Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

Two people helped me get started in cherry drying.

Yesterday, I got an email message from someone I hadn’t heard from since 2009. His name is Rob and he’s one of the two people who helped me launch my cherry drying business here in Washington state.

The first person, of course, was Erik Goldbeck. Erik contacted me way back in 2006 about joining him in Washington for some cherry drying work. It was Erik who explained what the work entailed and why it’s done. He tried to get me up to Washington from my home in Arizona in the summer of 2006 and again in 2007, but he was unable to guarantee me work or the standby pay I needed to make the trip financially viable. It wasn’t until 2008 that Erik got enough contract work to bring a second pilot on board with guaranteed standby pay. He chose me and I prepared to come north to join him.

At Pateros
Here’s my helicopter, parked on the lawn beside a motel in Pateros, WA where I worked for 10 days that first cherry drying season.

Then two things happened. First there was a late season frost that destroyed half the crop. Suddenly Erik only needed one pilot. But Erik was not going to be that pilot. Almost at the same time, he was diagnosed with cancer. When I met him in person for the first and only time, he was in the hospital recovering from surgery, relearning how to walk. He sent me to Quincy, WA to handle the remaining cherry contracts he’d gotten for us. I was only there for seven weeks that first year and only flew five hours total.

The following year, 2009, Erik was out of the picture. (He died that summer; his illness and death had a profound effect on me.) I prepared to go to work for the same company he’d contracted with for much of the work the previous year. I had two contacts: Rob in the Quincy area and Dan in the Chelan area. They worked for a man named Ed, selling helicopter services to orchardists and getting helicopters to do the work.

About a month before my season start, Ed apparently decided he didn’t want to be in the business anymore. He shut down without any notice, leaving Rob and Dan unemployed, dozens of orchardists without any protection for their cherry crop, and more than a few pilots wondering what the heck they were going to do. I got in touch with Rob, who seemed disillusioned and fed up. He told me he was going to retire and then he did something I’ve always appreciated: he gave me the phone numbers for a bunch of orchardists in Quincy and Wenatchee who might need helicopters.

I worked the phones. I got enough orchardists interested in hiring me to make it worth coming north on my own. I created a contract based on the one Erik had with me. I collected standby pay. And in late May, I hooked up my old RV and headed north to Washington for the summer. I even managed to extend my season with a new contract that had me in the Wenatchee area until mid August.

At the end of the season, I sent Rob a “commission” check to thank him. I think he was surprised.

Each year, I built up my client base to add clients and orchards. By 2011, I had enough work to add a pilot for about three of my eleven weeks. The following year I added one for four weeks. The next year, there were three of us for a while. Then four. This year, which is my ninth season, I have four pilots helping me for my busiest part of the season: two in Quincy and two with me in the Wenatchee area, where I’ve been living full-time since May 2013.

But without the leads from Rob, I would never have been able to come back that second season and I wouldn’t be where I am now — living in a place I love, surrounded by good friends and friendly people, enjoying a life I’d only dreamed about having.

I tried to contact Rob a few times, mostly just to say hello. But I never got a response.

Until yesterday’s email, which was sent using the contact form on my blog.

I’d taken his two granddaughters, aged 6 and 3, on a helicopter ride during an event at the airport on Saturday. They “wanted to fly with the girl pilot.” He was writing to say hello and thank me. He mentioned that he was still retired and living at his orchard but he occasionally did some seasonal inspection work. I wrote back to tell him how good it was to hear from him and to thank him again for helping me get started.

Rob probably doesn’t realize how much he helped change my life for the better. Cherry drying was the good paying work I needed to make my helicopter business thrive. It gave me the excuse I needed to get away from Arizona’s brutally hot summers. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it also gave me a chance to enjoy a few months of freedom every summer, living like a single person and making my own decisions. I fell in love with this area over those summers and it was a no-brainer to move here full-time when my marriage fell apart.

Rebuilding my life here has been one of the most pleasurable challenges in my life — and it wouldn’t be possible without the business I built here with Erik and Rob to help get me started.

First Cherry Drying Flights of the Season

Two flights, two hours.

I’ve been on contract for cherry drying services since May 26. It’s the earliest contract start I’ve ever had.

Although the first orchard I was on contract for dodged a few storms right at the beginning of the contract, the weather settled down and was very nice for two full weeks. Too nice, if you ask me. The east side of the Cascade Mountains is almost as dry a desert as the one I left in Arizona.

During that time, two other small orchards came on contract, giving me responsibility for three orchards totaling 60 acres. The only drawback is that 30 acres are in Quincy, about 10 miles from my home in Malaga, where the other 30 acres is. So there’s a bit of uncompensated flight time between orchards.

