I dry an 86-acre cherry orchard three times in one day.
I woke at 1:45 AM to the sound of thunder. There was rain in the forecast — scattered thunderstorms — so my senses were tuned in to any related sound.
For the first week of my contract, the 86-acre cherry orchard belonging to my clients had been missed by several storms moving through the area. I was beginning to think that there was an invisible force field over the place, protecting it from rain. But at around 2 AM, when big rains drops started pattering on the roof of my RV, I realized that rain was indeed possible here. When those drops turned into a torrential downpour I knew I’d be flying at dawn.
I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I turned on the TV. With nothing more than the rooftop antenna, I can pick up six television channels, three of which are PBS. One of the PBS channels was showing a movie about how the Allied war effort was assisted by headhunters — and I don’t mean job recruiters — during World War II. I was watching a segment that showed how enterprising natives in the South Pacific used bamboo to “pave” a runway when my phone rang.
It was 2:30 AM.
The phone area code was the local 509. I answered it. It was the wife of one of the growers. She and her husband lived in a converted lumber mill that had been moved to the orchard some years ago. With the building’s bright blue metal roof, they were likely getting the same rain experience I was.
“It’s raining,” she said.
“Yes, I know.”
“Well, when can you dry?”
She and her husband had obviously not received the memo. I don’t dry cherries at night. It’s dark at night. Flying five feet over the tops of trees when it’s dark is dangerous. My contract clearly states that I don’t fly when it’s dark.
“I don’t fly at night,” I told her. “I can fly at first light.”
“What time is that?”
I didn’t know exactly, but I knew it was after 4:30 AM. I told her.
“That’s two hours.”
“I know,” I said. “But I can’t fly in the dark. It’s dangerous. Do you want me get started at first light?”
Technically, I wasn’t supposed to fly until someone told me to. The guy who hired me was not living at the orchard and may not know the weather. If no one called me, I wouldn’t fly. By getting her permission for launch, I could get started as soon as possible.
She conferred with her husband. “Yes,” she said. “Start as soon as you can.”
I hung up, then grabbed my iPad and checked Emerald Observatory, the app I use to get local sunrise/sunset/twilight info. Twilight would start around 5 AM with sunrise around 5:40. I set the alarm on my phone to 4:30 AM in the unlikely event that I fell back to sleep. I went back to watching the headhunter show.
At about 2:45 my phone rang again. This time, it was the husband. He told me that he’d spoken to the guy who’d hired me and confirmed that they wanted me to fly as soon as I could. I told him that would be closer to 5 AM than 4:30 AM. He seemed okay with that. We hung up.
I watched a bit more about headhunters, then decided to try to get back to sleep. I turned off the TV and tossed and turned for another 45 minutes. The rain and fierce wind had stopped; the sound of thunder rumbled from off in the distance. Wenatchee was probably getting dumped on again.
Just when I thought I wouldn’t get to sleep, I passed out.
The phone’s alarm clock woke me rudely at 4:30 AM. It was still dark.
I rolled out of bed, did my bathroom business, and brewed coffee into a travel mug. I dressed in a tank top, my flight suit, and socks. I uncovered Alex and gave him his breakfast. I used the Internet to check the weather. Although it was getting light enough to see clouds, there were no rain echoes on the way. The forecast said there was a 50% chance of isolated thunderstorms all day. Small hail was mentioned. I put on my sneakers, grabbed my phone and a bottle of water and headed out into the predawn light.
I drove my truck down to the lower entrance to the orchard. The orchard was planted in a number of blocks on the side of a hill. The other day, I’d had a mishap on a muddy road between the upper entrance and my helicopter. The irrigation system turns the dirt roads to a snot-like mud that fills in treads on tires. I’d slid off the road without warning and it had taken some doing to get back on the road, turn around, and backtrack. I wasn’t about to get stuck and have to walk to the helicopter. It wasn’t just the idea of walking through an orchard in the semi-darkness. It was the simple fact that I’d need my truck’s headlights shining on the helicopter to get it prepped for flight.
The helicopter is parked in a grassy area alongside a pond. Prepping it was pretty easy. All I had to do was pull off the blade tie downs, take off the pilot side door, and do a good walk around. It was already preflighted.
I don’t have to take off my door to dry cherries. In fact, I usually don’t. And I usually regret not doing it. The trouble is, when the sun comes out, it shines into the cockpit, raising the temperature beyond what’s comfortable. I’m only flying at 5 to 10 miles per hour, so the helicopter’s vent is useless for airflow. Add humidity — remember, it just rained — and a pilot wearing a long sleeved Nomex flight suit and helmet and you have a sweat machine. On one flight, the sweat was pouring down my face, getting into my eyes. Because both hands are busy the whole time I’m doing this kind of flying, I couldn’t even wipe the sweat out of my face.
