My New Weather Station

Getting the hyper-local weather information I crave.

I’ve always been interested in weather. Yes, I’m the kind of person who’d leave The Weather Channel on all day as background noise — in the days when they actually broadcast live weather information all day. And always know the most up-to-date weather sources. And have multiple weather apps on my mobile devices so I could check one against the other.

My Thirst for Weather Data

Not long after moving into my Arizona home in the late 1990s, I bought a solar powered wireless weather station. My future wasband mounted it on the roof of the shed near the horse corral and it beamed back weather information to a panel at my desk. For a while, I had it connected to a Windows PC I had — the software wasn’t Mac compatible in those days — and put live weather information on a Wickenburg website I ran. In 2003, when I got the fuel manager contract at Wickenburg airport, we moved the weather station there — it was far more reliable than the ancient setup in use. (Wickenburg now — finally — has an AWOS.) When I sold the contract, I included the weather station among the assets of the business. For all I know, it’s still there.

Although I didn’t miss the weather station much as life dragged on in Wickenburg, I definitely wished I had weather stations in Washington where I spent my summers starting in 2008. I get seriously tuned into the weather during cherry season, checking radar throughout the day and always knowing the forecast — from multiple sources — for the next three days. I dreamed of having portable, Internet-connected weather stations with accurate rain gauges and webcams so I could place them at each orchard when it was under contract. You see, I fly when it rains and knowing exactly when and how hard it was raining would benefit not only me, but also my clients. Trouble is, orchards aren’t usually in places where Internet access is available and the cost of a 3G/4G/LTE connection for each station was prohibitive.

Fast-forward to the late summer of 2013. I moved to a 10-acre lot I’d bought at the base of the basalt cliffs in Malaga, WA — a place I like to call Malaga Heights. From my aerie, I could see the weather coming and going from the southwest to northeast. With a new home base, I started thinking seriously about a weather station again.

Weather Station Options

Technology had moved forward in the ten years since I last owned a weather station. The main thing I wanted was the ability to monitor weather from anywhere in the world on my cell phone. I had some practical applications for this, but it was mostly just a desire to get hyperlocal weather information, live, anytime, from anywhere.

I did some research. I discovered that weather stations fell into four categories:

  • Basic home weather stations. These are the ones that put a panel in your house and one or more sensors outside that can broadcast data to the panel. I already had one of these — heck, I’ve had these forever. In 2013, when I was still living in my RV, it became extremely valuable for me to monitor temperatures during the winter at my water source and RV basement. But systems like these are extremely limited, not only in range but also in the available instruments. It’s usually just temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure.
  • Weather stations with limited connectivity. These are weather stations that have a full set of instruments for temperature, humidity, wind speed/direction, and rainfall, but they just send that information to nearby information panel. That’s what I had back in the early 2000s.
  • Weather stations with Internet connectivity. These are weather stations that have a full set of instruments for temperature, humidity, wind speed/direction, and rainfall, and they transmit data via the Internet, through wifi or a direct connection to a router. They often also transmit to a panel where the user can view data locally.
  • Weather stations with Internet connectivity and direct smartphone access. These are weather stations that have a full set of instruments for temperature, humidity, wind speed/direction, and rainfall, and can transmit data directly to the Internet as well as to a smartphone app. Again, they also often transmit to a panel where the user can view data locally.

My main goal was to be able to view current weather conditions for my home on my iPhone. This would make it possible for me to assess conditions for landing my helicopter, which lives in my garage. When I fly home and put it away, I need to land on a 9×9 platform parked on my driveway on the east side of my home. With very strong winds in the area, landing there is difficult — so difficult that I prefer to land at a secondary landing zone on the north side of my home. I can then wait until the wind dies down, fire the helicopter back up, and move it to the platform. I don’t have to do this often — I think I did it just twice in all of 2015 — but it’s nice to know what to expect at home before I arrive. What’s interesting is that when the wind is howling at the airport across the river, it’s often quite calm at my driveway. This is likely because of my home being sheltered on two sides by terrain. That’s one of the reasons I built it where I did.

So at first it looked as if I’d need that last type of weather station — the kind with an app to get the data on my phone. Unfortunately, the stations I found that met that criteria were quite expensive — in the $250+ range. And I really couldn’t justify the expense, especially when I seldom have a real need for that weather data. After all, I only take the helicopter out about 50 times a year and the streamers on poles on my deck offer a decent indication of wind conditions when I get here. (I also have an airport-style windsock, but I positioned it too far from my landing zone to be of any real use to me. Long story there.) Maybe I was just trying to use flying as excuse for a new weather station? Probably.

