A Friend Drops In…Literally. Again.

Why drive by when you can fly by?

At 6:15 Friday morning, my coffee was brewing into my cup and I was scrambling eggs for Alex the Bird and Penny the Tiny Dog. I heard a helicopter in the area and assumed it was the same spray pilot I’d seen earlier in the week working an orchard across the canyon. But when I went to the door to take a look, the helicopter I saw was not outfitted with spray gear.

Schweizer 300
My friend Woody on approach for landing in his Schweizer 300.

It was a Schweizer 300 and I knew my friend Woody was at the controls.

I tried calling him on the phone. He answered but I couldn’t hear his voice and didn’t know if he could hear me. I talked anyway: “Land on the gravel driveway of the house next door and I’ll make you breakfast.”

Penny Greeted my Guest
Penny greeted my breakfast guest as soon as he was on the ground.

He circled. I didn’t know if he’d heard me. So I came out and started pointing at the intended landing zone. One way or the other, he got the message. Moments later, he was setting down at the top of the driveway, only a few feet from the edge of the canyon. Penny ran over to greet him, even before he’d shut the engine.

I waited until the blades had stopped spinning before greeting him myself. After assuring him that the helicopter was fine parked there — my neighbor was away and not expected back for a long while — I led him back to my RV, the “mobile mansion,” with a promise of coffee and breakfast. I gave him my untouched cup, just brewed, and he found room at the table. I started a second cup brewing, made Alex and Penny their eggs, and tidied up the table. Then I got out the bacon and some eggs and made us breakfast while we chatted.

Woody is working with me — well, sort of for me — on my cherry drying contracts. A client with a 90-acre orchard came online on Wednesday and I still have another 40 or so acres under contract throughout the area. If my big client called for a dry, it would take me more than 2 hours to finish his orchard, thus leaving the others to wait. That would not be acceptable to them so it was certainly unacceptable to me. So I put out my feelers and found Woody’s company, based in Arizona and willing to make the trip to Washington for just the 8 days of work I could offer. They managed to get a short contract before starting with me and, if they’re lucky, they’ll get another contract when I release them.

Woody and I took a quick look at the orchards he might be called to dry from the air on Monday. On Tuesday, when he and his companions joined me at a Pot Luck BBQ I hosted for a Meetup group in Walla Walla Point Park, I gave him GoogleMaps-generated location information for each orchard. But this morning, when he woke to cloudy skies, he thought it would be a good idea to scout them again from the air in case he got called today. He was scouting the orchard across the canyon from me when he decided to fly by.

And that’s how he ended up at my dining table, sharing bacon and eggs with fresh-brewed coffee with me at 7 AM.

We chatted through two cups of coffee, then headed out in my truck. I had to go to the property I’m buying in Malaga to fetch a large wooden pallet I’d left there for my bee hives. I decided that the pallet, covered with a rug, would make an excellent “deck” for my poor man’s hot tub. He wanted to see the property, so he came along for the ride. I think he was impressed. (Everyone who has seen the property has been impressed — with one notable exception that’s yet another indication of his poor judgement.)

Back at the mobile mansion, Woody helped me pull some nasty staples out of the wood and position the pallet beside the tub. He told me that he’d seen another hot tub like it at a skydiving place he used to spend a lot of time at. (I knew the idea wasn’t original.)

Penny in a Schweizer
Penny is comfortable in any helicopter.

We talked about going down to the Rocky Reach Dam later in the day with another friend. Something else to kill time. (We’d spent much of the previous day on my boat in the Columbia River.) I had some errands to take care of in Wenatchee — I wanted to experiment with a hive split — so he headed out. I walked him down to his helicopter and posed Penny in his seat for a photo before he climbed on board.

Penny and I moved back as he started up. I videoed his departure, amused that he did the same drop-off maneuver that I usually did when departing my landing zone 100 feet farther up the hill.

Woody’s departure from the hillside landing zone is remarkably like mine: dipping off the side and speeding away.

It was nice to have a friend drop in by helicopter — especially so unplanned. (I love spontaneity and surprises!) But I’ll be honest: it wasn’t the first time.

And I don’t think it will be the last.

The Goat Cherries

Because who can turn down fresh-picked organic cherries?