You think I’d learn, right? Well, the truth is, when I start flying, it’s usually chilly and miserable. I don’t expect the sun to come out. But it usually does and I usually roast. This time, with a 2 to 3 hour flight ahead of me, I wasn’t going to be dumb. I took the door off.
By 5:15, I was in the cockpit with the engine running. I hooked up my phone to the device that patches it into my intercom system and pulled on my helmet. I lifted off at 5:20 AM. It was just light enough to see.
The orchard is 86 acres and consists of over a dozen irregularly shaped blocks planted on the hillside. The trees are young but mature averaging in height from 10 to 15 feet. In general, their sizes are consistent within a block. The rows are widely spaced, making it easy to see the grassy aisles between them. The Rainier cherries, which require special care, were easy to identify by the long sheets of mylar spread out in the aisles between them, anchored in place by small piles of earth.
I’d never dried the orchard before, so I didn’t have a solid plan. I figured I’d start at the bottom and work my way up. This would make it easier to protect my tail rotor. I tend to fly very low — sometimes my skids are level with the treetops — and with a full tank of fuel and just me on board, my tail rotor hangs almost as low as my skids. As a result, whenever I flew downhill, I’d have to either fly higher or fly sideways. Higher is probably easier, but lower and sideways is more effective.
So I started at the southwest corner of the orchard settled in over the trees, and got to work. I had to maneuver around a small packing area. And then there was a block of Rainiers, so I had to climb to 15 feet above them so as not to bruise the fruit. Then back down. Then sideways as the row dipped. Then the end of the row, turn, and start back. Low, low, high over Rainiers, low, low, around the packing area. As I turned again, I looked up over the 86 acres I could see. This was going to be a long morning.
I was flying down every other aisle. Although the guy who taught me to dry told me to go down every row of trees, I soon discovered that going down every other aisle was usually just as effective, but quicker. In fact, it may be more effective because my downwash seemed to get under the trees when I flew over an aisle instead of a row. With nice wide aisles like these, I could actually fly lower, getting much better coverage as my downwash hit the ground between the trees and came back up through them.
But every other aisle was going to take a very long time.
I dried one block after another, following the little hills and valleys of each row, turning sideways when necessary to keep my tail rotor out of the trees behind me, rising out of the trees only to give Rainiers a gentler breeze. The sun came up but stayed hidden behind clouds. I was about 45 minutes into the job when shafts of sunlight pierced the cloud cover to brightly illuminate the mountains and sides of the valley to the west of me. Any minute, I thought. Any minute and the sun would be on me and the roasting would begin.
And the growers would start to panic because so many of their trees were still wet.
But we lucked out. The clouds surrounded those escaped rays of sunlight and reined them back in. It stayed cloudy.
I started to notice people watching me. Some men at the sprayer staging area, which looked out over the lower part of the orchard. The couple who’d called me in the middle of the night. The folks at the big house on the south side of the orchard. I saw cameras flashing occasionally. I tried to ignore all of it. The clock was ticking and I had a lot of trees to dry.
I’d told the grower to expect a dry rate of about 30 acres per hour based on the layout of the orchard — hills and oddly shaped blocks slow me down. That put my total dry time near three hours. He’d been worried about that and had originally asked for a second pilot. But when I found a pilot and sent him a standby contract, he’d changed his mind. After all, he’d had me on contract last year for three weeks and it hadn’t rained once. He probably didn’t want to spend more money than he had to. As I periodically checked the clock, I realized that I’d be close to my estimate.
Finally, at about 8:10 AM, I was done. The sky had cleared considerably and there were big patches of blue sky. I rose up out of the last block, punched Wenatchee Airport into my GPS, and headed northeast. I called my client on the phone and told him I was done and going to get fuel.
The fuel situation is my fault. I didn’t want to end the season with a full tank of fuel in my truck’s transfer tank, so I’d let the level drop to only 40 gallons. I’d burned at least that. I figured I’d top off the tanks at the airport, since it wasn’t likely that I’d have to fly again immediately. I’d save my stored fuel for quick turns at the orchard.
The airport was only five minutes away. There was no traffic. I made my calls and landed near the fuel island where a man was fueling a Cessna. It wasn’t until I got out that I realized I’d had the controls in a “death grip” for nearly three hours.
“You look stiff,” the man at the Cessna said to me.
You know you’re hearing the truth when it comes from a stranger.