More research showed me that Internet-compatible weather stations could usually be set up with The Weather Underground website. I started exploring stations already online there. I found one down at Crescent Bar, not far from one of the orchards I provide cherry drying services to. I clicked a link to get more information about the Weather station there and learned that it was an Ambient Weather WS-1400-IP.

WunderMap of my area
The WunderMap of my area shows the personal weather stations (PWSs) in the area. I’ve marked the one in Quincy and mine as well as the official weather station at the airport.

I did some more research and found that two Ambient Weather stations would meet my needs if I went with the Weather Underground: that one and the Ambient Weather WS-1001-WIFI. The difference: the more expensive ($299) WS-1001 had a panel to monitor the weather inside the house and did not require an ethernet connection to my router while the less expensive WE-1400-IP ($159) could only be viewed from a Web page or app and required an ethernet connection to my router. Both had the same basic set of instruments and were equally easy to mount. Both also had a solar panel to keep the station’s batteries charged.

The Ambient Weather WS-1400-IP includes outdoor weather instruments mounted together in one cluster; an indoor temperature, humidity, and pressure sensor; and an ObserverIP receiver that must be connected to a router. The iPad and iPhone in this marketing photo apparently indicate that data can be seen on mobile devices after registering the station with the Weather Underground.

I was fortunate in that I planned to mount the station at my shed, which was about 100 feet from my building. The line-of-sight receiver would go in the window overlooking the shed by my desk, which was less than two feet from my router. So as far as the connection went, requiring an ethernet cable was not an inconvenience. So the question was: Is the viewing panel worth the extra $140? My answer was no. I bought the WS-1400-IP.

Setting It Up

Mast Kit
This mounting kit is perfect for mounting on the side of a building.

I wanted to mount the weather station on the side of my shed, preferably with all instruments above the sprinkler head I’d put up there for fire season protection. That meant I needed some mounting hardware. Rather than trying to rig up my own mount — and likely being frustrated every step of the way — I spent another $44 (with shipping) on the Ambient Weather EZ-30-12 Mounting Kit with Mast.

Assembling the weather station was pretty easy. All I had to do was attach the wind vane at the top and one of the two short mounting poles on the bottom. The crimped pole fit snugly into the top of the mast that came with the mounting kit. I added two batteries to the indoor sensor and set it on a shelf near my desk. I then connected the receiver’s DC adapter to an outlet and ethernet cable to one of the four LAN ports on my router. Done.

The next step was to register my PWS on the Weather Underground. The weather station’s manual provides the URL. I had to create an account and then provide some information about my location and the weather station. At the end of the process, I received a weather station identifier.

Next, I had to use the IPTOOL application on my Mac (a Windows version is also available, of course) to locate the weather station’s receiver on my network and connect. That opened a configuration page in my Web browser. I used that to enter the station ID provided by the Weather Underground, as well as my password on that system. I could use other settings pages to provide the station model number, time zone settings, and units of measure. The Live Data page showed a rather user-unfriendly table of data collected from the station.

The Weather Network configuration screen for my weather station lets me put in my Weather Underground ID.

Of course, since the weather station was still inside as I did all this, it registered inside temperatures and wacky wind readings as I moved it around. It was time to install it. I certainly didn’t want bad data going out on the network.

Installed Weather Station
The weather station is positioned just slightly above my fire season sprinkler head. I’ll need to raise it (or lower the sprinkler head) before next fire season.

My timing was good and bad: it had turned kind of nasty and was about to rain. That was good if I wanted to record rain information (which I did) but bad if I didn’t want to be on a ladder in the rain (which I didn’t). Still, I went out to the shed and climbed on the orchard ladder with a drill and impact driver and all the parts I needed. Within 15 minutes it was installed, level and pointed the right way. It’s not quite as tall as I’d hoped; in the future, I’ll likely add a second mast pole to raise it another three feet.

The rain started before I was done. I admit I was tickled to see it registering in the Live Data screen when I got inside. (I am such a weather geek.)

