On Standby 17/7/60

What being on standby really means.

Occasionally, someone will comment about how I apparently get paid to do nothing during my summer job as a cherry drying pilot. I need to correct them. I’m not doing nothing. I’m on standby.

Specifically: I’m on standby during daylight hours seven days a week during my contract periods.

My Work Day/Week/Term

Let me start by providing a definition of each component of that statement:

  • Daylight hours means the time that it’s light enough to fly. Sunrise is at approximately 5 AM here; sunset is at approximately 9 PM. That’s 16 hours. But I can also fly during the twilight period that begins roughly 30 minutes before sunrise and ends 30 minutes after sunset. If a client wants me to fly the first thing in the morning, he’ll call as early as 4 AM, so my standby day starts then. Generally speaking, it’s not likely that I’ll be launched for a flight after 8:30 PM. I will, however, launch to dry a small orchard as late as 9 PM, so I consider that the end of my standby day. That’s a 17-hour day.
  • Seven days a week is pretty self-explanatory. It’s every day of the week. No days off, no holidays. I was even on call on my birthday — for the third year in a row.
  • My contract periods vary from year to year. This year, I have a total of seven contracts, most of which are for small orchards and overlap each other. From the first day of the first contract to the last day of the last contract is about 60 days. Last year, I had two days off between the end of one contract and the beginning of the last. The year before, I thought I’d have 10 days off, but nine of those days were filled with a last-minute contract.

So, to summarize: I’m on call 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for 60 days. That’s two months straight with no days off.

“On Call,” Defined

What does “on call mean”? On the surface, it means that I have to answer my phone any time a client might call me and be prepared to fly when requested.

What it also means, however, is that I have to do the following:

  • Be prepared to launch within 10-20 minutes of a call. That keeps me pretty close to the helicopter whenever there’s the slightest chance I might have to fly. One day, I waited in my truck where the helicopter was parked for four hours. (I flew 2.1 hours.) On Thursday, I waited in my RV for six hours. (I didn’t fly.) Friday morning, I was up at 4 AM and waited in my RV for two hours for a possible call; I was airborne within 15 minutes of getting it. The 27-acre orchard was dry less than an hour later. That’s the kind of service my clients expect. That’s what they’re paying standby for.
  • Check for voicemail messages. If I take a shower, drive through a dead cell coverage area, or simply don’t hear my phone ring for more than a few hours, I need to check for messages I might have missed. I should always answer the phone when a client calls — even if I’m already on the phone with my husband or a friend. Some clients will actually panic if they can’t reach me on their first try. (I am, after all, hired to help protect a crop worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.)
  • Monitor the weather all the time. I track the weather on the Internet, weather radio, and by looking/walking outside. I have a weather app on my phone that includes in-motion radar. I sleep with my iPad on the bed so I can check the weather before I go to sleep and as soon as I wake up. I also have to be prepared to answer weather questions for clients that aren’t as close to their orchards as I am.
  • Keep the helicopter ready to fly. That means keeping it fully fueled and preflighted between flights. I generally refuel right after landing. I keep the tanks completely topped off so I can get a full 3 hours of flight time if I need it. My clients can’t wait for me to refuel. My clients also aren’t interested in waiting for me to get routine maintenance (like oil changes) or repairs. That means the helicopter has to be ready to fly for the entire season before I get here.
  • Keep fuel for the helicopter available. I buy fuel in bulk for the 82-gallon transfer tank on my pickup truck. There are two places I can get it: In Wenatchee (35 miles away) and in Ephrata (20 miles away). I need to have at least 30 gallons in the tank at all times, so as soon as it drops below 50 gallons, I try to make a fuel run. I have to do it on a clear day when there’s little or no chance of flying. Although I also take that opportunity to run errands I can’t run in Quincy (where I’m based), I always buy the fuel first, just in case the weather turns bad and I have to rush back. That’s happened twice this season so far.
  • Schedule my errands around the weather — and be prepared to change my schedule at the slightest hint of rain. My errands include grocery shopping, banking, post office runs, laundry, and the occasional quick meal out. It also includes familiarizing myself with new orchard blocks I’m contracted to cover.
  • Not drink alcohol. Let’s face it: the rule in aviation is “eight hours from bottle to throttle.” If I’m on call 17 hours a day, there is no eight-hour stretch that I’m not on call. So, theoretically, I can’t drink.
  • Not see a movie. Heck, this bugs me more than the alcohol. Every summer, there are so many great new movies, but I can’t see any of them. The closest theater is 35 miles away and I can’t lock myself up in a dark room without checking the weather for two hours. And at night — well, I do need to sleep.

Two Sides to Every Coin

The other day, a friend of mine came to visit with his daughter and grandson. We had lunch at the golf course restaurant, within view of the helicopter and only 150 feet from my RV. Afterwards, we stopped by the RV for a diaper change.

My friend’s daughter told me how envious she was of me and my job. She said it was the greatest job she’d ever heard of.

I’m not complaining, but I do want to point out that there are two sides to every situation. I seriously doubt whether her job would get her out of bed with a phone call at 4:10 AM. Or live in an RV on a tiny campsite near a busy (read that “noisy”) intersection. Or keep her stuck in a farm town (that doesn’t have very much to offer except about a dozen Mexican restaurants) all day on any day there was the slightest chance of rain.

So yeah, I’m getting paid to just wait around. But there’s a huge responsibility that goes with that — and zero tolerance for not doing the job right.

What do you think?