anyway.

As for the helicopter, it’s completely up-to-date on all maintenance that would have it down for more than a few hours. Both fuel tanks are topped off — I refuel after every flight — giving me an endurance of at least 3 hours over the trees. I have the hinge pins off the pilot door so I can pull the door quickly — I’ve discovered that it’s better to fly with the door off, especially if it might get sunny during a flight; I’d rather be a little wet than roasting in the sun.

Thursday’s Flights

Under Constuction
There’s always something to do with a home under construction.

With a 30% chance of rain forecasted for Thursday, I hung out at home, which is where my helicopter is now based. The builders were still working on on my building and I had plenty to do to keep busy.

By around 1 PM, it started clouding up. I watched various storms on the radar, including a nasty cell near Peshastin and another near Cashmere. But all the storms were moving south to north and both of those points were west of me and my orchards. No threat. Still, I spent some time getting scrap lumber I planned to use for projects stowed away under my RV and closing up the windows in my Jeep and truck.

When I saw a storm come out of nowhere and apparently drop a ton of rain right on top of one of my orchards — which I could see from my home — I suited up and went out to prep the helicopter.

When the call came, I was actually sitting in the helicopter with the key in the ignition. I told the grower I’d be over as soon as I could. I was hovering over his orchard less than 10 minutes later.

I don’t particularly care for this orchard. In 23 acres, they’ve managed to throw in a cornucopia of obstacles: 4 buildings, 2 sets of wires (plus a nearly invisible one running from a pole to a house right at treetop level), 3 wind machines, a bird house, tall border trees, and a pipe that, for some reason rises about 5 feet over the tops of the cherry trees beneath it. It was just after negotiating around this pipe that my main rotor blades trimmed some narrow branches on one of the border trees.

And then there was the wind. Dead calm one minute and gusting like crazy the next. I made a 180° turn at the end of a row of trees and got a headwind gust that lifted me 30 feet. Sheesh.

It takes about 45 minutes to dry this orchard and I was glad when I was done. I sped over to the airport, parked at the fuel island, and topped off both tanks. My client called while I was at the airport to thank me for my speedy response. I told him I hoped I could respond that quickly every time he called and reminded him that I lived less than two minutes away by air.

After refueling, assuming I was done for the day, I headed home.

Refueling
The fuel island at Wenatchee Pangborn on a rainy day. My home is at the base of the cliffs behind the helicopter’s tail rotor in this photo.

Radar Storm
It should not have been a surprise to get a call from my Quincy client, considering this storm cell passed right over his orchard.

I was home less than a hour when a call came from the owner of my Quincy orchard. I felt sorry for the guy — he was going to start picking the next day. He’d almost made it through the whole contract without having to call — something he’d done only once in the seven years I’d been flying for him. Now he needed his cherries dried and they were especially vulnerable this close to picking time. Even though it hadn’t finished raining there yet, I hopped in the helicopter and flew over.

I landed in a parking lot nearby. The orchard is on Crescent Bar, which is a resort area. Unfortunately, a crack in the Wanapum Dam forced the Grant County Public Utility District (PUD) to drastically reduce water levels to the point where the boat ramp and dock are nowhere near water. This is destroying the summer season for businesses down there, including the condos, shops, restaurants, and rental companies. But it also means that no one will raise an eyebrow if someone lands a helicopter in a parking lot on a Thursday evening in June. In fact, it’s likely to be the most interesting thing anyone down there has seen this season.

I didn’t even have time to shut down. My client saw me and called to get me started.

This is an old orchard with some trees even older than me — can you believe that? The land is somewhat hilly and there’s a house and a shop building inside its boundaries. Also some wires on one end in an odd place. Other than that, no obstacles to speak of. What’s weird, however, is that some rows run east/west while others run north/south. This is a bit of a pain since I follow the aisles between rows. But after drying this orchard at least 10 times over the years, I’d learned a good, efficient pattern.

Unfortunately, my client wanted be to dry in a different order. He called with instructions. I did my best to follow them. The idea was to dry the trees with the most fruit first. Since it takes just over an hour to dry the entire orchard, that made sense, especially with the fruit so vulnerable.