There was one more thing I needed to do — although I didn’t realize it until the next day. I thought the weather station would automatically adjust the pressure reading for my elevation of approximately 1550 feet above sea level. But when I realized that the readings were significantly lower than what they should have been, I did some additional research to see how I could fix it. The answer was to enter a relative pressure offset amount in the Calibration page of the weather stations settings. To do this, I needed an accurate pressure reading. I waited until the automated weather observation system at the airport just three miles away across the river updated and calculated the amount of offset to enter. I plugged that figure into the right box, updated the settings, and was good to go.

Viewing Weather Data

Weather Station Data
Here’s a snapshot of the display for my weather station as I wrote this blog post.

Although the Weather Underground claims it can take up to 24 hours to display a PWS on its site, mine was visible within an hour. It’s got its own page, which can be viewed by anyone at any time; I called it Malaga Heights. Here’s a screenshot of what you might see if you go to that link.

As you can see, there’s a lot of data, including current conditions pulled right from my PWS, sunrise and sunset times, moon information, and a radar map of my area. The current conditions are updated regularly; if you keep watching, you’ll see it change, especially if the wind is variable.

The weather history section summaries and graphs weather information for the day or a period you choose. As you can see, the temperature has been pretty steady on this overcast day, the wind really kicked up a few hours ago, and the pressure is falling. Solar radiation is likely measured for the solar cells on the station; it always rises after sunrise and drops back to zero by sunset.

WunderStation App on iPad
The WunderStation app on my iPad.

All of this information is also available in the various Weather Underground apps you can install on smartphones and tablets. For example, the WunderStation app on my iPad displays rearrangeable tiles of data that update automatically. I can even set up multiple PWSes in the app and switch from one to another with a swipe. Similarly, the Wunderground app on my iPhone displays information about any PWS, including my own. Both apps are free, and if you’re a Weather Underground member — a bargain at only $10/year — they’re also ad-free. (I hate ads).

But wait! There’s more! You can also install a “sticker” or widget on your website or blog. You can see the style I prefer at the top of this blog post; one that fits better in the sidebar appears at the bottom of the sidebar on every page.

What’s Next

Of course, all this is not enough for a true weather geek like me. The Weather Underground supports a PWS webcam.

I’ve had webcams on and off for years and would really like to have one here. After all, not only do I have an amazing view to share, but my view of the sky would clearly show weather conditions that would interest other weather geeks.

There’s always something new to add to a system, isn’t there?

The one that I know will be compatible with the system is the AmbientCamHD Outdoor WiFi WeatherCam. It has a few features I think I could use to create time-lapses. I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list, but I suspect I’ll likely break down and just buy it for myself before Christmas.

Some things I just can’t resist.

2015 Cherry Drying Season Recap

A short, dry season means less flying time.

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

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

Timing and Rainfall

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

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

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

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

Other Pilots on My Team

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

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

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

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

Come to Washington State Next Summer!

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

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

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

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

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

Some Stats

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

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

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

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

Keeping Cherries Fresh

A few tips from years of experience.

One of the perks of my summer job as a cherry drying pilot is my friendship with more than a few orchard owners. As a result, I often find myself with an opportunity to pick cherries right off the trees for my own personal consumption.


I got an opportunity just yesterday. I was on a charter flight with two good clients who occasionally use a helicopter to visit multiple orchards during the growing season. Our first stop was a cherry orchard about forty miles south of my base in the Wenatchee area. Picking was in full swing, with lots of pickers working on trees just to the south of the clearing where I’d landed. I wandered off into the orchard in the other direction and found large, mature trees. I stepped into the shade and looked around me.

Most of the trees were Bing cherry trees. I could tell because I know that Bings don’t self-pollinate, which would explain the presence of Rainier cherry trees, which are sometimes used as pollinators. There was another type of cherry tree there too — likely another pollinator. The Bings had been picked; the Rainiers and other cherries had not.

I have a lot of respect for my client, which is why I didn’t pick any Rainiers. Instead, I went to the picked Bing cherry trees and began my hunt. I was gleaning.

According to Wikipedia:

Gleaning (formerly ‘leasing’) is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers’ fields after they have been commercially harvested or on fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest.

(I was not familiar with this term until last year, when I described what I was doing and a friend told me it was called gleaning. I never stop learning and hope you don’t, either.)

