A New Year, A New Book

A new project to get my year off to a good start.

2013 was the first year since 1991 that I did not publish a new book.

There are several of reasons for this, none of which I want to get into here. That would make interesting fodder for a future blog post. Don’t worry; I won’t leave you hanging for long.

But it isn’t as if I haven’t been writing — I have been. In addition to this blog, which I’ve tended to quite faithfully since I started it in October 2003, I’ve been working on another book project since late 2012, when I found myself with an outrageous personal story to tell. Unfortunately, I’ve had to put that project aside; I hope to finish it when I know the ending.

Papillon HelicopterToday, however, I started work on the book I’ve been thinking about for the past month or so. Tentatively titled Flying the Canyon: My Season as a Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour Pilot, this book will share my experiences from one of the most interesting summers of my life.

Here, I’ll let the book’s draft introduction tell you more:

In the summer of 2004, I realized one of my dreams: I became a helicopter tour pilot at the Grand Canyon.

I was 42 when I got the job and I worked with a bunch of young people — mostly men — some of whom were young enough to be my kids. I met the challenges of working in a sometimes difficult but usually breathtakingly beautiful flying environment, dealing with the personalities of co-workers and management, and trying to please passengers from all over the world. The work was rewarding, frustrating, and enlightening. The flying experience was something I think every helicopter pilot should have.

I also had a very odd experience on one of my flights — an experience that would leave the lingering scar of PTSD on me for many years to come.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work, but by the end of the summer, the novelty had worn off. Friction inside the company made the job less pleasant than it had been. I realized that I was a square peg in a round hole. My real work as a freelance writer was being neglected and my editors were beginning to lose their patience. I was sad to leave, but it was time.

This book is the story of my season at the Grand Canyon. It begins before the beginning by sharing the stories of when I decided I wanted to learn how to fly and the things that I did to gain the skills I’d need to be a tour pilot. It then goes on to tell about my experiences as a pilot at the Canyon — including the unusual occurrence on June 10, 2004 — and my direct interactions with fellow pilots, management, and passengers. Finally, it shares how my feelings about being a Canyon tour pilot changed as the summer came to a close and the events that affected my decision to leave.

Because I’d blogged many of my experiences soon after they happened, much of what I share in these pages is rich with details. But rather than just restate my blog posts, I’ve filled in the gaps between them with the behind-the-scenes stories that I couldn’t make public at the time.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be a helicopter tour pilot at the Grand Canyon? Here’s what it was like for me.

As I write, I’ll be pulling a lot of my blog posts about those days offline, probably for good. In a way, my blog has acted as a temporary archive for these stories. Once the book is complete and published, the book will be the permanent archive. I hope to do this with much of the contents of my blog.

Captain MariaToday, I churned out over 4,000 words, completing the introduction (which I just shared here), a Prologue, and Chapter 1, which briefly covers my experiences learning to fly and getting my commercial pilot rating. My goal is to have the entire book finished by month-end — a goal I know I can reach if I can stay focused on my work. (With little else do do this winter, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to find time!)

I’ve toyed with the idea of shopping it around to a mainstream publishing house but will likely self-publish under the Flying M Productions “Real-Life Flying” imprint. The book will be available in print and as an ebook in Kindle, Nook, and iBooks formats. I had quite a bit of success with one of my three self-publishing projects back in 2012, so I’m pretty confident I’ll meet or beat that success with this book.

Of course, since I need to work on the book each morning, that might cut into my blogging time. So expect to see fewer posts here over the next month or so as I write, edit, lay out, and publish this book. More information on where to buy it will be available before month-end.

Comments? You know where to put them!

Cherry Drying: My Sixth Season

The whole season in summary.

I’m just finished up my sixth season as a cherry drying pilot in North Central Washington’s Wenatchee area. I thought I’d take a moment to summarize how things went.

What Cherry Drying is All About

I’ve blogged about this extensively and you can quickly zip to other cherry drying related posts by following the cherry drying tag. In a nutshell, it’s like this:

Split Cherries
These Rainier cherries are split and cannot be sold. Cherry drying by helicopter can prevent this.

