An Insider’s Look at Helicopter Spray Operations

Fascinating work with a lot of very specialized equipment.

My friend Sean runs a helicopter spraying operation. (You might know about this kind of work by another name: crop dusting.) The business is highly regulated not only by the FAA to ensure that operators and pilots have the skills and knowledge to do the work safely from an aviation perspective, but also by state and local agencies concerned with the safety of the chemicals being sprayed. It also requires a ton of very costly specialized equipment, from spray rigs that are semi-permanently installed on the helicopter to navigation equipment that helps the pilot ensure chemicals are spread evenly over crops to mixing and loading equipment to get the chemicals into the helicopter’s spray tanks.

Sean's Helicopter with Spray Gear
Sean’s helicopter with spray gear. He was running rinse water through the system on the ground here.

A lot of people have asked me why I don’t go into this business. Although I’d love to fly spray jobs, I have absolutely no desire to invest in the required equipment, start selling spray services to potential clients, or deal with the government agencies that need to get involved for each job. Or have employees again.

Sean is just getting his business off the ground (no pun intended) after over a year of spending money on equipment and jumping through hoops with the FAA. While I wouldn’t say he’s struggling, he’s certainly motivated to complete contracts and collect revenue. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of work a pilot can do cost effectively without help. He needs at least one person on the ground to mix and load chemicals, refuel the helicopter, and keep the landing zone secure.

Sean was having trouble finding someone to do the job. It’s not because he isn’t paying — I think he’s paying pretty good. Trouble is, a lot of folks either (1) don’t want a job that doesn’t guarantee a certain number of hours a week or (2) don’t like physical labor. Because the job depends on when there’s a contract to fulfill and what the weather is like when the job needs doing, hours are irregular. And it is tough physical work.

Spray Gal
Here I am in my coveralls, hamming it up for a selfie between loads.

I know because I stepped up to the plate to help him with his first two big jobs. I thought I’d spend a bit of time talking about this work from the loader’s point of view.

The Job

The pilot’s responsibilities are to spread the loaded chemicals over the crops to be sprayed using the tools in and on the helicopter. I can’t speak much about that because I haven’t flown a spraying mission. I can tell you that in a light helicopter like the R44, the pilot is doing a lot of very short runs — sometimes only a few minutes — and is often spending more time getting to and from the spray area than actually applying the spray. For that reason, the landing/loading area needs to be as close to the crops as possible — usually somewhere on the same property. The pilot is taking off near max gross weight for most flights and landing relatively light. And there are a lot of take offs and set downs. As I told Sean the other day, doing spray runs is a lot like doing hop rides at fairs and airport events — you just don’t need to talk to your passengers.

The loader’s responsibilities — well, that’s something I can address since I’ve been wearing that hat for the past two weeks.

When the pilot is warming up the aircraft for the first flight of the day, the loader is mixing the first batch of chemicals. Sean’s current setup includes a mix trailer that holds 1600 gallons of fresh water, a Honda pump, a mix vat, and a dry mix box. With the pump running, I turn valves to add 50 gallons of water to the vat, which is constantly mixing. Then I add about 4-6 capfuls of an anti-foam agent (which is not HazMat) to the vat, followed by a specific amount of chemical provided in 32-ounce bottles.

Mix trailer
Sean’s mix trailer onsite at an orchard near Woodland, CA. This is the “business end.” The mix vat is on the left.

Luna Sensation
This is how the chemical we’re using is shipped: in 32-ounce bottles.

The chemical we’ve been using is a “broad spectrum fungicide for control of plant diseases” made by Bayer (yes, the aspirin people). It is highly regulated and must be kept under lock and key when not in use. It looks a lot like Milk of Magnesia, which was a constipation remedy my grandmother gave us when I was growing up. It doesn’t smell as good, though. (And I’m certainly not going to taste it.) If you’re not familiar with that, think of an off-white Pepto Bismol. We’re spraying this stuff on almond trees and there’s a definite deadline to getting it done.

Here’s where some math comes in. The guy who wrote up the specs for our client’s orchard wants 6.5 ounces of the stuff applied per acre. The helicopter can take 50 gallons of chemical mix at a time. That 50 gallons covers 2.5 acres. So how much do I need to put into the vat for each 50 gallon load? 6.5 x 2.5 = 16.25. Round that down to the nearest whole number for 16. This is an easy mix because the chemical comes in 32 ounce bottles and there are measuring tick marks on the bottle at 8, 16, and 24 ounces. That makes it easy to add half a bottle and get it right. But if it didn’t work out so smoothly, we could use a big measuring cup Sean has to get the right amount.

So I add the chemical and the mixer mixes it up. If I’ve finished the bottle, I need to rinse it, which I do by dipping it in the mixer and then swishing it around a few times before dumping it into the mix. Then I put the empty bottle away in a box; even the empties are accounted for at the end of a job.

As you might imagine, I’m wearing protective gear: rubber gloves and coveralls. This particular chemical isn’t very nasty and I’m not likely to breathe it so I don’t need to wear a respirator or anything like that. (If I did, I probably wouldn’t be helping out.)

All this tank filling and mixing takes me less than 2 minutes.

I timed one of our cycles. Lap 1 was skids down to skids up: my loading work. Lap 2 was skids up to skids down: Sean’s flight. Less than 4 minutes for a cycle.

When Sean is ready for chemical, I turn the valves on the trailer’s mix system to direct mixed chemical into a thick long hose with a specialized fitting at the end. I bring the fitting over to the helicopter, drop down to my knees (which is why I also wear knee pads), and mate the hose fitting to a fitting on the helicopter’s tank. I then turn a valve on the hose fitting to get the mix flowing into the helicopter. I watch the mix vat the whole time and turn the valve off when it gets near the bottom so I don’t run it dry. Then I get back up and use a pull cord on a pump on the same side of the helicopter to start up his pumping system. When that’s running, I give Sean a thumbs up and head back to the trailer, gently resting the hose fitting on the hose along the way.

I timed this once and it took just over a minute, but that’s because it took two tries to get the helicopter’s pump going.

Sean lifts off immediately — often while I’m still walking away — and I get back to work mixing the next batch. When I’m done with that, I wait until Sean returns. It’s usually less than 4 minutes. Then I’m turning valves on the trailer quickly, sometimes before he even touches down. My goal is to minimize load time so he can take off again quickly.