I went into Quincy today to pick up some mail that had been delivered to my last address. I figured that while I was there, I’d have an early lunch with Ron, the other pilot who works with me on cherry drying contracts, and pick up a few things in storage.

I knew that one of my clients was picking cherries and decided to swing by and see how the picking was going. Last week’s rain had absolutely ruined many crops and although none of my clients had complained, I wanted to see what the situation was without actually asking.

At the orchard, my father and son clients were busy working machinery to move around cherry bins. The dad was using a forklift to stack bins and move them into the shade before loading them into a waiting truck. They run a small operation with just 12 acres of organic bing, lapin, and rainier cherries. The pickers were deep inside the orchard, hard at work while the temperature rose steadily.

The dad took a quick break to let me know that he was happy with the way the crop had turned out. Yes, they’d lost some cherries to splits, but not as many as they could have. A bigger problem was soft cherries. He explained that when they plumped up and then shrank — due to temperature changes, I guess — the cherries sometimes get soft. This had impacted their bings. The packing house didn’t like what they sent the day before so today they told the pickers not to pick any cherries that were soft.

He then offered me some cherries. “Some of the pickers started early this morning before we could tell them not to pick the ones that were soft,” he said. “They’re in a bin over there.” He pointed to a bin of cherries sitting in the shade at the edge of the orchard. “We’re not sending them to the packing house. I was going to give them to my goats, but you can have as many as you want.”

Goat cherries. He was offering me cherries he planned to feed to his goats. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but it was worth a look. How bad could they be? After all, pickers had thought they were worth picking.

I fetched a plastic ammo can I’d gotten as a freebie from Hooked on Toys out of my truck and went to check out the cherries. I agreed that some of them were a tiny bit soft — but none of them were what I would call mushy. Otherwise, they looked very good, with few splits and nice color. I half-filled the container while they got back to work.

Goat Cherries
Goat cherries. Better than anything you can get in a supermarket.

I admit that I worried a little about the cherries sitting in a black container in a hot truck for the three hours it took me to do my errands in Quincy and get back to Wenatchee. Sure enough, the inside of the container was a bit warm when I opened it back up at home. But I filled the sink with the coldest water I could get out of the tap, dumped the cherries in, and topped them off with a lot of ice. I swirled them around and around, washing them in the (literally) ice cold water while they chilled. I picked out the very bad ones and a bunch of leaves. Then I strained them and put them in a big bowl. They looked — and tasted — delicious.

A Hellish Week

Be careful what you wish for.

I’ll admit it: when I’m on contract to dry cherries, I hope for rain.

Yes, I’m in Washington state. But no, it doesn’t usually rain much here. I’m on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. That’s the dry, desert side.

In past years, rain has been light. I could count the number of days I had to fly on the fingers of one hand. Last year, I think I went to the second hand. We had one brutal day when I flew more than 6 hours last year, flying over one orchard after another until every single one under contract had been dried. But there isn’t usually much rain.

And although I do get paid to sit around and wait for the rain — which sometimes requires me to sit around my base all day watching radar — I also get paid to fly. It’s the combination of the two forms of revenue that make the season worthwhile.

So I hope for rain.

This week, however, I got more than I wanted. A lot more.

Day One

It started on Monday. I was still based in Quincy, so when the call came at 4:15 AM, it seemed to make sense for me to get started on the 50-acre orchard north of town. But radar showed activity in the Wenatchee area where I had other orchards under contract. I decided to call my other pilot, Mike, who was two spots down from me in the RV park. If I got called to Wenatchee, he’d have to do all the drying in Quincy.

Of course, I woke him up. But that’s part of the job. Our daily standby pay guarantees that we’ll be ready to fly from first light to last light. In Washington, in the summer, that’s a 17-hour day.

It was a good thing I called Mike because I’d been flying only 20 minutes when the call came to dry my first orchard in Malaga. Mike was enroute to the Quincy orchard when I left, telling him to start where I’d left off: at the first wind machine on the west end moving east.

I dried 26 acres in two orchards in Malaga and Wenatchee Heights. Then I returned to Quincy to dry 32 acres in two orchards there with a refueling in between. Then back to Malaga, Monitor, and Wenatchee Heights — multiple times — to dry a total of 177 acres in five orchards, one of which I dried four times.

It rained all day long, barely stopping long enough for us to get in and fly before the rain started up again.