I’m Ready for the Calls

With a 20% chance of rain in the forecast for Thursday, a few growers — including one who isn’t on contract yet — called to check in. Normally, I don’t bug my growers unless they owe me paperwork or money; when there’s a chance of rain, they sometimes call just to make sure I’m really around.

What they don’t realize is that from the first day of my first contract to the last day of my last contract, I’m walking weather advisory service. I know the chance of rain for the next 3 days (50% today, 20% tonight, 0% Saturday and Sunday, 20% Monday) and what’s on radar now (dissipating storm system headed for Quincy orchard and building storm system heading for Malaga, both from north in counter-clockwise rotating weather pattern). I have weather on my phone, iPad, and computer and always have at least one of them within arm’s reach.

Helicopter Ready to Go
Rain in the area? I know about it and am ready to fly.

While under contract, I’m never more than an hour away from my helicopter, even on nice days with no chance of rain. If there’s rain in the forecast, I’m never more than 30 minutes away. If there’s any chance at all of rain within the next 30 minutes, I’m hanging out with the helicopter. If it’s raining on any of my orchards, I’m suited up and the helicopter is preflighted, untied, and ready to go. No matter what the weather is, I don’t drink — not even a glass of wine with dinner — during daylight hours. Of course, by the time the sun goes down, I don’t feel like that glass of wine anyway.

As for the helicopter, it’s completely up-to-date on all maintenance that would have it down for more than a few hours. Both fuel tanks are topped off — I refuel after every flight — giving me an endurance of at least 3 hours over the trees. I have the hinge pins off the pilot door so I can pull the door quickly — I’ve discovered that it’s better to fly with the door off, especially if it might get sunny during a flight; I’d rather be a little wet than roasting in the sun.

Thursday’s Flights

Under Constuction
There’s always something to do with a home under construction.

With a 30% chance of rain forecasted for Thursday, I hung out at home, which is where my helicopter is now based. The builders were still working on on my building and I had plenty to do to keep busy.

By around 1 PM, it started clouding up. I watched various storms on the radar, including a nasty cell near Peshastin and another near Cashmere. But all the storms were moving south to north and both of those points were west of me and my orchards. No threat. Still, I spent some time getting scrap lumber I planned to use for projects stowed away under my RV and closing up the windows in my Jeep and truck.

When I saw a storm come out of nowhere and apparently drop a ton of rain right on top of one of my orchards — which I could see from my home — I suited up and went out to prep the helicopter.

When the call came, I was actually sitting in the helicopter with the key in the ignition. I told the grower I’d be over as soon as I could. I was hovering over his orchard less than 10 minutes later.

I don’t particularly care for this orchard. In 23 acres, they’ve managed to throw in a cornucopia of obstacles: 4 buildings, 2 sets of wires (plus a nearly invisible one running from a pole to a house right at treetop level), 3 wind machines, a bird house, tall border trees, and a pipe that, for some reason rises about 5 feet over the tops of the cherry trees beneath it. It was just after negotiating around this pipe that my main rotor blades trimmed some narrow branches on one of the border trees.

And then there was the wind. Dead calm one minute and gusting like crazy the next. I made a 180° turn at the end of a row of trees and got a headwind gust that lifted me 30 feet. Sheesh.

It takes about 45 minutes to dry this orchard and I was glad when I was done. I sped over to the airport, parked at the fuel island, and topped off both tanks. My client called while I was at the airport to thank me for my speedy response. I told him I hoped I could respond that quickly every time he called and reminded him that I lived less than two minutes away by air.

After refueling, assuming I was done for the day, I headed home.

The fuel island at Wenatchee Pangborn on a rainy day. My home is at the base of the cliffs behind the helicopter’s tail rotor in this photo.

Radar Storm
It should not have been a surprise to get a call from my Quincy client, considering this storm cell passed right over his orchard.

I was home less than a hour when a call came from the owner of my Quincy orchard. I felt sorry for the guy — he was going to start picking the next day. He’d almost made it through the whole contract without having to call — something he’d done only once in the seven years I’d been flying for him. Now he needed his cherries dried and they were especially vulnerable this close to picking time. Even though it hadn’t finished raining there yet, I hopped in the helicopter and flew over.