Here’s Sean coming in for a landing beside the trailer. And yes, his approach route for a while was under a set of wires. (The rest of the time, he was departing under them.)

I usually leave the pump on the whole time I’m in the loading area, although if Sean’s work area is more than a minute or two from the landing zone, I sometimes shut it off. I wear ear plugs or earbuds so I can listen to music while I work. I keep a radio in my pocket so I can hear Sean if he calls for something or warn him if there’s a problem with the landing zone.

Beyond Mixing/Loading

Every six or seven runs, Sean needs fuel. He often radios ahead, but if he doesn’t or if I don’t hear the radio, I can tell he needs fuel because he throttles down to idle RPM (65%) after landing or makes a hand signal. In that case, I’ll fill the chemical first and return the hose to its resting position, then turn on the fuel pump on his truck, and walk the hose over to the passenger side of the helicopter. Sean said fueling is usually done by walking around the back, but no one can pay me enough money to walk between a helicopter’s exhaust pipe and tail rotor while it’s running. So I walk around the front, dragging the hose under the spray gear to get into position. Then I pump fuel until he gives me a signal to stop. It seems to me that he’s half filling the main tank each time — that’s about 14 gallons less whatever he already has in there.

When I’m done, I cap the tank, carefully walk the hose around the front of the helicopter to the truck, and then go back to start that pesky helicopter pump. Thumbs up and he takes off. I usually remember to turn the fuel pump off. Then I mix another batch of chemical so I’m ready when he returns.

Occasionally his pump or mine needs fuel. He uses helicopter fuel — it’s just 100LL AvGas — for both pumps. He keeps a jug of it at the mix trailer. I do the fueling.

Keeping the landing zone secure is pretty easy. On our last job, we were in a nice concrete loading area for a hay operation. Trucks did come and go, but in most cases, they saw Sean landing or sitting in the landing zone and waited until he was safely on the ground or had departed. Twice I tried to signal trucks to stop when I saw him coming in but they didn’t — both times they didn’t see the signal until it was too late and Sean aborted the landing. In our current landing zone, which is a dirt patch at the edge of the orchard, there’s a truck that comes and goes to haul out dead trees cut into firewood; the driver of that rig seems to pay attention and stops when I signal him.

Getting Physical

The job is extremely physical. All day long I’m walking around the trailer, truck, and helicopter; climbing up and down on the trailer’s mix station and truck bed; and hauling heavy hoses, fuel jugs, and cartons of chemical. And dropping to my knees (and then getting up) when I load the helicopter. And don’t even get me started with the pull cord on the helicopter’s pump, which I apparently pull too hard half the time.

I move at a quick pace, but I don’t run. Running is dangerous. Too easy to trip on a hose or a skid. Too many very hard things to crack your skull on if you fall. Anyone who runs while doing this job is an idiot.

But it can’t be too physical, right? After all, I’m a 55-year-old woman and I’m not in the best of shape. And I’m doing it all — although I’m exhausted at the end of the day.

Hours and Break Time

The job is weather dependent. We can’t work if it’s raining or likely to rain. We can’t work when the wind is more than 7 or 8 knots. We didn’t work Sunday because it was raining on and off all day and very windy.

But when we can work, we start early. We’re typically at the landing zone about an hour before dawn. Usually, Sean gets there first since he has more to do to get ready. He fills his truck’s fuel transfer tank with 100LL from the local airport. That can take 20-30 minutes. Then he comes back to the landing zone and, if the water tank is less than half full, he hooks it up to his truck and drags it to his water source and fills it. That’s another 20-30 minutes. Then he brings it back to the landing zone and positions it based on the wind direction, slipping 4×4 pieces of wood under the trucks rear wheels to bring the front end of the trailer up.

By that time it’s nearly dawn and I’ve arrived. I prep my work station by setting out chemical and anti-foam bottles in the trays on one side of the trailer and boxes for the empty bottles on the other. I suit up in the coveralls and get my knee pads on. While he’s preflighting the helicopter, I’m mixing the first batch of chemicals so I can load as soon as he starts up.

We work pretty much nonstop until we’re out of water. More math: If the trailer’s tank holds 1600 gallons and we’re using 50 gallons per load, we can do roughly 32 loads (1600 ÷ 50) before we’re completely out of water. That’s two 8-bottle cases of chemical. It’s also 80 acres. If you figure an average of 6 minutes per spray run/loading cycle, that’s about 3-1/4 hours.

When we’re out of water, I get my break because Sean has to fetch fuel and water using his truck. There’s nothing too difficult about doing any of it, but since I can really use a break after working that hard for that long, I won’t volunteer to do it. Instead, I strip off my protective gear, wash my hands (if I can), and take Penny for a walk. (She waits in the truck while I’m working.) Or sometimes I run out and get a bite to eat. Or eat a snack I’ve brought with me. That break lasts about an hour. Then it’s back to work all over again for another 3+ hours.

At the end of the day, we run three rinse cycles through all the equipment. I “mix” batches with just water. The first one usually includes some anti-foam stuff because the foam really gets out of hand if I don’t. The second two are straight water. I purposely overfill the mix tank on the third run to make sure the water gets all the way up the sides. Each load gets pumped into the helicopter and sprayed out to clean the spray rig.

The most difficult thing I did on Saturday was to get this container open so I could lock up two cases of chemical.

Then we wind up the hoses, secure the helicopter — or bring it back to base if Sean is near his hangar — lock up any unused chemicals and empty bottles, and call it a night. By that time, it is night; we often do the rinse cycles in the dark. I bring a lantern so I can see.

It’s long day. A very long day. I’ll start at 6 and finish by 7 with two hour-long breaks in the middle of the day. That’s 11 hours of active work.

On Saturday, we worked for most of the day. Yesterday was Sunday and we would have worked all day if the weather was right. There are no “weekends” in this line of work.

So yeah: this job wouldn’t be very attractive to someone who prefers to sit on his ass all day.

But I’m getting a great workout. I know I am because every single muscle in my body was screaming at me this morning when I got out of bed. No pain, no gain, right?


Why I’m Doing It

Although Sean is paying me for this work and the pay isn’t bad, I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for two reasons:

  • Sean is a friend and he really needs to get this business off the ground. Without a helper, he’d have to mix and load by himself. He’d likely only get a fraction of the acreage done each day. The first orchard I helped him with was 1,000 acres and he did have another part time helper. This one is about 500 acres and there is no other helper. It would take him well over a week to do it by himself. Together, we’ll knock it off in less than 4 days.
  • I have a natural curiosity about how things work. The best way to learn about something is hands on. I know a lot more about the spray business now than I did two weeks ago and that’s a real motivator for me.