I say “us” because I wasn’t the only helicopter flying. There was at least a dozen of us — R44s, JetRangers, Hughes/MD 500s, Hillers, and even a big, fat Huey. We were darting all over the place, making position calls on the informal air-to-air frequency, 123.45.

For the most part, pilots were polite and informative to avoid traffic conflicts, but there were exceptions. When one jackass flew 50 feet over the top of me while I was hovering at treetop level in an orchard in Malaga, I slammed him over the radio to make it clear that such behavior simply wouldn’t be tolerated. I don’t know whether he was being dumb or inconsiderate or simply trying to piss off the only female pilot drying cherries this year. But as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I don’t take bullshit from anyone. If I’d met him later in the day at the FBO, I probably would have attempted to break his nose — I was that pissed off.

I finished up long after sunset, when there was barely enough light to get back to my Quincy base. I’d spent 8.5 hours in the air, including all repositioning time. I’d dried a total of 245 acres of cherry trees.

What a day!

Back at my base, Mike’s wife had dinner on the table for me. Mike had spent a lot of the day flying, too, but not nearly as much as me. He’d already eaten but kept me company — and joined me to eat some of the ribs leftover from the day before — while I ate. I was exhausted when I went to bed.

But the forecast hinted that there would be more the next day.

Day 2

Although I really expected to be called out very early in the morning, I didn’t do my first dry until after 7 AM. The calls came in one after the other, evenly spaced apart. 7 acres in Malaga, 19 acres on Wenatchee Heights, 35 acres up Squilchuck Canyon, 35 acres in Monitor, 23 acres in Malaga, 7 acres in Malaga (again), and 35 acres in Monitor (again). Along the way, I refueled twice at Wenatchee Airport. I even had enough time to order, take delivery of, and eat a pizza.

In the meantime, a friend of mine in Quincy called to say that there was a bee swarm in a tree in her yard. She knew I wanted to catch it — that’s why she called me. But I was stuck in the Wenatchee area until there was no chance of rain there. I told her I’d come as soon as I could.

Storms over Wenatchee
For a while, I just sat up at my future home and watched the storms move through Wenatchee.

I got called out to do that 35 acres in Monitor again after lunch. When that was done, it wasn’t clear whether I’d have to do any more drying. I had plenty of fuel on board and I was sick of hanging out at the airport, so I flew up to that lot in Malaga that I plan to buy, landed, shut down, and spent about an hour sitting on the best view spot just watching the world around me. It was very restful.

After about 45 minutes, I figured I was done for the day so I started up again and headed back toward Quincy. I’d gotten as far as the Rock Island dam when my phone rang. It was a client. I made a big, sweeping turn at 110 knots and headed back to dry that 35 acres in Monitor (again).

By the time I was done, it was after 5 PM. Mike had called to let me know that we’d been invited to go out for dinner (and possibly drinks) with another pilot and his grower clients in Quincy. And I still had that bee swarm to catch. And I needed a shower. Desperately.

I headed back to Quincy.

By 7 PM, I’d caught the bee swarm, showered, and was sitting down with new friends in the Moose Lodge (really!) in Quincy WA.

It was 8:30 when a grower in East Wenatchee called me. He was not one of my clients, although I’d tried at least twice to sign him up. He preferred to hang around at the airport and make friends with the pilots so he could convince them to dry his trees off contract. That made it possible for him to avoid paying standby fees. He had apparently been successful doing this for several years.

But that evening, he was in dire straits. It had rained again in Wenatchee and his orchard was soaked. And he couldn’t find any pilot to come — they were all busy drying orchards under contract. (That’s why growers contract with us. Duh.) He seemed to think I might be flying in the area and could squeeze him in. I told him I was in Quincy and done for the night. He hinted that he might want to get on contract with me. I told him I was already at capacity for both of my ships. I told him that if he’d contacted me earlier, I might have been able to add another ship and pilot and cover him under contract. I told him it was too late to launch from Quincy anyway. (For the record, I would have launched right up until 8:45 for a client under contract; sunset was about 9 PM that night.)

When I hung up, I felt bad for him, but also kind of glad that he was being taught a valuable lesson. But I discovered that he found another pilot to dry for him after all — probably first thing in the morning. (Some of the pilots need to be taught a lesson, too.)