During the last three or so weeks before a cherry is harvested it is susceptible to damage by rain. Growers are most worried by splits, which can occur when water accumulates in the cherry’s stem cup and is absorbed through the skin. The cherries get too fat for their own skin and split. Other damage can include mildew and rotting.

Because of this, growers want to get the cherries as dry as possible after a rain. So they hire helicopter pilots to hover over the cherry trees after it rains. The downwash of the helicopter’s main rotor blades shakes the water off the leaves and cherries, allowing them to dry much quicker without absorbing so much water.

Keeping the cherries dry is vitally important for a successful crop — as this year so clearly demonstrated. During the relatively short cherry season, dozens of helicopters are on standby with pilots waiting to fly when it rains. And when the rains start falling, all hell breaks loose over the cherry trees.

The Flying M Air Team

One of the things I pride myself on is the ability to provide prompt service and quick dry times to my clients. I do this by never contracting to cover more than 100 acres per helicopter and by utilizing helicopters well-suited to cherry drying missions. Because of this 100 acres/helicopter policy, I need to contract with additional helicopter crews to help out during “crunch times.”

Robinson R44
I’ve been providing cherry drying services in my Robinson R44 since 2008.

My Robinson R44 can thoroughly dry an average of 40 acres per hour. (Of course, actual drying capacity varies depending on tree size, row density, orchard obstacles and terrain, and the wetness of the trees. The more I dry, the better feel I have developed for all this.) That means that if it rained on all my clients at once and they all called at the same time, I could dry 100 acres in about 2-1/2 hours. That’s a long time, but still within requirements. Fortunately, it seldom rains everywhere at once and I’ve never had all my clients call at once.

Of course, I do contract for more than 100 acres at a time. That means I need help to get the jobs done promptly. This was the second year in a row that I had two other helicopter crews helping me complete my cherry drying contracts.

MTAS Hiller
The MTAS Hiller was on contract with Flying M Air for its second year.

Mike and Ron manned the MTAS Hiller for the second year in a row. For the first four weeks of their contract with me, they covered three orchards in Quincy, WA. For the fifth and final week, they provided backup coverage for orchards in East Wenatchee and Wenatchee Heights.

Canyon State Hughes 300
Woody at the controls of Canyon State’s Hughes 300.

Woody manned the Canyon State Hughes 300 for the first time. He was on contract with me for just 8 days during what I think of as a “super crunch” time when overlapping contracts made me responsible for about 250 acres of cherry trees. Although I prefer working with helicopters that have big two-bladed systems — such as the Robinson R44, Hiller, Bell 47, and JetRanger — this little Hughes got the job done using the Flying M Air technique of flying very low and very slow over the treetops. If Woody does come back next year, however, he’ll likely return in either a Hiller or R44.

If you’re a helicopter owner/operator with an R44 and at least 500 hours experience in helicopters (50 or more of which is in your R44), you might want to check the Help Wanted page at Flying M Air next spring. I’m always looking for good, reliable pilots with helicopters to help out.

Old Clients, New Orchards

This year, I contracted with all of last year’s clients except one. He decided to skip helicopter services. That was a loss of 55 acres. (Not sure how he did because I didn’t ask.)

Two of my clients added orchards to their contracts. One added three orchards totaling 61 acres. Another added one orchard that was 23 acres.

So I had a net gain of 31 acres. If I hadn’t lost that 55 acres, I would have had to hire on another helicopter without enough standby pay to cover it, so it’s kind of good that I lost it.

My contracted orchards stretched from George, WA to Monitor, WA. Most were in Quincy, Wenatchee Heights, and Malaga. The crunch time fell from June 20 through July 24, with super crunch falling in the middle of July.

I was based at Quincy for the first half of my season and then moved to Wenatchee Heights for the second half.

Busy, Busy!

This was our busiest season ever. My teammates and I flew a total of about 62 hours for the total of 16 weeks we were contracted (10 for me, 5 for MTAS, and 1 for Canyon State).