We’re down in Turlock, CA for this job. It’s 100 miles from Sean’s base near Woodland, which is also where I’m camped out for the next few weeks. Although I wanted very much to bring my camper down here with me and live in the orchard, Sean needed me to tow the mix trailer while he towed his helicopter.

Spray Gear
Here we are on Friday morning, just before dawn, ready to head down to Turlock with the mix trailer behind my truck and helicopter trailer behind Sean’s.

I’m very glad I let him have his way. We’re staying in very comfortable rooms at what’s probably the nicest Best Western I’ve ever stayed in. After months of mostly living in my camper, I admit that it’s nice to have a good, long, hot shower every day. So that’s a bonus.

And isn’t that what life is all about? Doing different things? Seeing different things? Experiencing different things?

That’s what it’s all about for me.

But I admit that I do hope Sean finds a new helper for his next job. I’m not staying in California much longer and I’m ready to hang up my spray loader cap.

Just because You Went to College Doesn’t Mean You’re Entitled to a Job

The Occupy movement and jobs.

My friend Jim called from Washington state today. He was driving through on his way to Chelan from where he lives in Coeur d’Alene, ID. He passed the town I spent three months in this summer, thought of me, and called.

Jim has some very definite political opinions, some of which I agree with, others of which I don’t. We can speak civilly about politics but I often pull the plug when I get bored with the discussion. After all, I’ll never change his mind and he’ll never change mine.

We talked about a bunch of things and then our conversation turned to the Occupy Wall Street movement. He described a video he’d seen that showed two men at an Occupy camp with a table set up to help connect protesters to employers. What struck him was one of the protesters saying “I can’t do that” for many of the jobs listed. She seemed to imply that those jobs were beneath her.

I tracked down the video and watched it. Watch it for yourself:

Now I’m not naive enough to think that creative editing wasn’t involved here. Maybe they edited out a lot of the more positive responses from protesters. And yes, the whole thing could be fake.

But although I do think that creative editing might have emphasized a certain message, I don’t think it’s fake. And I do think there are a lot of unemployed young people out there — possibly many camped out as Occupy protesters — who think that the jobs available to them are beneath them.

And that’s the subject of this post: the feeling of entitlement among recent college graduates.

My Ancient History

I graduated college nearly thirty years ago. I had a degree with “highest honors” (I wrote an honors paper) in Accounting and was a member of the Accounting Honor’s Society at Hofstra University, which was then one of the big private universities for business. You’d think I’d have no trouble getting a job. But like everyone else, I went through the stressful process of interviewing on campus. I had six interviews and got one offer.

I took it.

It didn’t matter to me that I was making $14,097 — 25% less than a lot of my friends who had the same degree from the same college. It didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t working at one of the (then) Big Eight accounting firms. The only thing that mattered was that I had a job that would pay my rent and keep me fed. I assumed (rightly, it turned out) that if I worked hard and did my job the best I could, I’d get raises and promotions and work my way up.

Two years later, at age 22, I became a supervisor. Everyone who worked under me was older than me.

My raises averaged 10% to 15% a year.

After five years, I realized that the only way to move up was either for someone to die or retire or for me to move out. So I went to another company. And I worked my way up in that company, too.

At 28, I was earning more annually than my father had ever earned annually in his life.

Then I decided I didn’t want to be a number cruncher. I wanted to be a writer. So at age 29, I engineered a career change. After two rough years, my income recovered; after five years, I was doing very well. But I worked my ass off to get there.

At age 40, I engineered another career change — this time to be the owner of a helicopter charter business. But because of the cost and financial risk involved, I didn’t let go of that second career. Instead, I juggled two jobs — and I continue to do so to this very day.

Point: When I was a kid, I was taught that to get ahead in life, you had to work hard. I also later learned that you had to work smart. And guess what? It works.


It seems to me — not just from this video, but from the bits and pieces of what I hear young people say — that they think that just because they spent 4 or 5 years and countless thousands of dollars to go to college, they’re entitled to get a job when they graduate.


As if the world will step back and open up thousands of job opportunities a year just for them.

But its not just any job that they want. They want a cushy job — something that pays more than enough to cover the rent and feed a family. They don’t want to be a “wage slave” — whatever the hell that is. They want to use what they learned in school, that superior knowledge that sets them apart from people who actually work for a living.

I guess you can read the anger in my words. It’s hard to control it sometimes.

I think about my first job, at age 13: a paper route delivering 54 papers a day on foot. I think about my next job, a year later, spent scraping rust off a chain link fence with a wire brush, accompanied by three other underprivileged girls whose families were poor enough to qualify for summer work.

I think about the three part-time jobs I held down while I was carrying an 18-credit load in college just to make sure I graduated within four years. I think about how my weight dropped down to a ridiculous 105 pounds because I simply couldn’t eat enough to meet my energy needs.

I think about my first apartment, a studio four blocks away from a bus station where shootings had become routine. I think about learning how to float checks two days before payday, when the money ran out. I think about buying “no frills” pot pies for dinner at 33¢ each. I think about taking the subway to bad neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx because that’s where the audit I had to do happened to be. I think about the day a bum near Times Square — the old Times Square — grabbed my butt as I walked by during my lunch break and how I swung around and hit him.

And yes, I think about writing a monthly check to pay my school loans for ten straight years.

The hard times didn’t last long. I worked my way through them. I showed my bosses that I was a step above the others, not by waving a diploma and whining that I deserved a raise but by working harder, better, and faster than any of them. I got the promotions and pay raises I needed to move forward.

Why can’t today’s young people do the same?

No one is entitled to a job. You have to earn it. Earn it by being smart, by being a team player, by knowing what the hell you’re doing, by doing it right. Get off the fucking cellphone, stop texting your friends, and stop whining about “the man.”

This is real life, not a television show. You’re no better than the other thousands of young graduates looking for work — until you prove you are. What the hell are you waiting for?

Go Ahead, Make Your Excuse

I cannot support this entitlement attitude in any way, shape, or form. If you have no job, then no job is beneath you.