Total for the day: 196 acres, 5.7 hours of flight time.

Day 3

I was awake the next morning at 3:51 AM when I got a text from one of my clients telling me to dry all four of his orchards in the Wenatchee area. It had rained overnight and he needed them dry before the sun hit them.

Morning Dry
I used GPS track on my phone to show exactly where I flew on Wednesday morning. I started in Quincy, went to Monitor, then Malaga, then Wenatchee Height. Then I refueled at the airport, dried an orchard up Squilchuck Canyon, and returned direct to Quincy. 112 total miles.

I texted him back and told him I’d be at the first orchard at 4:45 AM. Of course, I was still in bed when I texted this. And the orchard was 30 nautical miles away — the farthest one. And it was still dark out.

I got up, made coffee in a travel mug, and pulled on my flight suit while Penny was out doing her business. Then I lifted Penny back into her bed, pulled the cover off Alex the Bird, grabbed my coffee, and headed out.

I preflighted with a flashlight and had the engine running by the time the horizon became clear. I took off and flew a semi-direct course. I was hovering over the first row of rainier cherry trees on the east side of the orchard at exactly 4:45. That simply amazed me.

Nice sunrise, too. A thin layer of stratus clouds kept the area shaded but glowed pink as the sun rose.

I was over the second orchard when I called Mike to let him know I was flying already. He flew later that morning in Quincy.

Maria and Penny
Cheryl snapped this photo of me in my flight suit with Penny shortly after my return from flying.

It was a quiet day — just the four orchards totaling 96 acres. I was done before 9 AM and after refueling, went back to Quincy. I spent the rest of the day packing my my RV in preparation for moving it to Wenatchee Heights for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, my next door neighbor had parked in such a way that I couldn’t hook up my pickup truck to the trailer. So I had to wait until 5:30 to leave. It was mostly sunny most of the day in Quincy and kind of hot and humid. I ran the air conditioning for a while.

At 6 PM, Mike, his wife Cheryl, and I headed to Wenatchee Heights. Mike was driving my truck and trailer. Cheryl was driving my Jeep towing my boat. (Mike and his replacement guy Ron are using the Jeep while they’re working for me.) And I flew up in the helicopter. I beat them there (of course) and was visited by neighbors I hadn’t seen since the previous season. Then they arrived and we parked the trailers. They drove off in the Jeep and I started settling in.

I left in the truck at 8 PM to go back to Quincy and pick up the things I’d left behind: my kayak, my Traeger grill, some nice wood palettes I’d been collecting, and my captured bee swarm, which had been flying around its temporary home all day. I’d gotten as far as Rock Island by 8:20 when my phone rang. Could I dry that orchard up on Wenatchee Heights?

If I’d been at my base — where technically, I should have been while on standby — the answer was yes. So even though I had to drive 20 minutes to get back to the helicopter and that would make it very late indeed, the answer was still yes. I turned around and drove, calling Mike along the way to let him know I wouldn’t make it there that night.

At 9 PM, right around sunset, I was hovering over the last 19 acres I’d dry that day. I was on the ground at my new base, only 2-1/2 miles away, by 9:30 PM.

Total for the day: only 115 acres in 3.6 hours, at least 1 hour of which was (non-billable) repositioning time.

Day 4

By Wednesday night, I thought the drying flights were over. There was a very slight chance of rain the next day — only 20% — when I went to bed. After years of watching weather here, I can tell you that 20% is barely worth thinking about.

So imagine my surprise when I got a call at 4:54 AM from a grower telling me that it was raining in Monitor and he’d likely need me when it stopped.

I got out of bed, made my coffee, took care of my critters, and suited up. The call to dry came at 5:45 AM from a different grower in Malaga. And that’s when the fun began.

Orchard in the Clouds
For a while, the orchard I was waiting to dry had a cloud sitting right on it.

For the next few hours, I dried six different orchards — two of them twice — stopping only to wait out another rain storm and to refuel. It got intense for a while: while I was drying the third orchard, I had my next two orchards lined up and waiting for me. But everyone stayed calm, including me, and it got done timely. Indeed, after finishing all my orchards at around 11:30 AM, I saw other pilots heading out to start drying other ones near mine.