Drying an Orchard
My client took about a dozen photos of me in action over his orchard. Of course, he was on the ground looking up.

While I was flying, my phone reminded me that I was due to have dinner at a friend’s house in an hour. I’d already called to postpone the date; I just hadn’t told Siri.

Down below me in various places, they were preparing for the next day’s pick. Outhouses lined the entrance road. A refrigerated truck trailer was parked at the loading dock. Cherry lugs and picking ladders were placed strategically in the area to be picked first. Cherry bins were laid out on trailers. A handful of swampers were moving around, doing odd jobs.

If you want to learn more about the picking process at this orchard, be sure to check out this video I made a few years ago.

The wind was a real factor in this orchard, too. Although it had been calm when I arrived, when I was about 2/3 done it really kicked up. I could easily see the windy spots — it was where the tops of the trees were moving nowhere near me. The trees in that area were young and I suspected that the wind alone might be enough to shake the water off. But I wasn’t taking chances. I kept flying.

I was very glad when I finished the orchard. I did my usual “victory lap” past the shop to say goodbye. Then it was back to the airport for fuel before making the 3-minute flight home.

More to Come?

The weather looked iffy for the rest of the day and I thought there might be a chance of more rain. So after a snack, I settled down in my La-Z-Boy, still in my flight suit, to relax. It was probably around 8 PM when I fell asleep.

I woke up, shut the door, and went to bed around 11 PM. I’d only flown 1.9 hours; I was clearly out of shape.

Little did I know, but there would be much more to come the next day.

My Life as a Migrant Farm Worker

Well, it’s not quite what you might be thinking.

It’s true. I’ve become a migrant farm worker.

Original RV
My original setup was pretty pitiful. I didn’t realize then how much time I’d be spending on the road.

It all started back in 2008 when I made my first annual migration from Arizona to Washington state to do agricultural work: cherry drying. I’d learned about the work two years before, but it took that long to be assured of a contract after the long migration. And one thing was for sure: I wasn’t about to move my helicopter, truck, and trailer 1200 miles (each way) without some guarantee of work on the other end.

It was a win-win situation for me. Escape Arizona’s brutal summer heat while earning some money with my helicopter, which would likely be parked most of the summer anyway. How could I turn it down?

The first season was only seven weeks long and I only flew 5 hours on contract. It was barely worth the travel time and expense.

Cherry Drying Parking
In 2009, I picked up late season work in Wenatchee Heights.

But the next year was 11 weeks under contract and I’ve managed to get about the same every year. I’ve also managed to add contracts to the point where I now bring a second pilot in for 5 weeks and a third pilot in for about 10 days. Fly time varies, as you’d expect, with the weather. My goal is to have two pilots (including me) for at least 10 weeks and a third for a month.

The Work

The work situation is unusual. I’m required to stay in the area for the entire length of the contract, on call during daylight hours seven days a week. No days off, no going home on weekends. On nice, clear days with 0% chance of rain, I can wander a bit from base, as long as I keep an eye on weather forecasts and radar. Still, day trips to Seattle (150 miles away) or off-the-grid locations were pretty much out of the question. Heck, I couldn’t even hike in parts of Quincy Lakes, less than 5 miles from my base, because there was no cell signal there.

One pilot I know was in Seattle when he saw the weather coming in on radar. He hopped in his truck and sped east. I don’t think he planned to have the truck break down an hour away. He hitchhiked in and got started on his orchards about the same time I was refueling to finish up mine. Not sure if he learned his lesson. He was back the following year playing the same risky games.

When rain is possible, things are different. I stay close — often at my base all day. If radar shows rain coming, I’ll go out and prep the helicopter for flight — make sure its full of fuel, preflight it, and take off the blade tie-downs or hail covers (whichever it’s wearing). If radar shows rain on one of my orchards, I’ll suit up and wait in my truck beside the helicopter. Then, when the call comes, I can be in the air in less than 5 minutes.

Cherry Drying
Cherry drying is all about flying low and slow.