Now if you do the math, you’ll find that 62 ÷ 16 comes out to just about 3.9 hours per week. That’s not very much flying. But still, it was the most we’ve flown in a cherry season. My first two years I flew only 5 hours in 7 weeks (less than 1 hour per week average) and 5 hours in 10 weeks (about 1/2 hour per week average). There’s not a lot of flying in cherry drying work. It’s definitely not a time-building job.

Cherry Drying Action Photo
Here I am in action, hovering with my skids nearly in the trees.

The busiest time was what I refer to as the week from hell. It was the last week in June and I personally flew almost 30 hours in just 6 days. On several of those days I dried more than one orchard three or four times. I flew orchard after orchard, sometimes stopping only long enough to refuel and head back out.

I wasn’t happy about it.

Yes, I like to fly because I make money doing it. But no, I don’t like my clients to be put through the wringer by the weather, worrying and spending money on my services and still losing cherries because there’s simply no way to keep them dry when it rains all day long. So yes, I hope I never have another cherry season as busy as this one. My clients, for the most part, are too nice.

As for my competition, they were flying around like crazy people, too. I heard them all on the radio, playing follow the leader to guide unprepared pilots to the orchard blocks that needed drying. Some operators will contract for blocks as small as 2 and 3 acres, so their pilots often spend more time flying from orchard to orchard — without compensation — than actually drying. I’d rather take contracts for a small handful of big orchard blocks so I spend more time over the trees than in transit.

Early, Compressed Season

This was also the earliest season ever. My first contract started May 29; it usually starts the end of the first week in June. And my last contract ended by August 10; last year, it ran until August 25.

It was also a compressed season. Estimated start dates for mid to late season orchards, which were provided at the beginning of the season, creeped forward little by little, causing an uncomfortable overlap in scheduling — which is why I brought Woody’s company on board. That explains how my season started a week earlier than usual and ended two weeks earlier.

Late Season Rain

We also had an unusual amount of late season rain. Indeed, many growers don’t bother getting helicopter standby coverage because it so seldom rains in late July and August. But this year it did. Huge rainstorms hit on the evening of August 1, the morning of August 2, and the evening of August 4. I made five flights, covering my contracted orchard five times and another orchard three times (at my client’s request).

It was a good thing I did. My client reported that on the day of the last storm, I was one of only two helicopters flying in the area. While the packing plant reported minimal splits for his cherries, other orchards that did not have helicopter hover service reported up to 50% splits.

Maybe some lessons were learned? I guess we’ll see next year.

That’s It In a Nutshell

That’s pretty much how the season went for me.

It was my best season ever — but will it be as good next year? Or will we have a bad crop and lose contracts due to frost — as was the case in 2008? Or not have many rain events — as was the case in 2008 through 2010? Or will some upstart company come in and undercut operators like me by taking contracts for as many as 300 acres per helicopter at half the standby pay, crossing their fingers that it doesn’t rain and they’re not actually called to dry? That’s happened more than a few times in the past and those fly-by-night operators never seem to come back for a second season.

It’s all a gamble, a crap shoot. It’s why I don’t put all my eggs in one basket, why I save as much as I can for leaner days when the revenue just isn’t flowing.

But that’s just part of being a small helicopter operator. I love the challenge — especially when things work out just right.

A Dinner with Friends

Salmon, local wine, and home-made cherry pie with friends.

If you’ve been following this blog or my Twitter or Facebook accounts, you know that I’m in Washington State on the last of several cherry drying contracts. I’m not the only helicopter pilot doing this work. At the peak of the season, there were probably about 20 of us working in central Washington state for a handful of service providers. My company, Flying M Air, is probably the smallest of those service providers; this year I was able to add a second pilot for about half my season.

My friend, Jim, has been doing this work for about fifteen years. He starts the season in the Mattawa area and ends it in the Chelan area. He usually starts before me and finishes before me.

This year, I met Lisa, who was new to this work. She worked for the same service provider as Jim, starting down in Kennewick, moving up to Brewster for a while, and then ending the season in Malaga.