I waited at my base in Wenatchee Heights for rainstorm to pass through the area. This nosecam video clip shows my minute-long “commute” from my base to the orchard I dried across Squilchuck Canyon. There were lots of low clouds that morning.

Total 162 acres in 4 hours of flight time.

I was finally able to retrieve my possessions (including bees) in Quincy that evening.

Enough Already!

You know what they say: be careful what you wish for. This past week was a real lesson in that.

All cherry drying pilots want it to rain. Rain = money. But how many of us want it to rain this much?

I certainly don’t.

There comes a point where there’s so much rain that helicopters simply can’t keep the cherries dry enough to prevent splitting. I’ve heard loss numbers ranging from 10% to 50% in orchards that do have helicopters on contract. (This is better than another grower I’m in touch with who doesn’t use helicopters and had 60% splits; he’s not picking at all.) I’d also heard that loss rates were so bad in Mattawa (south of me) that growers gave up and stopped calling helicopters to dry. That doesn’t do us any good at all.

And while it’s nice to be able to send out invoices, I admit that I felt bad for my clients when I sent out the ones for this week. When you have a 35 acre orchard that needs to be dried multiple times in a day multiple times in a week, the costs climb quickly. Yes, that’s revenue for me. But it’s also a huge cost for the grower. While my services will make the difference between a crop that can be picked and sold and one that’ll rot on the trees, it must be painful for them to face such large bills.

But most of all was the sheer exhaustion I felt after hours of hovering at treetop level over fruit trees — especially the ones in orchards planted in steep terrain with numerous obstacles to avoid. It’s tedious, dangerous work. Three helicopters were lost so far this season: a JetRanger went down in bird netting near Royal City, a 500 had a wire strike that took it down, and an R44 had a wire strike that I’m still waiting to learn more about.

I can’t argue the profitability of a rain-filled week. I dried a total of 718 acres of cherry trees with 21.8 hours of flight time. I billed accordingly.

And I still have 6 weeks left in my cherry drying season.

This hail fell in Prosser, WA this morning. So glad it didn’t fall anywhere near my helicopter.

Right now, it’s cloudy outside, with thunderstorms rolling through the area. Ron dried an orchard in Quincy 1-1/2 times. (It started raining when he was half finished so he waited it out and restarted.) I’ve been watching severe storms moving northeast through the area mostly east of me. A severe storm passed over Lake Chelan at Manson near where my friend Jim is based with his helicopter. One of my growers sent me a photo of hail the size of…well, the size of cherries… that fell in the Prosser area. Hail like this can destroy a helicopter, so I’ll be covering mine up in case any storms like that pass through here.

Will I fly today? Who knows? In all honesty, I hope I don’t.

I’d like a rest — and I’m sure my clients would, too.

Postscript, 30-June-2013

Two things I’d like to mention.

Nick Henderson put this video of his cherry drying work on YouTube. Check it out.

First, I wound up flying another 5 hours on Saturday, drying a total of 208 acres. The rain came down fast and furious, with thunderstorms rolling through and flash flood warnings for Wenatchee. More than an inch of rain fell near where I’m based.

Second, fellow cherry drying pilot Nick Henderson put together this little video of his cherry drying work this week if you want to see what it looks like from the pilot’s point of view.

Today (Sunday) is a beautiful clear day — perfect for a well-deserved day off!

Watching the Weather

It’s that time of year again.

I’m deep into my sixth season in central Washington State, working as a cherry drying pilot.

It’s an interesting gig. I need to be available to fly at a moment’s notice on any day that it rains. But if it doesn’t rain, I don’t work. And if there’s no chance of rain, I can argue that I have the day off.

So my life revolves around the weather.

Current radar shows a storm system to the southwest heading my way. If it doesn’t dissipate, I expect it to arrive within 2 hours.

7-Day Forecast
There’s rain in the forecast for the next three days.

Hourly Forecast
The hourly forecast shows a 32% chance of rain now rising to a 47% chance at 5 PM.

I start every day with a look at the current radar on the Radar US app on my iPad or iPhone — and yes, both are nearby, even when I’m in bed. If there’s any rain in the area, I put the radar in motion to see which way it’s going. Then I look at the week’s forecast on the National Weather Service website. If there’s any chance of rain for the day there, I look at the hourly forecast to get an idea of when the rain is expected.