I landed in a parking lot nearby. The orchard is on Crescent Bar, which is a resort area. Unfortunately, a crack in the Wanapum Dam forced the Grant County Public Utility District (PUD) to drastically reduce water levels to the point where the boat ramp and dock are nowhere near water. This is destroying the summer season for businesses down there, including the condos, shops, restaurants, and rental companies. But it also means that no one will raise an eyebrow if someone lands a helicopter in a parking lot on a Thursday evening in June. In fact, it’s likely to be the most interesting thing anyone down there has seen this season.

I didn’t even have time to shut down. My client saw me and called to get me started.

This is an old orchard with some trees even older than me — can you believe that? The land is somewhat hilly and there’s a house and a shop building inside its boundaries. Also some wires on one end in an odd place. Other than that, no obstacles to speak of. What’s weird, however, is that some rows run east/west while others run north/south. This is a bit of a pain since I follow the aisles between rows. But after drying this orchard at least 10 times over the years, I’d learned a good, efficient pattern.

Unfortunately, my client wanted be to dry in a different order. He called with instructions. I did my best to follow them. The idea was to dry the trees with the most fruit first. Since it takes just over an hour to dry the entire orchard, that made sense, especially with the fruit so vulnerable.

Drying an Orchard
My client took about a dozen photos of me in action over his orchard. Of course, he was on the ground looking up.

While I was flying, my phone reminded me that I was due to have dinner at a friend’s house in an hour. I’d already called to postpone the date; I just hadn’t told Siri.

Down below me in various places, they were preparing for the next day’s pick. Outhouses lined the entrance road. A refrigerated truck trailer was parked at the loading dock. Cherry lugs and picking ladders were placed strategically in the area to be picked first. Cherry bins were laid out on trailers. A handful of swampers were moving around, doing odd jobs.

If you want to learn more about the picking process at this orchard, be sure to check out this video I made a few years ago.

The wind was a real factor in this orchard, too. Although it had been calm when I arrived, when I was about 2/3 done it really kicked up. I could easily see the windy spots — it was where the tops of the trees were moving nowhere near me. The trees in that area were young and I suspected that the wind alone might be enough to shake the water off. But I wasn’t taking chances. I kept flying.

I was very glad when I finished the orchard. I did my usual “victory lap” past the shop to say goodbye. Then it was back to the airport for fuel before making the 3-minute flight home.

More to Come?

The weather looked iffy for the rest of the day and I thought there might be a chance of more rain. So after a snack, I settled down in my La-Z-Boy, still in my flight suit, to relax. It was probably around 8 PM when I fell asleep.

I woke up, shut the door, and went to bed around 11 PM. I’d only flown 1.9 hours; I was clearly out of shape.

Little did I know, but there would be much more to come the next day.

My Life as a Migrant Farm Worker

Well, it’s not quite what you might be thinking.

It’s true. I’ve become a migrant farm worker.

Original RV
My original setup was pretty pitiful. I didn’t realize then how much time I’d be spending on the road.

It all started back in 2008 when I made my first annual migration from Arizona to Washington state to do agricultural work: cherry drying. I’d learned about the work two years before, but it took that long to be assured of a contract after the long migration. And one thing was for sure: I wasn’t about to move my helicopter, truck, and trailer 1200 miles (each way) without some guarantee of work on the other end.

It was a win-win situation for me. Escape Arizona’s brutal summer heat while earning some money with my helicopter, which would likely be parked most of the summer anyway. How could I turn it down?

The first season was only seven weeks long and I only flew 5 hours on contract. It was barely worth the travel time and expense.

Cherry Drying Parking
In 2009, I picked up late season work in Wenatchee Heights.

But the next year was 11 weeks under contract and I’ve managed to get about the same every year. I’ve also managed to add contracts to the point where I now bring a second pilot in for 5 weeks and a third pilot in for about 10 days. Fly time varies, as you’d expect, with the weather. My goal is to have two pilots (including me) for at least 10 weeks and a third for a month.

The Work

The work situation is unusual. I’m required to stay in the area for the entire length of the contract, on call during daylight hours seven days a week. No days off, no going home on weekends. On nice, clear days with 0% chance of rain, I can wander a bit from base, as long as I keep an eye on weather forecasts and radar. Still, day trips to Seattle (150 miles away) or off-the-grid locations were pretty much out of the question. Heck, I couldn’t even hike in parts of Quincy Lakes, less than 5 miles from my base, because there was no cell signal there.

One pilot I know was in Seattle when he saw the weather coming in on radar. He hopped in his truck and sped east. I don’t think he planned to have the truck break down an hour away. He hitchhiked in and got started on his orchards about the same time I was refueling to finish up mine. Not sure if he learned his lesson. He was back the following year playing the same risky games.