The work itself is dangerous and requires good hovering skills in all conditions. I’m hovering just over the trees at low speed, firmly inside the Deadman’s Curve. If the engine quits, a crash through the trees is assured. Some orchards are hilly, others have obstacles like buildings and poles and wires. I can be called out as early as predawn and can be flying after sunset — I’ll fly as long as I can see a horizon.

The summer days in Central Washington State are long, with sunrise around 5 AM and sunset around 9 PM on the summer solstice. Because the night is only 8 hours long and I never really know whether I’ll be flying at dawn, there’s no alcohol, even at the end of a long day — remember: “eight hours from bottle to throttle.”

But the standby pay is good, compensating me not only for getting my helicopter into the area but keeping it there and assuring it’s available when called. It used to bother me when I got calls from tourists in Arizona wanting to see the Grand Canyon in July and I couldn’t take them because I was 1200 miles away. Then I realized that I was being paid for my time in Washington and knew that it was nicer to be paid to sit around and wait than to fly cheap midwesterners — who else visits Phoenix in July? — to a place I visited more times than most people can imagine.

Maria and Penny
Here I am with Penny the Tiny Dog last year after a cherry drying flight.

I did all the work myself: prepping the helicopter, flying, refueling, putting the helicopter to bed. I’d take the truck to the bulk fuel place in Ephrata or Wenatchee and fill my 82-gallon transfer tank with 100LL so I always had some on hand. I’d move, park, and move the RV as needed, dealing with all the hookups, including the often nasty sewer line. I’d handle propane tank refills and minor repairs. I’d also tend to the truck, making sure it got its oil changed with Rotella (as requested), even though it meant a trip to the Walmart in Chelan, 60 miles away. In the meantime, I handled all the client relations stuff, including getting clients signed up, visiting their orchards so I knew where hazards were, invoicing, and collecting fees.

In between, I managed to have a nice, easy-going life, making lots of friends and doing fun (albeit local) things.

The Logistics

The logistics of being a “migrant” worker were daunting. Each May I needed to get my helicopter and RV from Arizona to Washington. Each August or September, I needed to get them both back to Arizona. That meant a total of three round trips.

Logistics
Here are all of Flying M Air’s assets: our helicopter, 1-ton diesel Ford Truck, and a 35-foot fifth wheel RV. It takes two trips for me to move them to a worksite.

I usually brought the helicopter north first, leaving it in Seattle for maintenance. Then I’d fly home on an airliner, hook up my RV to a truck, and make the 2-3 day drive north with my parrot, Alex the Bird. (Alex is gone now; he has a new home.) Then I’d take a flight from Wenatchee to Seattle and pick up the helicopter. With luck, I had decent weather and could come east through one of the passes: Snowqualmie or Stevens.

One time I had rotten luck and, after several aborted attempts to get over the Cascades, wound up flying all the way down to Portland and following the Columbia River through the Gorge. That was a costly ferry flight.

Later, I skipped the Seattle maintenance — saving a ton of money not only on ferry flying but maintenance itself; my Phoenix area mechanics seemed to be able to do the same work for a lot less money.

Bird Nest in Fan Scroll
It was not fun cleaning this out of my helicopter.

The last time I left the helicopter behind while fetching the RV, during the week I was gone some birds built a nest in my helicopter’s fan scroll and engine compartment. That was quite a mess to clean up.

The drive up was an adventure, too. I tried all kinds of routes. The fastest was Route 93 from Wickenburg, AZ (where I lived at the time) to Twin Falls, ID and then Route 84 to the Tri-Cities area of Washington and back roads from there. It was a long drive. If I made it to Jackpot NV on the first day — 679 miles from home — I’d have a shorter drive the next day. But most times, I couldn’t do it on my own.

Once, I arrived at my Washington destination after sunset and faced the task of parking a 35-foot long fifth wheel trailer in a parking spot between two railroad ties. I still don’t know how I did it in the gloomy light after driving more than 600 miles that day.

In August or September, I did the same thing in reverse. Take the RV home with my parrot, then fly back on an airliner to fetch the helicopter.