The screenshots here from my iPad gives you an idea of what all of these sources look like right now.

I tentatively plan my day based on this weather information. On a day like today, I won’t wander far from base. There’s a decent chance of rain and a look outside shows me the cloudy day that proves it. Although I won’t get called until it starts raining (or finishes), it could start at any time. So I’ll spend most of the day watching the radar and looking outside, waiting for my phone to ring.

On some days — Thursday comes to mind — it might rain all day. Although it seems like I should be flying all day I only fly when I’m called to fly. My clients don’t want me to fly more than I have to — after all, it costs them money when I fly — so they try hard to wait until they think it’s done raining to call me out. That’s what most of them did on Thursday. They let their cherry trees get and stay wet all day. Then at about 5 PM, my phone started ringing. 12 acres here, 40 acres there. I’d shut down and had even tied down the rotor blades for the night when I got another call at 8:20 PM with a request. I didn’t want to go — I don’t dry after dark — but the sun doesn’t set here until about 9 PM and even though the sun wasn’t out, I thought I’d have enough light to do another 34 acres 20 miles away. So I untied the blades and took off. While I was drying that orchard, a call to dry another 7 acres nearby came in. It was nearly dark when I finished that one, climbed to altitude to avoid wires and other obstacles, and headed back to base. I was on the ground at 9:40 PM — a lot later than I wanted to finish my flying day. But I did have happy clients.

Growers were likely able to get away with the long wet day on Thursday because it was so cool out. But I clearly remember a similar day last year when it rained all day long. Although one of my growers had me come out to “dry” several times during the day, another decided to wait until the end of the day. Guess which grower had split cherries the next day? It was a lot warmer that day and the guy who waited until the end of the day paid for his hesitation with a damaged crop. Unfortunately, he blamed me. I know better, but you just can’t argue with some people. I wasn’t too disappointed to lose that contract for this year. I don’t like taking the blame for someone else’s actions — or lack of actions.

But it makes me wonder: if they’re paying me to stand by and come quickly when called, why don’t they call?

Let’s do the math. A typical cherry orchard can bring in 8 to 15 tons of cherries per acre. If we use a conservative 10 tons (which was very reasonable last year, given the heavy set), each acre of trees yields 20,000 pounds of cherries. I can dry about 40 acres of trees for less than $1000. 40 acres is about 800,000 pounds of cherries. If the grower gets $1/pound for those cherries, that’s $800,000. Is it worth $1000 to protect that? I think so.

Keep in mind that if more than 50% of the cherries split or rot, the crop won’t be worth picking at all.

But hey — it’s their decision. I just watch the weather and fly when I’m called.

Of course, when there’s no chance of rain, I kinda sorta have the day off. I’ll wander farther afield — perhaps to Wenatchee or Leavenworth or even Chelan — keeping an eye on the sky and the radar. I’ll run errands, do chores, visit friends, shop, and eat out. Maybe I’ll take out the kayak on Quincy Lakes or my little jet boat on the Columbia River. The whole time I’m out, I’ll be thinking about the weather, watching the weather, being aware of how long it would take me to get back to base if the weather changes.

Traveling farther from base — for example, to Seattle or Portland — is completely out of the question unless another pilot stays behind to back me up. Right now I have one backup pilot and enough work for both of us. Later I’ll have another and enough work for all three of us. So traveling is not in my immediate future.

My life will go on like this until the end of my last contract, on or around August 15.

Smoking Ribs
I really do love my new Traeger. If you could only smell them…

I’m not complaining — not at all. Hanging around Quincy and, later, Wenatchee Heights, is not something a reasonable person can complain about. After all, I’ve got all the comforts of home — more, actually, because it isn’t 110°F outside — in my Mobile Mansion. And even now, as I type this, I’ve got 3 racks of St. Louis ribs on my new Traeger grill, smoking away.

With luck, we’ll get a chance to enjoy them fresh and hot before the rain comes.

Frost Control

I get a job but no experience.

In February, I got my first contract for a frost-control job in the Sacramento Valley of California. It was a 60-day contract and it only recently ended.

Frost control work is similar to cherry drying, but the contract — at least my contract — was very different. And this year, it offered no opportunity to fly and very little profit.