Comments are open. I’m sure this post will soon be inundated with excuses. Sound off. This is your chance. Just don’t expect me to accept excuses.

Bank of America Support Chat FAIL

It’s actually quite fun to torture them.

This chat transcript says it all.

Current Transcript of the Chat Session
In this window hotkeys have been activated to allow for quick navigation between the chat transcript and the chat text edit areas. Alt + Arrow Up will set focus on the last text message in the chat transcript and Alt + Arrow Down will set focus on the chat text edit. An audible alert will be played when a chat agent has posted a new response.

Welcome to an online chat session at Bank of America. Please hold while we connect you to the next available Bank of America Online Banking Specialist. Your chat may be monitored and recorded for quality purposes. Your current wait time is approximately 0 minutes. Thank you for your patience.

Thank you for choosing Bank of America. You are now being connected to a Bank of America Online Banking Specialist.

Alfredo: Hello! Thank you for being a valued Bank of America customer! My name is Alfredo. I will be assisting you with your personal accounts today.  

You: Your Web site times out too quickly, requiring me to log in again and again. This is a huge waste of time and very frustrating. How can I adjust the timeout interval?

Alfredo: I certainly understand your concern regarding the Web Site.
Alfredo: May I have your full name and last four digits of the account?

You: It’s not one account. It’s all accounts. And I already entered my full name.

Alfredo: Please provide me the last four digits of one of your account and your full name?

You: I really wish they’d let you people think for yourselves and not read off a script.
You: #### Maria Langer

Alfredo: Thank you, Maria.
Alfredo: Maria, We need this information to verify your account information, It is for the security of your account.
Alfredo: To increase the timeout level I request you to please contact directly to our Online banking department.

You: The question I’m asking has nothing to do with my account. It’s your Web site.

Alfredo: They will be able to do this for you.

You: So you can’t help me.

Alfredo: Yes, I understand you.

You: So you wasted my time, made me provide information you didn’t need.

Alfredo: I really wish I could resolve this for you via chat, however, I really apologize, I do not have necessary tools to do that.

You: Why did you ask for information you didn’t need? You had my question. You could tell immediate that you couldn’t help me.

Alfredo: I request you to call at the number they will assist you with this.

You: Why did you continue a conversation that would go nowhere?
You: And what number? You didn’t provide one.

Alfredo: You can call them at 1.800.933.6262. We are available from 7 a.m. to 10.00 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday Eastern Time.
Alfredo: “Please be assured that we know your time is valuable. We would not direct you to contact us by telephone unless it were absolutely necessary. I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you.

You: Why is it that every time your Web site offers to help with a chat, no help is provided?

Alfredo: ”

You: Nice copy and paste, “Alfredo.”

Alfredo: I really wish that I can resolve this for you, However their is a separate department for this.

You: How long do you expect me to be on hold when I call that number?
You: How many buttons will I need to push?
You: Or will I need to talk to a machine and hope it understands me?

Alfredo: I regret but this is not copy and paste I actually wish I can help you with this.

You: Why is it that Bank of America continues to fail so utterly with Customer Service?

Alfredo: You will get an option to talk with a live person.

You: Is your name really Alfredo?

Alfredo: Yes, My name is Alfredo.

You: Where are you based? India?

Alfredo: I wish I could resolve it for you!
Alfredo: Yes, I am in India.

You: Exactly what I thought. This transcript will make good reading on my blog. Anything else you’d like to add?

Alfredo: I really apologize that I was not able to assist you, I hope you understand that.
Alfredo: I wish your issue would be resolved as soon as possible!

You: What I don’t understand is why BofA has a chat support feature that NEVER seems able to provide any assistance.
You: It’s a complete waste of customer time.
You: Yet so is calling them. I know I’ll be on hold for at least 15-20 minutes AFTER entering all kinds of numbers into my phone.
You: Then they’ll just ask me for the same information — like you did.
You: My time isn’t valuable to the bank.

Alfredo: I really apologies that I am not able to assist you this time but it is not like this every time.
Alfredo: Please be assured that we know your time is valuable.
Alfredo: They will be able to resolve this for you.

You: It’s cheaper to hire overseas “support” personnel in India than to employ Americans who can answer questions without reading a script.
You: Are you happy that you’ve taken away a job from an American?
You: That unemployment here is high because people like you have our jobs?
You: And you can’t even do them very well?

Alfredo: I really apologies if you think so.

You: I really think you should let your supervisor read the transcript for this chat.
You: Maybe someone will understand the frustration of BofA customers in America.
You: Maybe someone will get the idea that we don’t want to participate in time-wasting chats when all we need is someone to pick up the freaking phone and talk to us.

Alfredo: I will provide this chat transcript to my supervisor.

You: I’ll be posting this transcript on my blog. My readers will love it.
You: Anything else you want to say?

Alfredo: I request you to call at the number and they will be able to resolve the issue for you.

You: Sure, I’ll do that.

Alfredo: i apologize that you are not satisfied with our service.
Alfredo: I apologize for the inconvenience caused to you by this.

You: It’s not your fault. You’re just doing one of our jobs. We could do it better.

Alfredo: I hope you understand that it is not me to do so.
Alfredo: I regret I was not able to resolve the issue for you.

You: Well, I’ve wasted enough time with you. Now I’ll waste some on the phone. You’re free to go.

When it became apparent that he would never end the chat, I did.

I need to be clear about something here: I have no problem with Indian people. I do, however, have a problem with companies like Bank of America sending support jobs overseas to places like India just to save money. (I also have a problem with pop-up chat support offers that waste time, but we won’t go there.) This kind of policy has fed our unemployment problem.

My sister, who was in banking at CitiGroup, was a victim of this twice in the span of three years when her job was sent to India. The first time, CitiGroup found another job for her; the second time, they didn’t and she was unemployed for six months. She’s underemployed now after losing another banking job to the financial crisis two years ago.

If all the jobs we sent to India and Pakistan and god knows where else were to come back to the United States, we would have no unemployment problem and no financial crisis. We’d have no deficit, either, because all these people would be earning money, spending money, and paying taxes.

Instead, we have a crisis fed, in part, by big business maximizing profits by sending American jobs overseas.

What’s even worse, however, is the quality of the work done by these people. They often have little understanding of our language and rely on computer scripts to answer questions. The above transcript makes this very clear. My initial question could have been answered in seconds by someone familiar with the language and not required to follow a script. (I almost always get better customer service on the phone when the customer service representative is US-based. I say almost because sometimes even the Americans in the job aren’t very good; it depends on how strictly they’re required to follow a script.)