In 2009, my wasband and our dog Jack accompanied me on the return RV drive. My wasband was between jobs and it seemed like a great opportunity to enjoy a late summer trip — we so seldom had real vacations together. We went east to Coeur d’Alene, ID, where a friend of mine lives, then kept going and visited Glacier National Park. We camped there and in Yellowstone. Then, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, my wasband was in a big hurry to get home, cutting the vacation short by at least a week over what we could have done.

My wasband also occasionally accompanied me on the helicopter flight. I think he did it twice with me. Once, we flew from Seattle to Page, AZ. Another time, we flew from Seattle down the coast until the marine layer forced us inland. I thought he enjoyed those flights, but apparently he considered them “work” — during our divorce trial, he claimed he was working for me to fly the helicopter back. Not likely, since he wasn’t a commercial pilot and wasn’t legal to work as one. Maybe if I’d charged him for the opportunity to build flight time — as I charged every other pilot who flew that trip with me — he would have seen it differently. To me, however, it was just another helicopter “road trip” with the man I loved.

Silly me.

I wonder who’s helicopter he’s flying these days.

Today’s Migrant Farm Work

I started frost control — another kind of agricultural work — last year.

Cosmo View
I went to HeliExpo last year in Las Vegas during frost season and stayed at the Cosmopolitan, with an excellent view of the strip from my room.

My contract required me to put my helicopter in California, but didn’t require me to stay with it. Instead, I’d be paid generously for callouts and standby time. I moved it to the Sacramento area in late February and spent the following two months traveling between Phoenix and Sacramento, Wenatchee, and Las Vegas, spending most of my time in Arizona packing up my belongings for my move to Washington later in the year.

The contract terms weren’t good unless there was frost — and there wasn’t any last year. I just about broke even when you consider my investment in additional lighting for the helicopter and the cost of repositioning it and my RV. But at least I got my foot in the door as a frost pilot and got to see what it was like flying over almond trees in the dark.

Can’t say I liked it.

I moved to Washington in the spring, when the divorce proceedings were over and I’d relinquished exclusive use of my house to my wasband and his chief advisor — the woman who’d apparently convinced him to spend more than $100K to go after my money. (Seriously. I can’t make this shit up.)

I was still “migrant” for a while — I started in Quincy and moved to Wenatchee Heights, just as I’d done the previous five years. But when that late season contract was over, I moved to my future home, a 10-acre parcel of view property overlooking the Columbia River Valley and Wenatchee. It looked as if my migrant farm worker days were over — I could commute from my new home to my clients’ cherry orchards.

Almond Trees
The almond trees are beautiful when they’re blooming — and they smell nice, too!

I had no intention of doing frost control work under the same contract as last year. But I didn’t have to. I got a much better contract — one that paid better if I didn’t fly. With winter dumping snow on my home in Washington, I moved the RV and later the helicopter down to the Sacramento area again, setting up camp at a small local airport in a nice farming community. With rent at a startlingly low rate of only $200/month with a full hookup, the season would be very profitable even if I didn’t fly.

Best of all, I like the area: the weather was warm, the town was full of great restaurants (and even a beekeeper supply place), there was a nice dog park for Penny the Tiny Dog, and Sacramento was only 20 minutes away. I had a friend in Carmichael, only 30 minutes away, and more friends in Georgetown and Healdsburg, each only 90 minutes away by truck — or 30 by helicopter.

Frost is different from cherries. With frost work, you seldom fly during the day. Instead, you fly any time between 2 AM and 8 AM — most often right around dawn when it’s coldest. That means you have the whole day to do anything you like — hiking, bicycling, kayaking, wine tasting, whatever. As I write this, I’m planning a spa day in Geyserville, a trip to San Francisco, and at least one wine tasting trip to Napa Valley. I’ve joined a few local meetup groups and will be hiking and kayaking with new friends. All while “working” — or at least being paid to stand by in case it gets cold.

It’s almost like a paid vacation — with the added bonus of being able to build night flying time.

It’s a Living

My agricultural work has been very good to me. It saved my business from failure and has made it possible for me to save up enough money for the helicopter’s overhaul.

