Cherry Drying, Cockpit Distractions, and Safety

My thoughts.

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

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

Why Just One Pilot?

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

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

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

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

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

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

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

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

Training

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is This a Contract Killer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Wind Machines

An important part of crop protection.

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

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

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

Except frost.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weather ForecastNWS Wenatchee forecast for this week.

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

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

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

Kind Words from a Client

Really made my day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cherry Drying

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

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

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

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

That’s a relationship that I want to continue!

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

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

About the Header Images

A quick summary of where the current images were taken and who I was with.

You may not realize it, but I shot all of the photos that appear in the header on this site. There are currently more than 90 of them and they’re set up to appear randomly. Each time you visit this site or click a link to another page here, the image up top should change.

I noticed just the other day that although all images were shot within the past 10 years, the vast majority were shot when I was alone. That made me realize how much I traveled by myself, even when I was married, and how the places and things I saw were beautiful or interesting enough to capture an image of.

Anyway, here are the images, with summaries.

Alfalfa

Alfalfa

This was an alfalfa field near where I spent my summer in Quincy, WA. I think I shot this in 2008. Alone.

American Coot Family 1 & 2

American Coot Family

American Coot Family 2

I shot these two images at Quincy Lakes in Quincy, WA in 2008. Alone.

Bark

Bark

Birch Bark 2

I like photos that show texture. These close up photos of bark were shot at Quincy, WA in 2008. Alone.

Barn Roof, Wagon, and Waterville Farmland

Barn Roof

Barn Wagon

Waterville Farmland

These three images were shot on the Waterville Plateau near Douglas, WA, probably in 2009. I was with my wasband.

Basalt Cliffs

Basalt Cliff

I’m pretty sure this photo was shot while repositioning my RV from Washington to Arizona by way of Glacier National Park with my wasband — one of the last “vacations” we had together — in 2009. I think it’s at Palouse Falls.

BC Mountains Pano

BC Mountains Pano

This was shot from a cruise ship on an Alaska Cruise with my wasband in 2007. Our last day on board took us between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

BHCB

BHCB

This was shot at Quincy Lakes in 2008 or 2009. I assume BHCB is an abbreviation for the type of bird. Alone.

Birch Leaves

Birch Leaves

I liked the way the sun shined through these leaves in the late afternoon. Shot at Quincy near the golf course in 2008. Alone.

Blue Heron & White Heron

Blue Heron

White Heron

I was kayaking with my dog at Lake Solano in Central California in 2014 when I shot these photos of herons.

Bowman Lake

Bowman Lake

This was shot at Glacier National Park in 2009 while traveling from Washington to Arizona with my wasband.

Bryce and Bryce Dawn

Bryce

Bryce Dawn

These two photos were shot at Bryce Canyon in 2011. I’d gone there with a client in January on a photo flight for this 360 interactive panorama: Bryce Canyon in Winter, Utah, USA.

Cache Creek

Cache Creek 1

Cache Creek 2

Cache Creek 3

Cache Creek 4

These four images of Cache Creek were taken from my helicopter’s nosecam on an early morning flight up Cache Creek in Central California in 2014. I was alone.

Cascades

Cascades

This image of a ridge and cloud-filled valleys was taken from my helicopter’s nosecam on a flight between Wenatchee, WA and Hillsboro, OR in 2012. I blogged about the flight here and shared video from the flight here. It’s notable not only for the perfect weather and amazing scenery, but because it was my dog Penny’s first helicopter flight — 90 minutes long! And yes, that is Mt. St. Helens in the background.

Cherry Drying Cockpit

Cherry Drying Cockpit

This is a shot from a GoPro camera mounted in the back of my helicopter during a cherry drying flight. It was probably taken in 2011.

Close Up Wheat

Close Up Wheat

This closeup of wheat growing in a field in Quincy, WA was shot in 2009. I was alone.

Combine

Combine

This aerial shot of a wheat combine at harvest on the Waterville Plateau in North Central Washington was shot in 2011 during a flight between Wenatchee and Coeur d’Alene, ID. My friend Jim was flying his helicopter; I was on board with a camera.

Corn

Corn

I like patterns. This field of young corn plants in Quincy, WA was capture in 2009. I was alone.

Cows in the Road

Cows in the Road

I was on my way up to my old Howard Mesa, AZ place one bright winter day when I came upon these cows following tire tracks in the road. When I approached, they just stopped and stared. I took a photo before continuing, herding them along with my Jeep. I can’t be sure of the date, but I expect it was around 2003 or 2004. I was probably with my friend Jeremy.

Cracked Mud

Cracked Mud

I shot this alongside the road to Alstrom Point on the northwest end of Lake Powell in Utah. It was probably shot in 2008. I was alone.