So, as a result of practices like Bank of America’s we get inferior customer service and fewer jobs for Americans.

Who wins?

Freelancers Don’t Get Sick Pay

We actually work for a living.

It occurred to me the other day that there’s a huge difference between employees and freelancers. I don’t mean to say that I suddenly saw the light — I didn’t. I’ve known the differences for a long time. But the other day, I actually stopped for a moment to think about them. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts here, laid out in a simple table to make comparison easier.

Employees Freelancers
Employees can stop looking for work once they get a job. The only times they need to look for work again is if they want to change jobs, they get fired, or they need a second job. Freelancers are always looking for work, even when they’re working. The ability to earn a living depends on having the next job lined up.
Employees seldom have to worry about losing their jobs to someone who claims he can do it cheaper. Freelancers are constantly competing for work with others who claim they can do the same job for less money.
Employees usual do one job at a time, although that job might entail several concurrent projects for the same employer. Freelancers often work on several jobs for several clients concurrently.
Employees are usually given all of the tools and equipment they need to perform their jobs. These tools are usually purchased, maintained, and updated by their employers. Freelancers usually have to buy, maintain, and update all of the tools and equipment they need to perform their jobs.
Employees often spend part of their workday socializing with coworkers around the water cooler, coffee room, offices/cubicles, cafeteria, etc. Freelancers often work alone. Most time spent socializing is not time they’re being paid for.
Employees often get benefits that include paid vacations, paid holidays, paid sick days, health care, pension contributions, profit sharing, and bonuses. There are holiday parties, company picnics, and sometimes even birthday cakes. Freelancers don’t get benefits. If they can’t work because of illness, they don’t make money. In the U.S. (and some other countries), they have to pay for their own health care, often at extremely high rates. There are no holiday parties, company picnics, or birthday cakes.
Employees have a predetermined workday, such as 9 to 5. They also get scheduled days off, like weekends and holidays. If they don’t feel like coming into work, they can take a paid sick or personal day off. The flip side of this is that an employee has a limited amount of time off. Freelancers work as long as they need to to get the job done. If that means 12 hour days and lost weekends, so be it. If they don’t feel like working in the middle of a job, that’s too darn bad; the job needs to get done on time. The flip side of this is that a freelancer can have as much time off as he wants, as long as he works enough to earn enough money to survive.
Employees are usually not bothered by their bosses outside their normally scheduled workday. Freelancers can be bothered by clients any time the client wants to make contact (although most clients keep contact within their working hours).
Employees can have annoying or even stupid bosses. Freelancers can have annoying or even stupid clients.
As long as an employee performs his job to some level of satisfaction, he’ll likely remain employed. A freelancer needs to perform high quality work for every job to set himself apart from the competition, with the hope that the client will either give him future work or recommend him to others.
Employees get paychecks. The government ensures that they get paid. Freelancers issue invoices and spend time following up on accounts receivable. They sometimes have to remind, nag, and then possibly sue clients to get paid.
Employees have payroll taxes taken from their pay and remitted to the government. In the U.S., their employers pay 50% of their social security tax liability. Freelancers don’t usually have taxes taken from their pay and remitted to the government. They are required to submit taxes quarterly, along with the related paperwork. If they don’t submit on time, they could be penalized. In the U.S., they are personally responsible for 100% of their social security tax liability.

What did I leave out? Employees and freelancers, use the Comments link or form to fill us in.

Autorotation is Not a Low Rotor RPM Emergency Procedure

Especially when you’re two miles out at sea.

Picture this: An R22 helicopter without floats operating two miles off the coast of Miami, FL. On board is the CFI-rated pilot with 600 790 hours of total flight time and the private pilot rated “passenger” with 115 hours total flight time. They’re operating at about 40 knots 100 feet above the waves on an aerial photo mission, photographing boats. The wind in Miami, 13 miles away, is from 120 at 13 knots and it’s 26°C with a dew point of 21°C, resulting in a balmy 74% humidity.

The pilot had just completed a 180° turn to the south when the low rotor RPM horn sounds.

The pilot adjusts the throttle to compensate — in other words, we should assume that he adds throttle. The horn stops blaring, but 3 seconds later, it does it again.

So what does the pilot do? Despite the fact that the helicopter does not have floats, he enters an autorotation. The helicopter crash-lands in the ocean, the occupants escape, and the helicopter sinks. The pilots are rescued 10 minutes later by a privately owned boat. The helicopter is left unrecovered (so far) in 150-250 feet of seawater.

What We Don’t Know

There are a few things we don’t know that could explain the reason for the low rotor RPM horn:

  • How much did the pilots and their equipment weight? An R22 Beta (not Beta II) is a very small helicopter. Although they had burned off 45 minutes of fuel, there is a possibility that they were still heavy for the flight conditions.
  • Which direction did they turn? A turn that would have put them into a tailwind situation — especially at low speed — could rob them of airspeed. If airspeed dropped below ETL, the helicopter would have to work harder to stay in the air.
  • What speed were they operating at? Without the benefit of forward airspeed and effective translational lift, the helicopter would have to work harder to stay in the air. If the speed was close to zero, the aircraft might have gotten into a settling with power situation. The natural (but incorrect) reaction of increasing the collective to arrest the rate of descent could have triggered a low rotor RPM warning if available power was exceeded.
  • Were the engine and its components functioning properly? If the engine or magnetos were not performing to specifications, the resulting reduction of engine power could cause a low rotor RPM horn. We have to assume the engine was still running because the NTSB report didn’t mention an engine failure.

But regardless of the reason for the low rotor RPM horn, it’s the pilot’s decision to perform an autorotation to into the ocean that needs to be questioned.

The Robinson Low Rotor Horn

In a Robinson helicopter, the rotor RPM green arc is 101% to 104%. (Please don’t ask why; I don’t know. Yes, it is weird.) The low rotor RPM warning system is designed to alert the pilot at 97% RPM. (See it in action for yourself here.) This is a very early warning. The idea is that if rotor RPM is deteriorating, once it gets past a certain point, it could could become unrecoverable very quickly. The earlier the pilot is warned, the better off he is.