The Goal

Almond Trees in Full Bloom
These almond trees in one of my orchards are in full bloom. As you can see, they’re quite beautiful — especially when you see hundreds of acres of them. The contract starts right around this time.

The goal of frost control flying is to grab the warm air above the orchard in thermal inversion situations and suck it down into the trees. My client tells me that you can only do this for about 3 hours before the warm air is depleted.

As the almonds (or walnuts, if you’re doing them) are forming, they’re gelatinous and very susceptible to damage from frost. Each degree below 30° can knock off a significant percentage of the crop. This is serious business — serious enough to have enough helicopters on hand to protect the developing nuts.

My client hired 17 helicopters of various makes and models to protect its orchards this season. I was just one of them, positioned in Woodland, CA.

About the Flying

Like cherry drying, which I’ve done every summer for the past five seasons and hope to do again this summer (if I ever get out of Arizona), frost requires you to fly low-level over trees. But there are a few major differences:

  • Frost control flying is usually done at night. This means flying in the dark, although a flight could last until just after dawn. Let’s face it: cold weather comes at night, with the coldest weather just before dawn. (More on that in a moment.)
  • Frost control flying is usually done higher than cherry drying. My client told me approximately where he wanted me to fly, but also said that I needed to check my outside air temperature (OAT) gauge to make sure I was in the warmer air above the trees. This means anywhere from 20 to 50 feet off the ground.
  • Frost control flying is usually done faster than cherry drying. Again, my client advised me to operate at a speed of about 20 to 30 miles per hour. That’s right at ETL in my ship, which would make for an interesting flight. (I can’t remember any prolonged flying right at ETL.)

And if you’re a helicopter pilot, you probably realize that this altitude and airspeed combination still puts the aircraft right, smack dab in the middle of the deadman’s curve.

Flying in the Dark

But flying in the deadman’s curve doesn’t really bother me. I’m used to it. What does bother me, however, is flying in the dark.

Note that I didn’t say flying at night. I said flying in the dark. There’s a difference.

First of all, you need to understand that these orchards are in farm country. Some of them are huge, stretching across a section (square mile) of land. The only things in the orchard are usually the trees. Trees don’t need lights at night so there aren’t any. So the orchards are naturally dark at night.

When there’s any kind of moon, it really isn’t that dark. In fact, when the trees are in bloom and there’s a moon, you can see the trees from quite a distance up. It’s actually quite beautiful when there’s enough moonlight to see them.

But when there’s no moon — which is basically more than half the month (considering that flight is normally conducted between the hours of 3 AM to 7 AM) — everything is dark. Pitch black dark. And that’s where the real challenge is.

You see, the entire area is criss-crossed with power lines — the big “Bonnevilles” and smaller lines going to homes and shops. If you’re lucky enough to not have wires in your orchards — which I was — you still have to worry about the wires on the way to your orchard. So you’re flying at least 500 feet up to avoid the possibility of hitting wires.

You use a GPS to get to your orchard. When you think you’re right over it, you look down and, if there’s no moon, you don’t see anything except a black hole. You wonder whether the coordinates are for the center of the orchard or one corner. If a corner, which one? And how close are you really to those coordinates? You’re wondering this while you’re flying over the orchard, knowing you have to get way down there, just over the trees that you can’t see, and knowing that if you’re not where you think you might be, you could also be over or near wires you can’t see and you might descend down into them.

Even if you know exactly where you are, you can’t simply descend straight down into the orchard from 500 feet above it. Doing so would put you in serious risk of settling with power. So you have to spiral down into it, making sure that you’re remaining clear of wires that could be in the area. With luck, you’ll see the trees before you hit them.

My Test Runs

Before actually flying a mission, a friend and I went out on a test run with me at the controls. We looked for one of my orchards that I knew had wires along one edge, Bonnevilles nearby, and a huge unlighted windmill less than a mile away. I went to the coordinates and looked down. There was moonlight and I thought I could see a patch of trees. I began my spiraling descent and doubt creeped into my mind. Were those trees? The shape wasn’t right. I realized that I was looking at a small lake near the orchard and couldn’t remember where it was in relation to the orchard. I realized that the windmill was near the lake. Knowing that I wasn’t where I thought I was, I aborted the descent. My friend was with me on that decision.