Crescent Bar View, Yellow Flowers

Crescent Bar View

Yellow Flowers

I shot these photo of Crescent Bar in Quincy, WA in 2009 not long after drying a cherry orchard down by the river there. I was alone.

Dandelion

Dandelion

I shot this photo of a dandelion seed puff in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Desert Still Life & Desert Wildflowers

Desert Still Life

Desert Wildflowers

I shot these photo of hedgehog cacti blooms and California poppies near Wickenburg, AZ between 2009 and 2011. It was probably on one or two Jeep outings and I was probably with either my wasband or my friend Janet.

Fern

Fern

Patterns and textures again. This was shot in Alaska sometime during a cruise with my wasband in 2007.

Float Plane

Float Plane

I shot this image of a float plane taking off at an Alaska port while on a cruise with my wasband in 2007. It was shot from the balcony of our stateroom.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

This image of the Golden Gate Bridge was shot during a trip to San Francisco in 2011. Not sure if I was alone — isn’t that odd? — but I was probably there for a Macworld Expo speaking gig.

Glacial River Rocks

Glacial River Rocks

I shot this closeup of rocks in a river bed while on a trip to Denali National Park in 2007 with my wasband.

Golf Balls

Golf Balls

Attach a GoPro to the bottom of a helicopter with the lens pointing down. Then hover over a golf course green and drop hundreds of golf balls. This is what it might look like. Shot in late 2011 or early 2012. My client was dropping the balls.

Grand Canyon Sunset

Grand Canyon Sunset

I’ve been to the Grand Canyon countless times so I don’t know exactly when this was taken or whether I was alone. I know it was shot before the summer of 2011.

Gyro Cache Creek & Gyro Pattern

Gyro Cache Creek

Gyro Pattern

I learned how to fly a gyroplane in the spring of 2014. These two shots were made with a GoPro mounted on the mast. In the first shot, I’m flying up Cache Creek; in the second, I’m doing a traffic pattern at Woodland Airport. Both were shot in Central California.

Hay Bales

Hay Bales

I’m pretty sure this was shot on the road between Upper Moses Coulee and Waterville in North Central Washington in 2009. I was alone.

Helicopter

Heli Header

This is a photo of my helicopter right after sunrise parked out near my new home in Malaga, WA. I shot this in 2014; I was alone.

High Tension

High Tension

This was shot in 2008 near the Chief Joseph Dam near Bridgeport, WA. I was on a daytrip with my wasband.

Hopi House

Hopi House

Another trip to the Grand Canyon. I suspect I was alone when I shot this one, possibly on a day trip by helicopter with clients from Phoenix. Sometime between 2009 and 2011.

Houses

Houses

Here’s another straight down image shot with a GoPro from my helicopter. This was Peoria, AZ in 2011 or 2012. I was alone.

Inspecting Bees

Inspecting Bees

I set up a GoPro on a tripod to record a beehive inspection in 2013. That’s me in the picture; I was alone.

International

International

This is a closeup of an old International truck parked outside the bakery at Stehekin, WA. I was there with my wasband and another couple on a helicopter trip in 2011.

Juvenile Robin

Juvenile Robin

Shot in 2008 at Quincy, WA. I was alone.

Ladders, Side

Ladders Side

Patterns again. These are orchard ladders neatly stacked at an Orchard in Quincy, WA. Shot in 2008.

Lake Berryessa

Lake Berryessa

An aerial view of Lake Berryessa in Central California, shot with my helicopter’s nosecam in 2014. I was alone.

Lake McDonald Sunset

Lake McDonald Sunset

This was shot on a trip to Glacier National Park with my wasband in 2009.

Lake Pleasant

Lake Pleasant

Another nosecam image from my helicopter. This is a dawn flight over Lake Pleasant near Phoenix, AZ. I was alone.

Maine Coastal Town & Main Fog

Main Coastal Town

Maine Fog

I shot these during a trip to Maine to visit some former friends with my wasband back in 2008 or 2009.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

Another nosecam image from my helicopter. I’m pretty sure I shot this one on my way back from a Bryce Canyon photo shoot with a client in 2011.

Mini-Stack

Mini-Stack

An aerial view of the so-called “mini-stack” of at I-17 and Route 101 in north Phoenix, AZ. Probably shot in 2011 or 2012.

Mission Ridge Pano

Mission Ridge Pano

I shot this photo from Wenatchee Mountain near Wenatchee, WA during a jeep ride to Mission Ridge with my friend Don in 2014. What an amazing day!

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

I’ve flown over Monument Valley dozens of times. Once in a while, there’s a camera on the helicopter’s nose. This was probably shot in 2011. I was either alone or with aerial photo clients.

Monument Valley Wide

Monument Valley Wide

I used to do multi-day excursions by helicopter to Arizona destinations that included Monument Valley. While my clients took tours, I’d explore on my own. This is Monument Valley from the overlook, shot in 2010 or 2011.

