Drying Cherries with the Big Fan

I get a call from someone looking for cherry-drying pilots.

I’ve been swamped with work lately, trying to get my Web sites back in order after a catastrophic hard disk crash, and I haven’t had time to write any new blog entries. But don’t think I haven’t been busy doing stuff worth writing about. I have. But yesterday I promised Miraz I’d write about the cherry drying gig, so I’ll start catching up with that.

I was sittling in the room we call the Library at home the other night, using my PowerBook to work on the new LangerBooks.com (more on that in another blog), when my cell phone rang. My office phone is automatically forwarded to my cell phone when I’m not in the office so I don’t miss any business calls.

It was a guy named Erik from Washington state. He runs a helicopter operation up there and uses an R44 Astro. That looks like my helicopter but is an older model without hydraulics and with the non-fuel injected engine. A great ship for operating at lower elevations and for doing the kind of work he does.

What does he do? Well the thing he called me about was drying cherry trees. It seems that in June, the cherry crop is vulnerable to damage caused by rain and moisture sitting on the trees or the cherries or something. Local cherry farmers hire helicopter pilots to hover over the trees after a rain to dry the water off before it can damage the crop.

According to Erik, an R44 can dry 40 acres of cherry trees in an hour.

The work does not sound exciting. When called into action, the pilot has 2 hours to get to the orchard he’s assigned to. He then goes into a hover about 3 feet over the tree tops and proceeds to move down the rows at a blinding speed of 2-3 miles per hour.

The only thing making the work more challenging than wind (which I assume must enter the picture somewhere) is wires. Evidently, the fields have wires running across them. Last year two helicopter pilots managed to tangle their ships up in them. Although I was taught that wires = death, I guess you don’t die if you’re only 12 feet off the ground. The pilots were okay but the helicopters weren’t. And I guess they lost a few trees, too.

Erik had found my contact information in an HAI (Helicopter Association International) message board where I’d advertised that I was available, with a Raven II, for short term and seasonal work. I put that message in last year and he just found it. The only other call I got was from someone who wanted to buy my helicopter.

The pay was certainly acceptable — even the standby pay — and there was no telling how much I’d fly during the 6 to 8 weeks I’d be at the job site. There were just two problems: my helicopter is almost too nice to do this kind of utility work and my current insurance company does not provide any coverage for crop work. Although Erik said he might have a spare Astro for me to fly, I figured it would be a good idea to look into insurance, so I started a dialog with a local aviation insurance guy. Hopefully, he’ll give me some good news.

Of course, I didn’t get the job, at least not yet. Erik is still putting out feelers, seeing what his options are before he bids the job. But I’m definitely interested. I’m always interested in doing something different, and this certainly seems to fit the bill.

And I wouldn’t mind spending a month or two in Washington state.

5 thoughts on “Drying Cherries with the Big Fan

  1. Hi there Maria, thanks for your blog on Cherry drying. I am a brand new commercial Helicopter pilot looking for my first low-time job. Thats how I came across a cherry drying ad – after reading your information and also some other websites I applied – hope they call me back. I am trying to build hours – do you relate? did you start that way too?

    Well, thanks again for your info,

    Blue Skies,

    Maggie West

  2. I don’t think drying cherries is a good job for a low-time pilot. It’s actually dangerous work. Every year, several helicopters crash after getting tangled up in wires — the biggest danger since the fields are usually surrounded by wires. Small helicopters like R22s can’t get enough downwash to do the job cost effectively, so they use bigger helicopters like Long Rangers and R44s. The tail rotor is way back there, right where it can get into trouble if you forget about it.

    I built my hours the expensive way — by buying an R22 and flying the paint off of it (so to speak). Most folks go the CFI route, which tends to make them more marketable.

    Good luck with whatever you do.

  3. Another quick note here. The guy who called me about cherry drying, Erik, thanked me for the above comment where I discourage low-time pilots from doing cherry drying work. He says — and I agree — that any accidents in this kind of work reflect on all of us. He also sent me a link to an NTSB report that any low-time pilot interested in this work should take a look at: http://www.ntsb.gov/ntsb/brief.asp?ev_id=20001212X21333&key=1

    At this point, it doesn’t look like I’ll be drying cherries this year. But I hope get my foot in the door next year. We’ll see.

What do you think?