When rain is possible, things are different. I stay close — often at my base all day. If radar shows rain coming, I’ll go out and prep the helicopter for flight — make sure its full of fuel, preflight it, and take off the blade tie-downs or hail covers (whichever it’s wearing). If radar shows rain on one of my orchards, I’ll suit up and wait in my truck beside the helicopter. Then, when the call comes, I can be in the air in less than 5 minutes.

Cherry Drying
Cherry drying is all about flying low and slow.

The work itself is dangerous and requires good hovering skills in all conditions. I’m hovering just over the trees at low speed, firmly inside the Deadman’s Curve. If the engine quits, a crash through the trees is assured. Some orchards are hilly, others have obstacles like buildings and poles and wires. I can be called out as early as predawn and can be flying after sunset — I’ll fly as long as I can see a horizon.

The summer days in Central Washington State are long, with sunrise around 5 AM and sunset around 9 PM on the summer solstice. Because the night is only 8 hours long and I never really know whether I’ll be flying at dawn, there’s no alcohol, even at the end of a long day — remember: “eight hours from bottle to throttle.”

But the standby pay is good, compensating me not only for getting my helicopter into the area but keeping it there and assuring it’s available when called. It used to bother me when I got calls from tourists in Arizona wanting to see the Grand Canyon in July and I couldn’t take them because I was 1200 miles away. Then I realized that I was being paid for my time in Washington and knew that it was nicer to be paid to sit around and wait than to fly cheap midwesterners — who else visits Phoenix in July? — to a place I visited more times than most people can imagine.

Maria and Penny
Here I am with Penny the Tiny Dog last year after a cherry drying flight.

I did all the work myself: prepping the helicopter, flying, refueling, putting the helicopter to bed. I’d take the truck to the bulk fuel place in Ephrata or Wenatchee and fill my 82-gallon transfer tank with 100LL so I always had some on hand. I’d move, park, and move the RV as needed, dealing with all the hookups, including the often nasty sewer line. I’d handle propane tank refills and minor repairs. I’d also tend to the truck, making sure it got its oil changed with Rotella (as requested), even though it meant a trip to the Walmart in Chelan, 60 miles away. In the meantime, I handled all the client relations stuff, including getting clients signed up, visiting their orchards so I knew where hazards were, invoicing, and collecting fees.

In between, I managed to have a nice, easy-going life, making lots of friends and doing fun (albeit local) things.

The Logistics

The logistics of being a “migrant” worker were daunting. Each May I needed to get my helicopter and RV from Arizona to Washington. Each August or September, I needed to get them both back to Arizona. That meant a total of three round trips.

Here are all of Flying M Air’s assets: our helicopter, 1-ton diesel Ford Truck, and a 35-foot fifth wheel RV. It takes two trips for me to move them to a worksite.

I usually brought the helicopter north first, leaving it in Seattle for maintenance. Then I’d fly home on an airliner, hook up my RV to a truck, and make the 2-3 day drive north with my parrot, Alex the Bird. (Alex is gone now; he has a new home.) Then I’d take a flight from Wenatchee to Seattle and pick up the helicopter. With luck, I had decent weather and could come east through one of the passes: Snowqualmie or Stevens.

One time I had rotten luck and, after several aborted attempts to get over the Cascades, wound up flying all the way down to Portland and following the Columbia River through the Gorge. That was a costly ferry flight.

Later, I skipped the Seattle maintenance — saving a ton of money not only on ferry flying but maintenance itself; my Phoenix area mechanics seemed to be able to do the same work for a lot less money.

Bird Nest in Fan Scroll
It was not fun cleaning this out of my helicopter.

The last time I left the helicopter behind while fetching the RV, during the week I was gone some birds built a nest in my helicopter’s fan scroll and engine compartment. That was quite a mess to clean up.

The drive up was an adventure, too. I tried all kinds of routes. The fastest was Route 93 from Wickenburg, AZ (where I lived at the time) to Twin Falls, ID and then Route 84 to the Tri-Cities area of Washington and back roads from there. It was a long drive. If I made it to Jackpot NV on the first day — 679 miles from home — I’d have a shorter drive the next day. But most times, I couldn’t do it on my own.

Once, I arrived at my Washington destination after sunset and faced the task of parking a 35-foot long fifth wheel trailer in a parking spot between two railroad ties. I still don’t know how I did it in the gloomy light after driving more than 600 miles that day.

In August or September, I did the same thing in reverse. Take the RV home with my parrot, then fly back on an airliner to fetch the helicopter.