Once my home is built and my possessions are stored away inside it, I can go back to a modified version of my earlier plan: eight months out of the year flying frost and cherries in in the Sacramento and Wenatchee areas and four months goofing off. But instead of hanging around my old house in an Arizona retirement community with a bunch of seniors, I’ll travel and actually see some of the world on my own terms.

It’s the semi-retired lifestyle I’d expected at this stage of my life, delayed about two years by my wasband’s inexplicable greed and stupidity, and enjoyed without the company of a sad sack old man.

Cherry Drying: My Sixth Season

The whole season in summary.

I’m just finished up my sixth season as a cherry drying pilot in North Central Washington’s Wenatchee area. I thought I’d take a moment to summarize how things went.

What Cherry Drying is All About

I’ve blogged about this extensively and you can quickly zip to other cherry drying related posts by following the cherry drying tag. In a nutshell, it’s like this:

Split Cherries
These Rainier cherries are split and cannot be sold. Cherry drying by helicopter can prevent this.

During the last three or so weeks before a cherry is harvested it is susceptible to damage by rain. Growers are most worried by splits, which can occur when water accumulates in the cherry’s stem cup and is absorbed through the skin. The cherries get too fat for their own skin and split. Other damage can include mildew and rotting.

Because of this, growers want to get the cherries as dry as possible after a rain. So they hire helicopter pilots to hover over the cherry trees after it rains. The downwash of the helicopter’s main rotor blades shakes the water off the leaves and cherries, allowing them to dry much quicker without absorbing so much water.

Keeping the cherries dry is vitally important for a successful crop — as this year so clearly demonstrated. During the relatively short cherry season, dozens of helicopters are on standby with pilots waiting to fly when it rains. And when the rains start falling, all hell breaks loose over the cherry trees.

The Flying M Air Team

One of the things I pride myself on is the ability to provide prompt service and quick dry times to my clients. I do this by never contracting to cover more than 100 acres per helicopter and by utilizing helicopters well-suited to cherry drying missions. Because of this 100 acres/helicopter policy, I need to contract with additional helicopter crews to help out during “crunch times.”

Robinson R44
I’ve been providing cherry drying services in my Robinson R44 since 2008.

My Robinson R44 can thoroughly dry an average of 40 acres per hour. (Of course, actual drying capacity varies depending on tree size, row density, orchard obstacles and terrain, and the wetness of the trees. The more I dry, the better feel I have developed for all this.) That means that if it rained on all my clients at once and they all called at the same time, I could dry 100 acres in about 2-1/2 hours. That’s a long time, but still within requirements. Fortunately, it seldom rains everywhere at once and I’ve never had all my clients call at once.

Of course, I do contract for more than 100 acres at a time. That means I need help to get the jobs done promptly. This was the second year in a row that I had two other helicopter crews helping me complete my cherry drying contracts.

MTAS Hiller
The MTAS Hiller was on contract with Flying M Air for its second year.

Mike and Ron manned the MTAS Hiller for the second year in a row. For the first four weeks of their contract with me, they covered three orchards in Quincy, WA. For the fifth and final week, they provided backup coverage for orchards in East Wenatchee and Wenatchee Heights.

Canyon State Hughes 300
Woody at the controls of Canyon State’s Hughes 300.

Woody manned the Canyon State Hughes 300 for the first time. He was on contract with me for just 8 days during what I think of as a “super crunch” time when overlapping contracts made me responsible for about 250 acres of cherry trees. Although I prefer working with helicopters that have big two-bladed systems — such as the Robinson R44, Hiller, Bell 47, and JetRanger — this little Hughes got the job done using the Flying M Air technique of flying very low and very slow over the treetops. If Woody does come back next year, however, he’ll likely return in either a Hiller or R44.

If you’re a helicopter owner/operator with an R44 and at least 500 hours experience in helicopters (50 or more of which is in your R44), you might want to check the Help Wanted page at Flying M Air next spring. I’m always looking for good, reliable pilots with helicopters to help out.

Old Clients, New Orchards

This year, I contracted with all of last year’s clients except one. He decided to skip helicopter services. That was a loss of 55 acres. (Not sure how he did because I didn’t ask.)