Unfortunately, I only met Lisa last week, on Thursday. I say “unfortunately,” because we really hit it off. She came up to my RV for dinner that evening and accompanied me to the Beaumont Cellars Dinner on the Crushpad event the following evening. We went wine tasting and had dinner together again on Sunday. By then, I felt as if I’d known her a long time.

The End is Here

On Friday, my contract in Wenatchee Heights was extended two weeks. It made sense; they’d barely started picking the 86 acres I was responsible for. Since this particular client picks by color, it would take at least two weeks to finish picking. Lisa was told she’d be needed until Wednesday. Jim, the last pilot left in Chelan, was waiting to get cut loose any day.

Moonset over Squilchuck

My view at dawn.

Weather moved in Sunday night. Asleep in my RV at the edge of a cliff over looking Squilchuck Valley, I was awakened by the wind at 3:30 AM. I looked out the window and realized I couldn’t see any stars. I fired up the Intellicast app on my iPad and was shocked to see the green blob indicating rain mostly to the south of my position. I dozed fitfully for an hour, expecting to hear rain on my roof at any moment. It may have been drizzling when I finally fell back to sleep.

At 7 AM, I woke to the sound of voices, trucks, and construction noise. The mostly blue sky was full of puffy clouds. Down in the lower part of the orchard, the pickers were already at work. There was no rain in the forecast at all.

Jim called at about 10 AM. I knew instinctively what he would say and beat him to the punchline: “You’re calling to tell me they cut you loose.”

“You’re a mind-reader,” he said. “Today’s my last day.”

We chatted for a while and then I remembered that Lisa had an opportunity to do a trip with a friend and would probably be open to letting Jim take over her contract for the next two days. He was also open to that, so I hung up and called Lisa. I told her what we were thinking.

“That’s great,” she said, “but today’s my last day, too. They’ll be done picking in about an hour.”

It was then that I realized that both of them would be gone by the next day.

Errands, Favors, and a Cherry Pie

The end of a cherry drying contract comes with logistical challenges.

Lisa’s challenge was easy. All she had to do was pack up, move out of her motel room, and drive the company pickup truck back to Spokane. Her employers would be sending some pilots in time-building mode out to Malaga to pick up the helicopter. She needed to send them the GPS coordinates for where the helicopter was parked so they could find it. She was toying with the idea of leaving that afternoon so she could spend some time with her family before her trip.

Jim’s challenge was a bit more…well, challenging. His helicopter was four hours from its 100-hour inspection, which needed to be done by his mechanic in Seattle. Flying to Seattle was usually a challenge in itself — the weather in the Cascade Mountains was typically miserable with low ceilings, making it a difficult, if not dangerous, flight. A weather window was required, but you never knew when that would be. After dropping his helicopter off in Seattle, he’d have to come back to Wenatchee to fetch his truck and drive it home to Coeur d’Alene. Of course, both his helicopter and truck were in Chelan, about 40 miles farther up the Columbia River. He needed to move his truck to Wenatchee to stage it there for his return from Seattle by airline. Then he needed to get back to Chelan so he could fly out with his helicopter the next day. He suggested a farewell dinner that evening and I promised to drive him back to Chelan.

I had a bunch of errands to run in Wenatchee and I got around to starting them that afternoon. While I was out and about, Lisa called. She’d decided not to leave that day; she’d leave first thing in the morning instead. What she really wanted to do was make a cherry pie. We’d already planned to do that before she left, but that was before she was cut loose early. I had an oven in my RV, so it made sense to do it at my place.

We decided to do it that afternoon. And instead of Jim and me going out to dinner in a restaurant, I’d pick up a piece of salmon and salad fixings and make dinner for all three of us. I was finishing up my errands and heading back to my RV when Jim called and I told him our revised plan. He was on board.

Lisa showed up around 5 PM. Since Jim was still a half hour out, we each took a bowl and headed into the orchard. Five minutes later, we had enough cherries for a pie — and then some.