I’m pretty good at gleaning, having had lots of experience over the past eight years. As strange as it may seem, when pickers go through an orchard, they often leave a lot of fruit behind. I’ve noticed that some trees have more leftover fruit than others, likely because some pickers are not quite as good as others. I’ll go for good sized, unblemished fruit that I can reach from the ground. (Being tall helps.) It doesn’t matter what I pick or how much — since the trees have already been harvested, if I didn’t pick the fruit it would likely rot there. One of my clients even told me that by gleaning the leftover cherries, I help prevent the spread of a certain pest that thrives on rotting fruit.

Bag of Cherries
Robinson R44 blade tie-downs make pretty decent little canvas bags. I could have put at least five pounds in this one.

I picked about two to three pounds of cherries. I put them in one of my helicopter’s blade tie-downs, which actually makes a good-sized canvas bag. (I can’t take credit for this idea; a pilot friend of mine used one of his tie-downs Thursday as a bag on a kayak trip.) I stowed it under my seat for the trip home, knowing how important it is to keep the cherries cool.

And that’s the trick: keeping the cherries as cool as possible.

Keep the Cherries Cool

Cherries begin to lose their freshness as soon as they are picked. Growers do everything they can to keep the fruit as cool as possible. They only pick early in the day and seldom after the outside air temperature reaches 80°F. If able, they run the bins of freshly picked fruit through a hydrocooler to drop the temperature of the fruit. They get the bins of fruit into refrigerated trucks as quickly as possible. Even at the packing house, the fruit is moved off the trucks and into huge refrigerated warehouses until they can get a place on the packing line.

I have my own hydrocooler of sorts: a kitchen sink or large bowl of cold water. As soon as I got yesterday’s cherries home, I rushed them into the kitchen, dumped them into a bowl, and filled the bowl with cold tap water. I whooshed them around in the water to wash off the orchard chemicals and dumped the water. Then I did it again. And again. Three washes — that’s my routine.

Next, I half-filled the bowl of cherries with water and topped it off with ice from my freezer. (Before I moved out of my RV and into a real home, I actually bought bags of ice that I stored in my RV freezer just for this task.) I whooshed the cherries around in the water, getting the water and the cherries icy cold.

The important thing to remember here is to not leave the cherries in water longer than necessary. Why? Because they will split. After all, that’s why I work as a cherry drying pilot — to get rainwater off cherries so they don’t split.

So my next step was to dump the cherries with the ice into a colander. That would allow the water to drain off while keeping the ice around the cherries to cool them just a little bit more.

Cherries on Ice
I keep the cherries on ice a while to keep cooling them down.

Then I ate some. Quite a few, in fact. Although some people seem to have digestive problems when they eat too many cherries, I don’t. I can eat a lot of cherries.

Cherries in a Bowl
My gleaned cherries, ready for the fridge.

Finally, I pulled the cherries out of the colander and put them in a ceramic bowl, leaving the ice behind. And I put the bowl in the fridge, where I could easily reach in for a handful of cherries any time I liked.

Sealing Out the Air

Every once in a while, I pick a lot of cherries — more than I can eat in a day or two — or one of my clients gives me an 18-pound box. 18 pounds is a lot of cherries.

Besides making cherry turnovers, cherry cobbler, and cherry chutney, eating cherries with yogurt and cereal, and sealing pitted cherries in jars with vodka and a bit of sugar to enjoy six months into the future, I want to store the cherries in a way that’ll keep them fresh for munching as long as possible.

To do this, I follow all the steps above and then add a final step: store them in a zip-lock bag with air sucked out of it. I suck the air out with a straw, just before sealing the bag. Then I put the bags in the coldest part of the fridge. I’ve managed to keep cherries edible for up to two weeks like this.

I Love Washington State Cherries

The only fresh cherries I eat are Washington state cherries, most of which are grown within 50 miles of my home.

Whenever possible, I pick them myself, after the pickers have gone through the orchard block. I’m picking up the crumbs, taking fruit that would just go to waste otherwise. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to do this. It’s not just a matter of getting free cherries. It’s also a great way to get closer to my food source, seeing how the fruit grows and fades, getting a better appreciation for what it takes to grow and harvest the food we take for granted.

Washington state cherry season will likely end early this year — possibly before the middle of August. There isn’t much time left to get this great fruit. If you find some in your local supermarket, buy it, bring it home quickly, and chill it back down. Then come back here and use the comments to tell us what you think.

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.

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.


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.