We tried my other orchard, which had a more regular shape. I got into position over it and began my descent. I could see the flowers on the trees in the moonlight. But when I got within 100 feet of them, my landing light flashed on wires where I didn’t think there were any. Was I over the right orchard? If I wasn’t, I had no idea where wires could be. Again, I aborted the descent.

I was seriously concerned about my ability to get the job done. My friend was even worse, suggesting that it wasn’t possible without lighting from the ground. When I pointed out that other pilots had been doing it for years, he couldn’t argue.

Trail Tracker for iPad
One of my orchards consisted of four separate irregularly shaped fields. There were wires along the northeast side, running to the house. Note the ponds to the south; the windmill is southwest of the orchard, out of the image.

The next day, I downloaded an app called Trail Tracker for my iPad. This app creates a track log as you travel. I drove out to each of the orchards, turned the app on, and drove around the entire orchard. This created a blue track line that surrounded the orchard.

Later that day, I hopped into the helicopter with the iPad mounted in it stand. I then flew out to the orchards, one at a time, with the tracking software displaying the orchard’s outline. A GPS marker indicated my position on the map, although there was a bit of a time lag. I was able to see on the iPad where I was in relation to the orchard.

The next night, we went out again. This time, my friend flew his helicopter and I was a passenger. We flew out to my odd-shaped orchard first and were able to successfully descend down over the trees while knowing exactly where we were in the dark. While we were in flight, I also noted nearby lights that would give me visual references at night — the farmhouse on the east side was a good source of light and there was another at a shop up the road to the orchard (not shown in this image). We also flew all the way up to Williams to check out my friend’s orchards. We were able to find them and descend over the trees. He made a note of lights in the area, too.

So by approaching it with more information, we were able to get a bit more comfortable about the task we’d be called to perform.

But did I like it? Hell no! As I told another friend after I returned home the next day, this would be some of the most dangerous flying I’d ever do. I was not looking forward to it at all.

About My Contract

Unfortunately, my frost control contract was very different from a cherry drying contract. Although the helicopter was required to be onsite for the duration of the contract, I was not. I could go on with the day-to-day living of my life with two exceptions:

  • I couldn’t fly my helicopter because it was positioned in California. This made it impossible to accept flying jobs anywhere else. And since I didn’t advertise my availability where the helicopter was based in California, I didn’t book any flying work for the duration of the contract.
  • I could be called at any time to get on active standby. Once called, I’d pretty much have to drop everything and head out to California to prep the helicopter and wait until I was launched.

Because I wasn’t required to be with the helicopter, the standby money was considerably less than I’d get with a cherry drying contract. Like 25% of that amount. Ouch. I actually couldn’t afford to stay with the helicopter. My living expenses would be too high.

The contract did, however, provide additional revenue when I was called out and when I was on active standby. I was called out for two consecutive days. The callout and standby fees easily covered the cost of hopping on a Southwest Airlines flight from Phoenix to Sacramento and hanging around for two days.

But the temperatures never got low enough to launch me. I was there with the helicopter, the helicopter was fueled and ready to fly, but I didn’t need to fly.

That was early in the contract. I wasn’t called out again.

Later, my client told me that it was the warmest spring he’d ever been through.

Devore Aviation Lights
Devore Aviation’s Forward Facing Recognition Floodlight System consists of LED lights mounted on the two front skid legs. The lights and installation were very costly, but I might get some use out of them during cherry season.

In all, it was a break-even gig for me. The standby money covered the cost of getting special lights installed on the helicopter and repositioning the helicopter to California and back to base. The callout and standby fees covered my living expenses for the few days I was in Woodland with the helicopter.

Would I Do It Again?

In all honesty, I’m not sure I’d do this again.

I certainly would not do it again with the same contract in place. I’d much prefer a contract more similar to a cherry drying contract with higher standby fees, even if the contract required me to stay in Woodland for the entire contract term. Woodland is a nice little farm town very close to Sacramento and not far from Sonoma Valley; I think I’d really enjoy spending two months there — especially with the days free to do what I like.

But it really all depends upon the demand for my services in the Wenatchee area, where I’ll be living as soon as I can get out of Arizona. While cherry drying season doesn’t usually start for me until June, I might be able to get other flying work if I were in Washington with the aircraft before then.

It’s a decision I’ll have to make next year.