In 2009, my wasband and our dog Jack accompanied me on the return RV drive. My wasband was between jobs and it seemed like a great opportunity to enjoy a late summer trip — we so seldom had real vacations together. We went east to Coeur d’Alene, ID, where a friend of mine lives, then kept going and visited Glacier National Park. We camped there and in Yellowstone. Then, for reasons I can’t quite comprehend, my wasband was in a big hurry to get home, cutting the vacation short by at least a week over what we could have done.

My wasband also occasionally accompanied me on the helicopter flight. I think he did it twice with me. Once, we flew from Seattle to Page, AZ. Another time, we flew from Seattle down the coast until the marine layer forced us inland. I thought he enjoyed those flights, but apparently he considered them “work” — during our divorce trial, he claimed he was working for me to fly the helicopter back. Not likely, since he wasn’t a commercial pilot and wasn’t legal to work as one. Maybe if I’d charged him for the opportunity to build flight time — as I charged every other pilot who flew that trip with me — he would have seen it differently. To me, however, it was just another helicopter “road trip” with the man I loved.

Silly me.

I wonder who’s helicopter he’s flying these days.

Today’s Migrant Farm Work

I started frost control — another kind of agricultural work — last year.

Cosmo View
I went to HeliExpo last year in Las Vegas during frost season and stayed at the Cosmopolitan, with an excellent view of the strip from my room.

My contract required me to put my helicopter in California, but didn’t require me to stay with it. Instead, I’d be paid generously for callouts and standby time. I moved it to the Sacramento area in late February and spent the following two months traveling between Phoenix and Sacramento, Wenatchee, and Las Vegas, spending most of my time in Arizona packing up my belongings for my move to Washington later in the year.

The contract terms weren’t good unless there was frost — and there wasn’t any last year. I just about broke even when you consider my investment in additional lighting for the helicopter and the cost of repositioning it and my RV. But at least I got my foot in the door as a frost pilot and got to see what it was like flying over almond trees in the dark.

Can’t say I liked it.

I moved to Washington in the spring, when the divorce proceedings were over and I’d relinquished exclusive use of my house to my wasband and his chief advisor — the woman who’d apparently convinced him to spend more than $100K to go after my money. (Seriously. I can’t make this shit up.)

I was still “migrant” for a while — I started in Quincy and moved to Wenatchee Heights, just as I’d done the previous five years. But when that late season contract was over, I moved to my future home, a 10-acre parcel of view property overlooking the Columbia River Valley and Wenatchee. It looked as if my migrant farm worker days were over — I could commute from my new home to my clients’ cherry orchards.

Almond Trees
The almond trees are beautiful when they’re blooming — and they smell nice, too!

I had no intention of doing frost control work under the same contract as last year. But I didn’t have to. I got a much better contract — one that paid better if I didn’t fly. With winter dumping snow on my home in Washington, I moved the RV and later the helicopter down to the Sacramento area again, setting up camp at a small local airport in a nice farming community. With rent at a startlingly low rate of only $200/month with a full hookup, the season would be very profitable even if I didn’t fly.

Best of all, I like the area: the weather was warm, the town was full of great restaurants (and even a beekeeper supply place), there was a nice dog park for Penny the Tiny Dog, and Sacramento was only 20 minutes away. I had a friend in Carmichael, only 30 minutes away, and more friends in Georgetown and Healdsburg, each only 90 minutes away by truck — or 30 by helicopter.

Frost is different from cherries. With frost work, you seldom fly during the day. Instead, you fly any time between 2 AM and 8 AM — most often right around dawn when it’s coldest. That means you have the whole day to do anything you like — hiking, bicycling, kayaking, wine tasting, whatever. As I write this, I’m planning a spa day in Geyserville, a trip to San Francisco, and at least one wine tasting trip to Napa Valley. I’ve joined a few local meetup groups and will be hiking and kayaking with new friends. All while “working” — or at least being paid to stand by in case it gets cold.

It’s almost like a paid vacation — with the added bonus of being able to build night flying time.

It’s a Living

My agricultural work has been very good to me. It saved my business from failure and has made it possible for me to save up enough money for the helicopter’s overhaul.

Once my home is built and my possessions are stored away inside it, I can go back to a modified version of my earlier plan: eight months out of the year flying frost and cherries in in the Sacramento and Wenatchee areas and four months goofing off. But instead of hanging around my old house in an Arizona retirement community with a bunch of seniors, I’ll travel and actually see some of the world on my own terms.

It’s the semi-retired lifestyle I’d expected at this stage of my life, delayed about two years by my wasband’s inexplicable greed and stupidity, and enjoyed without the company of a sad sack old man.