Back in the RV, I gave the cherries my usual three-soaking bath in cold water to clean them thoroughly. Then Lisa went to work with my junky cherry pitter. It didn’t surprise me much when it broke when she was only half finished. She pitted the rest by hand. By the time Jim showed up, her hands were stained with cherry juice, making her look like a mass murderer.

Jim helped me put a filled propane tank back into its cabinet on my RV and hook it up. The strap that holds it in place bent and he was determined to fix it — which he did. If I wanted to be mean, I would have shown him the strap on the other tank which had similarly broken but had not been fixed. But instead, we went inside and kept Lisa company while she worked on the pie.

We also drank wine. Both Lisa and I had bottles that we’d opened recently but had never finished. We polished them off, one after the other over the course of the evening. I even opened another bottle to keep the wine flowing.

The Salmon Recipe

When the pie was safely in the oven, I got to work on dinner. That’s when Jim gave me a recipe that another one of the pilots had shared over the summer. Oddly, I happened to have all the ingredients. I reproduce it here because it was so excellent:

Ingredients:

  • Salmon filet
  • Mayonnaise
  • Onions, sliced thinly
  • Bacon, cut into pieces

Instructions:

  1. Place the salmon on a piece of aluminum foil.
  2. Spread mayonnaise on the fleshy side of the salmon.
  3. Sprinkle the onions and bacon pieces over the mayonnaise.
  4. Fold up the foil to make a packet.
  5. Place the packet on a preheated grill set to medium heat. If possible, cover the grill to keep the heat in.
  6. Cook until the salmon is done.

The Summer’s Best Dinner

I’d bought a beautiful 1-3/4 pound Coho salmon filet. It was too large to fit on my portable grill in one piece, so I cut it into three portions and made three packets. I absolutely lucked out with the timing. The fish was fully cooked, but still moist. The onions and bacon were cooked to perfection.

I served it with a salad of mixed greens, cucumber slices, vine-ripened tomato, bacon bits, goat cheese, and bottled balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

At one point, Jim said it was the best dinner he’d had all summer. I thought about it and had to agree.

It was the conversation that made it perfect. We talked about flying and about the surreal situation of a cherry drying contract. They seemed to think I had the best setup, living in my mobile mansion on a cliffside with a view, with 86 acres of cherries just steps away. I agreed that it would be tough to go home in September.

Jim was happy that his contracts had gone long enough to cover his annual insurance bill and the cost of his upcoming maintenance. He added up the hours he’d flown during the ten or so weeks he’d been in the area. It wasn’t a lot — cherry drying is not a time-building job — but it was more than usual.

Lisa said it was the best summer she’d ever had and that she’d do it again if she could. Her future holds bigger and better things, though: she’s starting officer school with the Coast Guard in January. She was already looking forward to the trip she’d be starting on Wednesday with a friend.

After dinner, Lisa sliced up the pie, which had been cooling on the stovetop. I produced some Haagen Daaz vanilla ice cream from my freezer. The cherries were big and plump and tender — not the mush you usually find in a cherry pie. It was a perfect finish to a great dinner.

The Party’s Over — and So Is the Summer

The party broke up after 10 PM. Lisa left to drive back to her motel for one last night. Jim and I climbed into my truck and started the long drive to Chelan. We talked politics on the way. We don’t agree on all points, but we’re both too stubborn to give in to the other. We’re also too smart — and too close as friends — to let our disagreement hurt our friendship.

I dropped him off at the house he’s renting. In the morning, his boss would pick him up and drive him to the orchard where his helicopter is parked. Then, weather permitting, he’d make the one-hour flight to Seattle. I’d pick him up at Wenatchee Airport at 5:12 PM and bring him back to his truck. The plan set, I started on my way back.

I got back to my RV just after midnight. The moon was up by then, casting a gray-blue light over the valley spread out before my RV. I listened to the crickets and looked out over that valley for a while. I had 12 days left in my contract and there was a slight chance that it would be extended again.

Yet with my friends gone, I felt as if my summer was over, too.