My client called me as I fueled. He was worried. It had taken a long time to dry the trees. That wasn’t a problem because the weather had stayed cool. But if the weather warmed up while the cherries were wet, we’d have a problem. He asked me if I could get a second pilot to help me. I told him I might be able to. My friend, Jim, had told me he might be available. He was in Chelan and it was unclear to me whether he was on contract.
I finished fueling up and went inside to use the bathroom. Another cherry pilot I’d met in Quincy was sitting in the waiting area, looking very bored. I’d spotted his Enstrom outside. We exchanged greetings and I went to take care of business. I also checked the radar in the pilot lounge. Lots of echoes in the area, but none threatening my orchard. It looked as if I was done flying, at least for the morning.
I swapped my helmet for my Bose headsets, started up, and took off. The reflections of clouds in the calm Columbia River at Wenatchee were amazing and I managed to turn on my POV camera in time to capture them on my way back to the orchard.
By 9 AM, the helicopter was parked back at the orchard with the hail covers on its blades and I was enjoying my breakfast back in my RV. I’d logged 2.9 hours.
I did some work on a book I’ve been revising, checked the weather and e-mail, moderated blog comments, and wasted some time on Twitter. Then, feeling tired, I went into the bedroom and stretched out on the bed.
The phone woke me two hours later. It was my buddy, Jim. We’d spoken earlier in the day and he’d told me that he was still on contract in Chelan and that his client would not release him. I told him how much I’d flown. He’d dried 15 acres that morning and was waiting for more rain.
I looked outside. It had clouded up again. The clouds looked dark and heavy.
When I hung up, I started to connect to the Internet to check the weather radar. But there was a knock on my door. It was the woman who’d called at 2:30. She’d come to apologize. We chatted for a while and she came in to meet Alex the Bird.
And then it started to rain. Hard.
She left and I suited up. I checked the weather. The radar showed rain (duh) but not much of it. I grabbed my handheld radio and went to find my client. He was at the main packing shed, talking to some workers. I handed him the radio and told him how to use it. I also told him that there would be no second pilot.
“Last time, I flew every other row,” I told him. “This time, I’ll fly every third row. That should speed things up. If the trees aren’t very wet, they should be okay.”
He seemed to think that might work.
“You can call me on the radio if you have instructions,” I added. “It’ll work better than the phone. I’ll prep the helicopter. Call me when you want me to launch.”
I drove down to the helicopter and did everything short of removing the hail covers and door. The helicopter had been filthy from weeks out in dusty environments and now it was soaking wet, so I used the opportunity to wipe down the outside of the cockpit with a rag. It was still raining, but not too hard to walk around in.
The rain slowed to a drizzle and my phone rang. I was told to get started.
Round two began. I started in the same place but had a more effective route among the blocks. As I’d told my client, I flew every third aisle. I could see him and his dog and another man at the sprayer staging area. I’m not sure, but he may have had binoculars.
My radio came to life. “Hey, Maria, it looks like you’re getting two rows on either side of you. That’s four rows. So every third row should be real good.”
I told him that’s what I was doing and that it should make things go faster.
They did go faster. I climbed up the hill for the main area of the orchard pretty quickly. But I was about 45 minutes into it when the wind suddenly kicked up. All around me, the trees were blowing like crazy without any input from me.
The wind can be a nuisance — or even a danger — in this kind of work. If you’re hovering slowly, whenever your side or tail is to the wind, the wind is trying to whip the helicopter around so you point into it. The only way to stay pointing the direction you want is with the anti-torque pedals. The more the wind blows, the more dancing on the pedals. When the wind is blowing past a certain speed — 10 mph? 15? — or has a big gust spread, it becomes damn near impossible to maintain yaw control at cherry drying speed.
My client noticed me struggling. “How are you doing out there, Maria?”
“The wind is kicking up,” I said.
“Yeah, I see that. Do you need to land?”
“No,” I replied. “It isn’t that bad yet.”
But it got bad a few minutes later. The whole north side of the orchard was blowing like crazy. I couldn’t see a single spot that wasn’t in the wind. And I couldn’t maintain controlled flight down any of the rows as low as I wanted to be.
“I have to break off here,” I said. “I’ll find another spot that’s not as windy and keep working.”
“Yeah, that north side really gets the wind up over the ridge,” he replied.
I popped up high enough to survey the blocks I hadn’t dried. The next block south looked much calmer. I settled down over the trees at one end and got back to work. “The wind might do the job for me,” I suggested.
I dried that block and the one up the hill from it. The wind died down quite a bit.
My client came back on the radio. “Yeah, it’s still pretty wet under these trees,” he said. “Do you think you can come back here and finish it off?”
I looked back at the treetops. Sure enough, it had calmed down. “Yeah. Let me finish this block and I’ll be right over.”
Ten minutes later, I was flying back, trying to remember where I’d left off. There was a birdhouse on a pole — don’t ask; I don’t know — on one side of the block and I seemed to recall breaking off around there. I caught sight of of my client and his dog nearby as I settled over the aisle and got to work. My right skid passed less than 3 feet from the birdhouse. “I think I left off at this birdhouse,” I said into the radio. “Can you go down the hill a little and check the trees to make sure they’re dry just in case I stopped lower down the block?”
He told me he would. A few minutes later, he reported that the trees downhill from the birdhouse were good and dry.
From that point, the dry flight was routine. I averaged about 10 knots, keeping as low to the trees as I could, flying every third aisle. The work went much more quickly.
I was halfway finished with the last block, which is about a half mile south of the rest of the orchard, when it started to rain. I reported that to my client.
“Yeah, it’s raining here, too.” The poor guy didn’t seem happy.
“I’m going to finish up here in case it’s just a light passing shower,” I told him. If it didn’t rain much, the trees would not need to be dried again and I’d be done.
But it wasn’t a light shower. By the time I was finished, it was a good, solid rain.
I came in to my landing zone and set down. When I got out, my client was there with my radio. It was still raining, although not very hard.
“When this passes,” he said resignedly, “I’ll probably have you do it again.”
I nodded. “Just give me a call.”
He and his dog left on his ATV. I put the helicopter’s door back on and moved the truck up to refuel. That’s when I discovered that I didn’t have 40 gallons in the tank. The last guy who’d filled it had obviously not filled it. It was dry after pumping about 25 gallons.
I looked at the helicopter’s fuel gauge I had enough fuel for 2 hours of flight time. I’d just flown 1.9 hours. I had a choice: I could hope the fuel I had was enough for another pass or I could fly back down to the airport and get more. Trouble was, I’d forgotten to bring my wallet and had no way to pay for fuel at the airport.
Either way, I was heading back to my RV. I didn’t bother with the tie downs or even locking the doors. I just drove back up. Along the way, I convinced myself that I had enough fuel on board for another dry and a trip to the airport.
A Short Intermission
I didn’t bother getting changed, although I did take off my muddy sneakers. I heated up some ribs I’d bought at the supermarket the day before and munched them, standing up. I was just digging into a piece of apple pie when my phone rang. It was my client giving me the order to fly.
By this time, it was after 5 PM. There was very little wind. As I started up the helicopter, I could see a tiny patch of blue sky just to beyond the ridge to the south. That’s where our weather had been coming from all day.
I’d finally remembered to bring along an iPod and I plugged it into my intercom system. It would play a random selection of my favorite music as I flew.
I lifted off to my start point. Just that morning, the orchard had been virtually unknown to me. Sure, I’d known its boundaries, but I didn’t know it intimately. Now I knew where the wind machines, birdhouses, and pine trees would create hazards along the way. I knew which aisles were prepared for the next day’s pick with rows of cherry bins. I knew where the muddy dirt roads cut between the blocks of trees. I knew where I’d have to fly sideways to keep my tail rotor out of trees and where I could fly sideways to simply reduce the time it took to dry short rows.
The last flight went quickly. It might have been because I knew the orchard so well now and, on every dry, I’d come up with a better plan of attack. Or it might have been the endless stream of my favorite rock, jazz, and pop music streaming into my helmet’s earphones that got me in the groove. Or it might have been because I was flying faster to make sure I didn’t run out of fuel before I ran out of cherry trees to dry. For whatever reason, I was finished in 1.8 hours.
End of Day
I zipped down the valley to Wenatchee Airport. A Cessna was moving away from the fuel island. A fire fighting helicopter had recently landed and its crew was getting out for the night. It was after 7 PM.
I topped off both tanks and had the engine started again before the gyros had even spun down. Moments later, I was on my way back to my landing zone. The sky was clearing quickly; there was lots of blue. Still too many clouds to the northwest for a good sunset, though.
Back at the orchard, I buttoned the helicopter up tight for the night, putting the hail covers back on the main rotor blades. There was still a chance of thunderstorms, so I wasn’t taking any chances.
At the RV, someone had left a ziplock bag of homemade peanut butter cookies atop my BBQ grill.
It felt good to get back to the RV and put on comfy clothes. It was after 8 PM and I was very tired. I started sauteing some baby broccoli with olive oil and garlic for supper. Before it was done, however, I realized that I was too tired to eat. So I got Alex the Bird and the RV settled for the night, stowed the uneaten broccoli in the fridge and went to bed.
I was out cold by 9 PM.