At the Robinson factory safety course — and, one might assume, at many flight schools that train in Robinsons — pilots are taught that a Robinson can generally fly at an RPM of 80% plus 1% per 1000 feet of density altitude. Given the temperature, dew point, altitude, and altimeter setting (30.01), the density altitude was 1,612 feet. That means that the helicopter should have been capable of flight when operating at only 82% RPM.

I need to stress here that this is a general rule of thumb. Do not attempt to fly around at low rotor RPM to test this. While it’s true that my flight instructor at the Robinson safety course had me fly for a few minutes in the Long Beach, CA area at 90% RPM with the horn blaring just to prove that flight was possible, RPM is not something we play with in non-training situations. The formula is simple: RPM = life.

Low Rotor RPM Emergency Procedures

The Robinson R22 Pilot’s Operating Handbook is quite specific on what to do in the event of a low rotor RPM warning. On page 3-10, in the red-tabbed “Emergency Procedures” section, it states:

A horn and an illuminated caution light indicates that rotor RPM may be below safe limits. To restore RPM, immediately roll throttle on, lower collective and, in forward flight, apply aft cyclic.

The NTSB report indicates that the pilot initially “adjusted the throttle to compensate for the [low rotor RPM warning] condition” and was immediately rewarded with recovery. But that was followed by the horn sounding again only 3 seconds later.

It had to be scary for the pilot. After all, he’s only 100 feet above the water and he’s supposed to react by lowering the collective. But the emergency procedure and repetitive training doesn’t tell us to enter an autorotation, which would be a full-down reduction of the collective. The reduction of the collective, coordinated with the rolling on of the throttle, should be slight — perhaps an inch or so. This reduces drag on the blades while the increased throttle provides power to increase their RPM.

What Was the RPM?

One of the things we don’t know is what the RPM was when the pilot decided to enter autorotation. If it had deteriorated to the point where autorotation and cyclic flare were the only tools to recover RPM, his decision was probably a good one. Better to hit the water relatively softly than from 100 feet up, falling like a brick.

If RPM had deteriorated to that point that quickly, however, it’s important to recover the aircraft to learn why. Other than a complete engine failure — which was not mentioned in the report — it’s hard to imagine what would cause RPM to drop enough to warrant such a drastic recovery action.

Who Was Flying?

There may be more to this than what meets the eye.

The helicopter was operated by Helicopter Academy, a flight school with locations across the U.S. The school’s Web site clearly advertises it as a low-cost training company:

$250 PER HOUR R22 HELICOPTER TRAINING TIME BARGAIN and we are the ONLY company in the world that can guarantee you a job.  We operate a fleet of helicopters and like other schools our insurance requires 300 hours helicopter time and an instructor’s rating to fly for us. We train you to work for us and offer a job to all graduates, including transfer student and instructors who can’t get jobs elsewhere.

Helicopter Academy’s other business is BoatPix, which uses helicopters to photograph boats and then sells the photos to the boat owners and others. It’s widely known that BoatPix pilots pay BoatPix (or Helicopter Academy) for the time they fly aerial photo missions. The company’s Web site alludes to this:

…you pay for the first 100 hours at $250/hr, the second 100 hours at $200/hr and the third 100 hours at $150/hr….It’s  $25,000 for the first 100 hours where you’ll do mostly training, $20,000 for hours 100  through 200 where we’ll introduce you to our photo contract which will subsidize your flying and $15,000 for hours 200 through 300 where you’ll do almost exclusively photo and will learn this skill that is valuable to our photo contract and making you a valuable pilot to us.

I added the emphasis in the above quote. It begs the question: who was actually flying this aircraft? The NTSB report suggests that it was the 600791-hour CFI. But was that really the case? Was the 115-hour private pilot paying $200/hour to be “introduced” to the photo contract — as a pilot — while the 600791-hour CFI took the photos?

High Risk Operations

In March 1999, Robinson Helicopter issued Safety Notice SN-34. The latest version of this Safety Notice is dated April 2009. Titled “Aerial Survey and Photo Flights – Very High Risk,” it starts out saying:

There is a misconception that aerial survey and photo flights can be flown safely by low time pilots. Not true. There have been numerous fatal accidents during aerial survey and photo flights, including several involving Robinson helicopters.

It goes on to list some of the possible dangers of low time pilots conducting aerial photo flights. It also makes some recommendations for minimum requirements for aerial photo/survey pilots, including a minimum of 500 hours pilot-in-command. BoatPix is one of the operations that has chosen to ignore this recommendation.

My question to helicopter pilot wannabes out there: Are you that desperate to become a pilot that you’re willing to trade your safety for flight time?

Pilot Experience and Decision-Making

What it all comes down to is whether the pilot made the correct decision for the situation he found himself in. I’m not convinced that entering autorotation over the ocean on hearing a low rotor RPM warning horn is the correct decision.

True, both pilots walked (or perhaps I should say, swam) away. But if the rotor RPM could have been brought back into the green while in flight — something a well-trained or experienced pilot could have accomplished if there wasn’t a mechanical problem — the watery autorotation and the resulting loss of the aircraft could have been avoided.

Hopefully, the Probable Cause report for this accident will shed some light on what really happened. Until then, it certainly gives pilots some food for thought.

November 1, 2011 Update: The Probable Cause report doesn’t add much to what’s reported here other than to clarify airspeed and PIC experience. The official Probable Cause is “A loss of main rotor rpm for undetermined reasons.”

Update, March 17, 2012: Just found another accident report with someone else using autorotation as a cure for low rotor RPM. He crashed, too.

Another Lazy Job Seeker

It’s so easy for them these days, but they still take the lazy way out.

When I was getting ready to graduate college with a BBA in the early 1980s, my school provided some advice about how to look for a job and prepare for an interview. There were basically two different paths:

  • For a posted job opening, research the company to see whether it would be a good “fit.” The write a cover letter to send in with your resume that explained how you not only qualified for the position but could bring additional benefits to the company.
  • For a company you wanted to work for that didn’t have any posted job openings, research the company to learn more about it. Then write a cover letter to send in with your resume explaining what job or department or division interested you and how you could benefit the company.

There’s an underlying theme here: research the company. Learn about it. Understand what it did and how you might fit in. Even if the job you were looking for wasn’t available, the person on the receiving end of your cover letter and resume might realize that you’d done your homework and that might make enough of an impression to forward your resume to someone who was hiring people like you.