Moonset Sunrise

Moonset Sunrise

I used to camp out at a friend’s place overlooking Squilchuck Valley near Wenatchee, WA. This was one of the early morning views from my doorstep. I was alone.

North to the Future

North to the Future

I shot this in Girdwood, AK in 2008. I’d gone up there alone for a job interview. I got an offer but turned it down. Beautiful place.

No Wake

No Wake

I shot this with my 10.5mm fisheye lens at Lake Pateros, WA in 2008. I was with my wasband.

Orchard Still Life

Orchard Still Life

These are apples culled from the trees in Quincy, WA. Shot in 2008; I was alone.

Peacock

Peacock

This is one of the dozens of peacocks strolling around at the Lake Solano campground in central California. I shot this in 2014; I was alone.

Penny Kayak

Penny Kayak

This is one of the few images I didn’t shoot. I was on a kayak trip in the American River near Sacramento with a Meetup group and one of the other members shot this and sent it to me.

Petrified Wood

Petrified Wood

I’m not sure, but I think this was shot in Vantage, WA in 2008 or 2009. I was probably alone.

Phoenix

Phoenix

Another nosecam image, this time of downtown Phoenix. Shot in 2011 or early 2012; I was likely on a tour with passengers.

Poppies and Chicory

Poppies and Chicory

Another desert jeep trip near Wickenburg, AZ. I could have been alone, with my wasband, or with my friend Janet.

Poppies Plus

Poppies Plus

This wildflower closeup was shot on a trip to the Seattle area, possibly in 2007 with my wasband and his cousin.

Quail Mom

Quail Mom

A Gambols quail hen and her chicks, shot from my doorstep in Wenatchee Heights, WA in 2012. I was alone.

Rafting

Rafting

Put a GoPro in a head mount, get in a raft, and head down the Wenatchee River and this is the result. I was rafting with a bunch of friends in 2013.

Red Wing Blackbird

Red Wing BlackBird

Red Wing Blackbird 1

Red Wing Blackbird 2

I shot these at Quincy Lakes in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Rocks Under Water

Rocks Under Water

I’m pretty sure I shot this in 2009 at Glacier National Park on a trip with my wasband.

Saguaro Boulders

Saguar Boulders Big

I shot this photo of saguaro cacti among sandstone boulders near Congress, AZ on a Jeep trip in 2009 or 2010. I was probably with my wasband.

Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes

This is an aerial shot of the sand dunes west of Yuma, AZ. This was probably shot in 2008 on a flight to the San Diego area with my wasband.

San Francisco

San Francisco

What a memorable flight! This was on a ferry flight from the Phoenix area to Seattle in 2008. Another pilot was flying my helicopter so I got to take photos. Low clouds over the coast forced us high over San Fransisco. Amazing views!

Sedona

Sedona

The red rocks of Sedona at Oak Creek. Shot in 2010 or 2011 while on a multi-day excursion with passengers.

Squilchuck View

Squilchuck View

The view from where I spent several late summers at Wenatchee Heights. This was probably shot in 2012.

Steam Train

Steam Train

This is an aerial shot of the old Grand Canyon Railroad steam train. I used to buzz that train with my helicopter any time I saw it from the air. This was probably shot in 2007. I was alone.

Stucco Scroll

Stucco Scroll

I shot this on a photo walk at the San Xavier Mission in Arizona with my wasband and a group of photographers.

Sunset

Sunset

I can’t be sure, but I think I shot this from Howard Mesa in 2006 or 2007.

Surprise Valley Drugs

Surprise Valley Drugs

I shot this in California during my 2005 “midlife crisis road trip.” I was alone. It was one of the best vacations in my life.

Helicopter Tail

Tail Header

An early morning shot of my helicopter parked out near my new home in Malaga, WA. Shot in 2014; I was alone.

Tetons

Tetons

Another shot from my 2005 “midlife crisis road trip.” This was at the Grand Tetons.

Turtle

Turtle

Shot while I was kayaking with my dog at Lake Solano in 2014.

Two Hillers

Two Hillers

I shot this at Brewster Airport in Brewster, WA on a day trip with my wasband in 2008.

Wheat Irrigation

Wheat Irrigation

Textures and patterns. What’s not to love about them? Shot in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird 2

I shot both of these photos at Quincy Lakes in Quincy, WA in 2008. I was alone.

Yellow Flower

Yellow Flower

A yellow flower. Probably shot somewhere in Washington state in 2011 or 2012. I’m sure I was alone.

Yellow Kayak

Yellow Kayak

Although my kayaks are yellow, this isn’t one of them. This was shot at Glacier National Park on a trip there with my wasband in 2009.

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.