Two of my clients added orchards to their contracts. One added three orchards totaling 61 acres. Another added one orchard that was 23 acres.

So I had a net gain of 31 acres. If I hadn’t lost that 55 acres, I would have had to hire on another helicopter without enough standby pay to cover it, so it’s kind of good that I lost it.

My contracted orchards stretched from George, WA to Monitor, WA. Most were in Quincy, Wenatchee Heights, and Malaga. The crunch time fell from June 20 through July 24, with super crunch falling in the middle of July.

I was based at Quincy for the first half of my season and then moved to Wenatchee Heights for the second half.

Busy, Busy!

This was our busiest season ever. My teammates and I flew a total of about 62 hours for the total of 16 weeks we were contracted (10 for me, 5 for MTAS, and 1 for Canyon State).

Now if you do the math, you’ll find that 62 ÷ 16 comes out to just about 3.9 hours per week. That’s not very much flying. But still, it was the most we’ve flown in a cherry season. My first two years I flew only 5 hours in 7 weeks (less than 1 hour per week average) and 5 hours in 10 weeks (about 1/2 hour per week average). There’s not a lot of flying in cherry drying work. It’s definitely not a time-building job.

Cherry Drying Action Photo
Here I am in action, hovering with my skids nearly in the trees.

The busiest time was what I refer to as the week from hell. It was the last week in June and I personally flew almost 30 hours in just 6 days. On several of those days I dried more than one orchard three or four times. I flew orchard after orchard, sometimes stopping only long enough to refuel and head back out.

I wasn’t happy about it.

Yes, I like to fly because I make money doing it. But no, I don’t like my clients to be put through the wringer by the weather, worrying and spending money on my services and still losing cherries because there’s simply no way to keep them dry when it rains all day long. So yes, I hope I never have another cherry season as busy as this one. My clients, for the most part, are too nice.

As for my competition, they were flying around like crazy people, too. I heard them all on the radio, playing follow the leader to guide unprepared pilots to the orchard blocks that needed drying. Some operators will contract for blocks as small as 2 and 3 acres, so their pilots often spend more time flying from orchard to orchard — without compensation — than actually drying. I’d rather take contracts for a small handful of big orchard blocks so I spend more time over the trees than in transit.

Early, Compressed Season

This was also the earliest season ever. My first contract started May 29; it usually starts the end of the first week in June. And my last contract ended by August 10; last year, it ran until August 25.

It was also a compressed season. Estimated start dates for mid to late season orchards, which were provided at the beginning of the season, creeped forward little by little, causing an uncomfortable overlap in scheduling — which is why I brought Woody’s company on board. That explains how my season started a week earlier than usual and ended two weeks earlier.

Late Season Rain

We also had an unusual amount of late season rain. Indeed, many growers don’t bother getting helicopter standby coverage because it so seldom rains in late July and August. But this year it did. Huge rainstorms hit on the evening of August 1, the morning of August 2, and the evening of August 4. I made five flights, covering my contracted orchard five times and another orchard three times (at my client’s request).

It was a good thing I did. My client reported that on the day of the last storm, I was one of only two helicopters flying in the area. While the packing plant reported minimal splits for his cherries, other orchards that did not have helicopter hover service reported up to 50% splits.

Maybe some lessons were learned? I guess we’ll see next year.

That’s It In a Nutshell

That’s pretty much how the season went for me.

It was my best season ever — but will it be as good next year? Or will we have a bad crop and lose contracts due to frost — as was the case in 2008? Or not have many rain events — as was the case in 2008 through 2010? Or will some upstart company come in and undercut operators like me by taking contracts for as many as 300 acres per helicopter at half the standby pay, crossing their fingers that it doesn’t rain and they’re not actually called to dry? That’s happened more than a few times in the past and those fly-by-night operators never seem to come back for a second season.

It’s all a gamble, a crap shoot. It’s why I don’t put all my eggs in one basket, why I save as much as I can for leaner days when the revenue just isn’t flowing.

But that’s just part of being a small helicopter operator. I love the challenge — especially when things work out just right.