A Few More Thoughts about my Stupid Pilot Trick

A response to some of the comments I’ve been getting, along with an update.

First of all, I want to thank the over 70 (so far) people who have taken the time to comment on my “Another Stupid Pilot Trick” post. It took me about a week to write it, mostly because I was embarrassed about what I’d allowed to happen to me, and I was feeling more than a little sensitive about that. I almost didn’t leave comments open on the post. But I’m so very glad I did. The outpouring of understanding and good wishes has been amazing. I didn’t get a single nasty or hurtful comment — which is pretty amazing given the percentage of low-life scum we all see bottom feeding on the Internet. You folks rock.

What’s really weird to me is how many people came to read the post. Apparently, it was picked up on Facebook or somewhere else and went a little viral. For two days in a row, it got more than 10,000 hits. So a lot of the comments I got were from complete strangers, including a lot of pilots.

The blog isn’t the only place I got feedback. I also got some on Twitter and a little on Facebook. I got a few email messages and even one phone call. Everyone was amazingly kind and made me feel good about my friends, acquaintances, and the pilot community.

Thank you.

Why “Stupid Pilot Trick”?

First, an explanation.

A friend of mine took some offense at the title of the blog post. She said:

I have to say I don’t like the title of your blog. It made me feel like you were hot dogging or pushing the helicopter to it’s limits.

Understandable. A lot of pilots use the phrase “stupid pilot tricks” to refer to that kind of behavior.

But as I explained:

“Stupid pilot trick” is the phrase I’ve always used to refer to accidents caused by pilot error. I’ve used it in discussing other accidents so I thought it appropriate to use it when discussing mine.

She seemed satisfied with that. I hope other readers are, too.

My Recovery

I’ve had some more time to recover both physically and mentally.

One of my home projects was to replace my old, faded windsock with a bigger, brighter one. I even installed solar spotlights to illuminate it at night.

The bruises are almost gone — the one on my right leg, which my doctor says might take several months to disappear, is pretty much the only one left. (I’d include a photo of the way blood under my skin is now pooling on the right side of my right foot, but do we really need to see that? I don’t think so.) I had low-grade, nagging headaches for a while but they’re all gone now. I’d say I’m pretty much back to 100%, and that’s good. It’s springtime and I’ve got a ton of work to do in my garden and a long list of projects around the house to tackle.

Mentally, things are a bit weird. I think I’m suffering a bit from survivor guilt. You see, about three weeks before my mishap, a friend of mine was in a helicopter crash in eastern Washington state. He’d been doing some animal capture work with two biologists on board his Hughes 369 helicopter. One passenger died and my friend and the other passenger were seriously injured. No one knows what happened because no one can remember. My friend was in a coma for two weeks with a 10% chance of survival. He’s a young guy, though, and he came out of it. They did reconstructive surgery on his arms and legs. His wife recently sent me a photo of him in physical therapy. He’s got a long road ahead of him.

I didn’t want them to know about my crash mostly because I felt bad that I’d survived with very little injury and he’d very nearly died and will be working on his recovery for months (or more?) to come. But his wife found out — probably through the hoopla over the blog post. They’re okay with it — I mean, why wouldn’t they be? — and I know now that my survivor guilt is idiotic. I’m coming to terms with that slowly.

The gaps in my memory of the event are also bothersome. I still don’t remember anything from the time the helicopter went through the trees — which was very loud and seemed to take forever — to the time I was on the ground and realized I could get out. Somewhere in there, the helicopter hit the ground at least twice and turned 180 degrees but I don’t remember it at all. And no, I didn’t pass out; I had no head injury other than getting my brain rattled around a bit. I also don’t remember using the fire extinguisher, although I apparently did. And what did I do during the 30 minutes between when I texted another pilot right after getting out of the helicopter and finally calling 911? I remember parts of two telephone conversations I had during that time, but not 30 minutes worth of anything. I’ve never experienced memory gaps like that before and it continues to bug me that that time is missing.

I should stress that my memory beyond that is fine. My brain is back to functioning at 100% of whatever it was functioning at before the crash.

Counseling? No Thanks.

About two weeks after the crash, I got a letter in the mail from an organization that offers support to pilots after crashes. My response was to get angry. Very angry. So angry that I wrote an email to the guy who sent it, berating him for assuming that I needed help.

Fortunately, I didn’t send it. I grew to realize, with the help of some of my Twitter friends, that some pilots do need help getting past a crash and that the organization would probably be very helpful to them.

A lot of the comments I got from people about the crash assumed that I was seriously traumatized by it. But am I?

I don’t feel that I am and I think I know why.

You see, if you were to make a list of the traumatic things in my life and rank them by how traumatizing they were, this crash would actually appear pretty far down the list. I don’t want to share the list — jeez, why would I want to revisit all the things that have traumatized me throughout my life? — but I will offer one example: the man I lived with for 29 years, who I loved and trusted with my life, cheated on me (with a woman old enough to be my mother!), lied to me (and a judge, under oath), and then tried (and failed) to ruin me financially through a long, drawn-out divorce battle. You don’t think that’s pretty traumatizing? A helicopter crash I walked away from with just scrapes and bruises is nothing compared to that.

(So yes, my crazy divorce prepared me for a helicopter crash. Thanks, honey!)

It’s all relative.

If you remember nothing else from this post, remember this: When you live life, shit happens. The more you live, the more shit happens. I’d rather deal with the shit that’s a byproduct of life than to have no life at all.

‘Nuff said.

Getting Back in the Saddle

I don’t need counseling. What I need is to fulfill my desire to get back into the cockpit and go flying.

