Cherry Drying: My Sixth Season

The whole season in summary.

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

What Cherry Drying is All About

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

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

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

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

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

The Flying M Air Team

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Clients, New Orchards

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

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

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

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

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

Busy, Busy!

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t happy about it.

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

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

Early, Compressed Season

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

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

Late Season Rain

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

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

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

That’s It In a Nutshell

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

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

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

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

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.