In those days, researching a company meant going to the library, tracking down annual reports, and combing through the periodicals Index to find articles about the company. It meant microfilm and microfiche. It mean spending an hour or two or even more to gather enough information to become informed about the company and sound that way if a phone call came. If you got an interview, it was back to the library to learn even more.

These days, we’re lucky — oh, so very lucky — to have the Internet. Researching a company is as easy as visiting its Web site or Googling its company name. All the information you could possibly want — and more! — is there, at your fingertips, in the comfort of your dorm room, living room, or a coffee shop.

Yet people still continue to take the lazy way out, sending generic e-mail messages to anyone they find online that might possibly have a job for them. In many cases, they don’t even bother to research the company and possibly job openings while they’re on that company’s Web site. Instead, they zero in on the Contact Us page or link and paste in their job request.

Here’s the most recent gem to cross my e-mail inbox:

I am seeking an internship position in the helicopter industry and was wondering if your company has any positions available in Phoenix. I am approaching my senior year in my Bachelor’s Degree in Aviation Administration and training for my Instrument and Commercial Rotorcraft Rating. I am very interested in doing an internship with your company so any information would be greatly appreciated.

Contact FormI should note here that this e-mail message was sent using a form on Flying M Air’s Web site, which is reproduced here as an image (reduced to fit). At the very top of the form is the parenthetical statement, “Note to Pilots: We are not hiring.” I added this when I got tired of getting e-mail messages very similar to the one quoted above. I figured I’d just tell them up front that no jobs were available so they wouldn’t waste their time — or mine. Evidently, reading the page the form was on was too much for this soon-to-be-college graduate.

I composed a response:

You’re “very interested in doing an internship” with my company? Really? What do you know about my company?

I’m sure you sent this same message out to every helicopter operator in the Phoenix area who you could contact. Copy and paste makes it pretty easy these days. Are you just as interested in working for all of them?

And tell me: when you used the contact form on our Web site, didn’t you see where it said “Note to Pilots: We are not hiring?” Did you think that somehow did not apply to you? Or did you skip over all the information about my company and that note right above the form so you could quickly fire out yet another generic request for work?

Did you ever think that maybe you should put a little more effort into your job hunt? That some people in the industry aren’t interested in hiring lazy people who can’t be bothered to learn about a company or read available information about job openings — or lack thereof?

Still interested in doing an internship for my company?

We’re not hiring.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I can be a real bitch. But I didn’t send this. Instead, my husband and I agreed on a better response:

Information about job availability can be found on our Web site.

This is actually a more evil response. It will require him to do some work:

  1. Figure out what our Web site is. I didn’t include a signature line with the URL and my e-mail domain name does not match that of my company.
  2. Search the site to find the one place — which is right above the form he used to contact me — where it says we’re not hiring.

And why shouldn’t he put a little effort into a job hunt? Won’t he be required to work if he gets a job?

Early Morning, Over the Orchards

More cherry drying stories.

I slept like crap last night. The wind was blowing hard and the awning of my camper was out, acting like a big sail. It caught the wind and tossed around the camper. Around 2 or 3 AM, it started drizzling just enough to make me wonder how hard it would rain. I dozed fitfully in all of this until around 4:30 AM, when the drizzle turned to a steady rainfall. It started getting light and I knew my phone would ring. I wanted to make sure I had some coffee in me before I had to go out.

I was contracted to dry cherry trees for three growers in the Quincy area. One grower had a “priority contract,” which meant he’d get dried first — if he called. He had 47 acres in Quincy and another 10 acres in East Wenatchee, a 10-minute flight away. The other two growers with their total of 27 acres would get dried afterwards in the order they called. And if I finished that, there was another 50 acres up for grabs in one 10-acre block and one 40-acre block.

My big worry was that I’d have to dry the 47 acres in Quincy, then shoot over to East Wenatchee to dry another 10 and shoot back before drying the 27 total acres belonging to the other two growers. I figured that with drying and travel time, I probably wouldn’t be able to get to that 27 acres for a good two hours after my start.

That was the worse case scenario. It’s also part of what kept me up last night — worries that I wouldn’t be able to provide prompt service to my growers. But, in my defense, the two non-primary growers knew what they were getting into when they signed the contract with me. They were paying considerably less in standby monies to be second and third on my list. They were willing to gamble; I’d just do my best to make everyone happy.

Yellow BlobI thought about this as I made my coffee and fired up my computer to check the weather. I also thought about the other ways the drying flight could play out — ways that were better for all concerned.

Radar showed a line of heavy rain moving west to east across the area. A big yellow blob was sitting right on top of my location at Quincy — which would explain the sound of heavy rain on the roof of my camper. The storm had already mostly passed through Wenatchee. I peeked out the window at the brightening sky and could clearly see where the storm front ended. Beyond it was clear sky. The wind had already died down.

I was sipping my coffee when the first call came. It was the orchard manager for a grower with 15 acres in Quincy. He was also the owner of the 10+40 additional acres that were at the bottom of the priority list. He told me it had stopped raining at the orchard and they needed me to dry. But they’d already picked most of the bings, so the only thing they needed drying in the main block was the sweethearts. He described where they were in relation to a house on the property. It was about 5 acres. When I was finished, I could do the 10 acres near his house. I told him I’d be at the orchard within 15 minutes and reminded him that his 10 acres needed to wait until I’d filled all the other requests. He understood.

I pulled on my flight suit and tank top. It was cold, so I zipped up securely. Then I grabbed my GPS, paperwork, and telephone and headed out the door. It had stopped raining by the time I got out of the truck at the helicopter and started pulling off the cover and tie-downs. It was already preflighted and fueled, but after putting the truck away, I did a good walk-around anyway.

That’s when the second call came. It was a grower with 12 acres in Quincy. I knew he’d started picking, and asked him where I should dry. He said that I may as well dry it all; the trees they’d picked were mixed in with the ones they hadn’t picked. He asked if the priority grower had called. “Not yet,” I said.

“Call me when you’re on your way,” he said. “I’ll have my wind machines running until you get here.”

They all knew that I wouldn’t start drying a block if wind machines were operating in it.

We said our goodbyes and hung up. Now I had two growers with 3 blocks in Quincy: 5 + 12 + 10 acres. The blocks were less than 2 minutes apart. This was looking good for everyone.

Unless the priority grower called.


The first orchard I dried today. The black border indicates the entire orchard block. The blue is the area I understood needed to be dried. The rest was apparently already picked.