No, I’m not afraid to fly now — although I admit I have no interest at all in flying at night. (Other than the “Moonlight Dinner Tours” I did in Phoenix between 2005 and 2011, I never really enjoyed flying at night.) Knowing what caused the crash — distracted flying at night — and what I can do to prevent it from happening again — pay attention, idiot! — takes away any fear I might have of flying again. After all, I really am a decent pilot — a “good stick,” I’ve been told. I flew my R44 like most people drive their car — or maybe even better. (Actually, probably better considering the way some people drive.) I’ve learned my lesson and am eager to get back in the cockpit.

Of course, that means getting another helicopter. I’m working on it. The week after the crash, I put in an offer on a helicopter in Canada, but the guy’s price, which I thought was high, was firm and he wasn’t interested in helping me get it into the U.S. And then there’s all kinds of paperwork to deal with when bringing an aircraft down and I’m simply not interested in dealing with any of that. So I’ve scratched all Canadian helicopters off my list.

I’ve also rethought my strategy on buying a new helicopter. Rather than getting one in the same condition as the one I lost — jeez, it was just a year out of overhaul! — I figured I’d buy one that needs an overhaul in two to five years and get the overhaul done when the time came. That meant I could buy a helicopter for cash using the insurance proceeds and save up for the overhaul. Without a helicopter loan, saving up would be possible. After all, I did it in 2013-16 after paying for a divorce, buying land, and building a home. (I do make a decent living as a pilot and still earn royalties on some of my writing work.) Then, in overhaul, I could get it fixed up to be more like the one I lost.

With that in mind, there are three candidates I’m considering. The closest is in Phoenix and I’ll likely check it out within the next week or so. I’m hoping we can go for a test flight.

I will admit one thing here: not long after the accident, when I first started thinking about buying another helicopter, there was a fleeting moment when I considered taking the insurance money, putting it in the bank, and not buying a helicopter at all. I’m a little young for retirement — although I consider myself semi-retired since I only work half the year — but financially, I’m secure enough to call it quits now if I want to. And I could still manage my cherry drying contracts every summer for a little side income. It would be an easy way out of the inconvenient mess I put myself into. But there’s no challenge in easy and I’ve come to believe that I live for challenges.

And I’m not ready to give up yet.

On Bravery

A lot of the people who commented about my blog post or contacted me other ways told me I was brave to tell my story. I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around that.

You see, I don’t consider telling my story about what happened “brave.” It happened because I was dumb and let it happen. It’s embarrassing, but not something I could (or should) hide.

Last Photo of N630ML
This is the last photo of N630ML in one piece. I was one of a team of three frost control pilots. This was shot in the hangar we were based in at Yolo County Airport.

Like it or not, I have a bit of a public persona. Part of it dates back to my writing days when I did a lot of public appearances. Part of it is because of this blog and my general outspokenness. There was no way in hell that I could crash a helicopter and prevent people from finding out. After all, one day, I’m flying a beautiful red helicopter with my initials in the N-number and a few months later I’m flying something completely different. And it isn’t as if pilots don’t read the NTSB reports. I do.

And why should I hide it? I did something dumb. If I could admit it and other people hear about it and that prevents them from doing the same dumb thing, I might save lives. Why wouldn’t I do that?

It’s not bravery that has me writing about this. It’s common sense. It’s caring about the pilot community and the passengers that pilots carry. It’s wanting to use my experience as a teaching moment for others.

And let’s face it: I’m in my mid 50s, approaching the end of my flying career. I’m self-employed and am not going to lose my job by admitting I did a dumbass thing that could have killed me and totaled my helicopter. I’m not worried about future employment because I’ve already come to terms with this fact: very few employers would consider hiring a middle aged, outspoken and set-in-her-ways woman with only 3700 hours of helicopter flight time for any flying job that would really interest me.

So what’s so brave? I’ve got nothing to lose by speaking out.

Dealing with the FAA and NTSB

Some pilots reading this might want to know what it’s like to deal with the FAA and NTSB after an accident. Let me fill you in.

First, I have to stress how lucky we all are. First, I survived with very little injury and a decent memory of what happened. I’m not in denial about what happened and why it happened. I’m not interested in hiding the facts. No one other than me was involved in the crash. There was no property damage — other than the trees I “trimmed” on my way to the “landing zone.” (Humor does help.) The crash was never even reported in the local news. The only photos that exist are the ones taken by police — I assume; I haven’t seen any — me, and my friend Sean who was there for the recovery. All this makes it a lot easier for everyone concerned.

The NTSB was the first to get in touch. Their local guy called while I was still in the hospital. (I was in the hospital for less than 3 hours.) I think he got my number from the police. I gave him a verbal account of what I remembered over the phone. He was very kind and polite. And relieved, it seemed. By simply surviving and telling him exactly what happened I was making his job very easy. In fact, the NTSB didn’t even come out to the accident site. They got a lot of information from the police, I guess. They released the helicopter for recovery within 3 hours of the crash. It was removed by noon the same day.

The FAA’s Sacramento office got in touch three days later. I was at Heli Expo in Las Vegas by then. I spoke for about 15 minutes on the phone with an inspector, telling him pretty much the same thing I’d told the NTSB. He asked if I’d be interested in doing a presentation at a WINGS safety seminar in my area. Sure, I told him. I want other people to know how easy it is to let complacency kill you. He recommended that I get back in the cockpit and start flying as soon as possible, perhaps with a CFI. (Another one worried about my state of mind.) He asked me to send him a summary of the crash in writing via email and I took down his email address. The next day, I sent him the same stuff I’d sent my insurance company.

About a week after the crash, an NTSB investigator from Washington called. I gave him the same information. He said he’d send a report I needed to fill out and warned me that I’d have 10 days to complete it and send it back. It got lost in email and was resent and the 10-day clock started when I confirmed receipt. