I experience a “magic moment” in the course of doing my summer job.
It was late afternoon on a day with drifting storm clouds. I was on call for cherry drying and had already gone out once, earlier in the day.
When I wasn’t flying or prepping the helicopter, I’d spent a good part of the day watching the weather radar on my iPad. Various colored blobs were drifting across from the west, after a gradual shift from their southwest to northeast direction earlier in the day. Rain varied in intensity from a light drizzle to torrential downpour. Every time a storm hit or missed an area, there would be another one right behind it to possibly do the same. Sometimes the rain was so intense that the storm would drain itself and the colored blob would fade as it tracked across the screen.
I was only on contract with one orchard: a 30-acre block of mostly very mature trees near the Columbia River. The grower was very careful about his orchard and, during the vital period, normally spent all day just about every day among his trees. Sometimes he’d mow the long strips of grass in the aisles between them. Other times he’d tinker with the tractors and other equipment he needed to care for his crop. Still other times, he worked on his shop, patching insulation, repairing a roof, adding a wall. Smart phones and good cell service — not to mention a good pair of eyes — had made it relatively easy for him to track the weather throughout the day. But he occasionally called or texted me at my base seven air miles away, where I had a better look at the sky and a bigger screen to watch the radar blobs.
I saw the storm coming on radar and confirmed it with a look outside. It was across the river to the west, heading right for the orchard. While there was a chance it might rain itself out before it arrived, I suspected it might not. Already still suited up from my flight a few hours before, I headed back to the helicopter to pull off the blade tie downs and prepare to fly.
The sky was intensely dark out toward the river and the storm was definitely heading in my direction. But what was even scarier was the low hanging cloud near me that seemed to be swirling gently like something from a Weather Channel tornado special. I watched it for a while, wondering whether the storm was really intense enough to get a tornado going. It didn’t seem to be.
My phone rang. It was my client. “Work your magic,” he said.
It took me a second to comprehend his words. “It didn’t even start raining here,” I said.
“It poured like hell on the orchard,” he told me. “It’s stopped now. Come on out and dry.”
I hung up and moved my truck out of the way. By the time I was hurrying back to the helicopter, big raindrops were falling on me. The swirling cloud was gone.
I started up and began the warm up process. It wasn’t until I was pulling on my helmet that I realized I’d forgotten to take my door off. This could be a problem if the sun came out and it warmed up; the helicopter would become like an oven every time I faced the sun. But the sky was dark and that didn’t seem likely. Ah, little did I know…
By the time I lifted off the pad, the rain was dumping on me. The cockpit bubble was wet with a million drops. I pushed the cyclic forward and accelerated into my climb. The drops ran off the sides, clearing the window enough to see. I turned to the west and flew right into a wall of hard rain.
When I flew at the Grand Canyon back in 2004, we had a sort of mantra for dealing with heavy rain: if you can see through it, you can fly through it. This rain was so intense that I could barely see brightness in the sky beyond it. I was flying at about 200 feet off the ground — just high enough to clear the local power lines but probably not high enough to clear the high-tension power lines I knew were up ahead. The air was remarkably calm, so at least I didn’t have to deal with turbulence. I climbed cautiously, heading west, flying at 110 knots, focused on reaching the orchard quickly.
The sky brightened. The rain lessened. Then I was through the storm, on the other side, flying into what looked like a beautiful day.
A really beautiful day.
Ahead of me, the sun was shining brightly, sending patches of light through broken clouds onto the yellow-green hillsides beyond the Columbia River. Some low-level clouds were floating at my altitude over the river and beyond. Wisps of clouds were wrapping themselves around hilltops like winter scarves around thick necks. The sky had a kind of three-dimensionality I rarely get to see.
And over my right shoulder, back in the dark storm I was passing, was a double rainbow.
There are times that I can only classify as magical — times I wish I could bottle up and save, just so I can open them up to re-experience them when I need a little magic in my life. This was one of those times.
I realized, in a flash of clarity, that I really loved doing what I do.
I call myself a writer, but in all honesty, there’s no way I can express, in words, the feeling I get when I experience one of these moments. I can try to describe what I see. I can try to paint a picture for my reader to see something similar in his own mind as he reads my words. But in truth, there’s no way to share this kind of experience after the fact. It’s a moment in time and space — something that becomes part of me. It’s like a happy little secret I’m forced to bear, unable to share it with anyone else.
It’s moments like these that make my life worth living.
I cleared the big wires, reached the edge of the plateau, and lowered the collective almost to the floor to start a steep descent down to the river. The water was smooth, reflecting the clouds in a magnificent sky. Everything below me looked fresh and clean and wet. I descended at 1200 feet per minute over the river, then pulled the cyclic back gently to slow my airspeed and descent rate. I came in over the orchard in a grand, swooping arc, settling in at the southeast corner in a hover over trees nearly as old as I am.
And then I got down to work, hovering back and forth, up and down the rows of trees, performing the tedious task I was paid to do.
From my seat only a few feet above the treetops, I could clearly see the bright red fruit and the droplets of water clinging to them. I could see my downwash shaking the tree branches all around me. Everything was very wet, but with only one pass, most of that water was shaken and blown down to the ground.
I stole glimpses of the river and sky and cliffs. It was early evening on a Washington day when the sun would set well after 8:30 PM. The sun played peek-a-book with thin strips of clouds. The sunlight illuminated the cliff faces in a golden light.
On the ground out on the road in front of the orchard, my client stood outside his truck, snapping photos with his camera. Inside the front passenger seat, I saw his mom. She waved once but, with both hands fully occupied, I couldn’t wave back. Later, the truck was in the orchard, near the shop building. The photos started arriving on my cell phone, which was docked in a cradle within reach, a while later. I wouldn’t be able to see them until much later.
It took over an hour to do the whole orchard. It always does. It’s a tough dry, with trees of varying ages and heights, a gentle slope, a deep gully, and some nasty wires right at rotor height along one side of the orchard. I spend a lot of time flying sideways so I can keep low on a downhill stretch without getting my tail rotor in the trees behind me. But finally I was done. I did what I think of as my “victory lap,” a fast, low-level flight diagonally across the orchard, gaining speed before pulling the cyclic back to start a steep climb up the cliff face.
At the top of the cliff, thin clouds were thickening, forming a fog layer that would soon be too thick to pass through. I squeezed through a gap in the clouds and pointed the helicopter east, toward my home base.
Note: Many thanks to Patrick, my client, for providing the in-flight photos that appear in this post and on Facebook.