I climbed on board and started the engine. While the engine warmed up, I hooked up my cell phone to the intercom system and pulled on my helmet. I punched in the waypoint identifier for the first orchard. A few minutes later, I was climbing out, heading northwest. Within 6 minutes, I was dropping back down at the first orchard, setting in to begin my drying runs.

This first orchard had mature trees of mostly uniform height. I settled down between the first two rows with my skids about 5 feet over the tops of the trees and flew at about 5 knots. I twisted my head around to see where my downwash was going — it was covering the trees nicely. There was no wind — at least not enough to bother me — and I had no trouble turning at the end of the row and coming up the next row.

On the ground, I could see workers waiting by some storage sheds and the road. No one signaled to me or called me, so I just ignored them and and kept working my way back and forth, up and down the rows. I was at it for about 15-20 minutes. Then I was done.

I lifted off and headed in the direction of the 12-acre block. I punched it into the GPS so I could zero in on it without having to waste time looking for it. I had it in sight when I remembered to call the grower. “I’m coming in,” I told him.


The second orchard block I dried today. You can see the pole for the wind machine in the middle of the block.

He had a wind machine running in the block and he hurried to shut it down. As I came down, I watched the pattern of the wind machine’s output on the tree tops. I chose the northwest (lower-left in the photo) corner of the block to begin. These trees were densely planted, but not quite as mature. I could tell from the start that going up every other aisle would throw enough air to dry them. The trouble was, the rows were so close together that I couldn’t always see the gap between them. That cleared up when I’d gotten about 10 rows into the orchard. Suddenly, there were long, white tarps in the empty space between the rows of trees. Well, most of them, anyway. It made it a lot easier to find where I needed to fly.

I was about halfway into it when my phone rang. It was the orchard manager, the guy with 10+40 more acres to dry. He wanted to know if the priority guy had called yet. I told him he hadn’t and that I’d do his 10 acres next.

“How about the North 40 block?” he asked. That was his 40 acres, which was about a 5 minute flight from where I was.

“If I don’t get any other calls, I can do that, too,” I said.

“What about the J and R block?”

He was referring to a 40-acre block owned by another grower. This other grower had another 40-acre block, bringing his cherry blocks to a total of 80 acres. I knew where they were and had their GPS coordinates. But I’d already warned him that I couldn’t take on that much more work. If he wanted those two blocks dried, he’d have to get on contract. I’d find him a pilot, and he’d have to pay standby costs. When I called and told him all this, he said he wasn’t interested. Now, true to form, he was trying to get drying service without being on contract. This really pissed me off and I wasn’t about to let him get away with it without paying a hefty premium.

“I spoke to him,” I said into my helmet’s microphone (and, hence, cellphone), “and told him he’d have to get on contract. He didn’t want to. If I have time, I can dry it, but he’ll have to pay more.” And then I quoted him a rate that was nearly three times what my contracted growers were paying. “It he wants to pay that,” I said, “let me know and I’ll go dry it.”

He told me he’d call back.

I finished up the orchard, being careful to avoid the wind machine tower and powerlines along the last row of trees. Then I pulled up and made the 60-second flight to the 10 acre block.


The third block I dried.

The wind machine was still running when I arrived. I stayed high and called the grower. After a bunch of rings, it went through to voicemail. I was leaving him a message when I saw someone speeding to the base of the wind machine on a quad. A moment later, the blades slowed and stopped.

This block had big, wide aisles between rows of youngish trees. I could easily dry them by flying over every other aisle. The only obstruction was the wind machine tower in his block and another tower in an adjacent block that might be a bit close to my tail rotor when I turned. When I got close, I flew sideways down the aisle until I knew I’d cleared it, then turned and continued, pointing in the direction I was flying. I was finished in less than a half hour.

The grower called again. He wanted to know if the primary grower had called. He still hadn’t. But I wasn’t about to head on out to the North 40 block until I’d spoken to him. We discussed this and hung up as I left the block and started flying towards North 40. I called the primary grower. He said he was on his way to the orchard, but his manager said he didn’t think his cherries needed drying. He’d let me know.

So I flew out to the North 40 block. It was quite a distance from town — a good 15-minute drive on dirt roads — and I don’t have a photo of it. It’s basically an 80-acre block of well-irrigated land with cherries on the north half, apples (I think) on the south half, and a line of windbreaker trees between them. There’s a mobile home on part of the cherry block’s land and a 5-foot fence around the whole block.

The trees are very young and very widely spaced. I could fly up every third aisle at about 8-10 miles per hour and still get them all covered. Because there were no obstructions, the work went quick. I was on one of the last passes when a deer ran out from a row of cherries. It was inside the fence. I made a note to myself to tell the grower.

Then I was done. I’d flown nearly 2 hours straight and had about 1/3 tanks fuel left. I decided to refuel and give the primary grower another call. It was a 6-minute flight back to my base where I shut down, pulled my helmet off, and went about the task of adding 15 gallons of fuel to the main tank. I wanted to have enough fuel on board in case the primary grower needed me to dry all his blocks. But when I called him, he confirmed that the trees were okay. He was worried about the cherries getting beat up more than necessary and decided to take his chances with the moisture on them. And in East Wenatchee, it had hardly rained at all.

I thought I was done, but then my phone rang again. It was the manager for the first orchard. He told me I’d forgotten to dry three rows of sweethearts on the west side of the wind machine. His description confused me. He’d originally told me the cherries were behind the house. It wasn’t until I was airborne over the orchard again that he called and directed me to the orange shaded area shown in the first photo here. I hadn’t “forgotten.” He hadn’t told me they needed drying. It was a shame because it took another 1/2 hour to start up, fly out there, dry it, and fly back. If I’d known about the rows from the start, I could have probably knocked them off in 1/10 or 2/10 hour.

The sun had broken through the clouds by the time I landed back at my base. I made a beeline back to my camper for a bathroom, change of clothes, and cup of coffee. Outside, it was shaping up to be a very nice day.

I was done flying for the day. I’d logged 2.5 hours. It was 8:35 AM.

Later in the day, I spoke to the owner of the second block I’d dried. He complemented me on my flying and said he liked my helicopter. He said I’d done a great job and that I’d arrived at his place faster than any other pilot he’d ever hired. Then he said what they all say: “I hope I don’t have to call you again this season!”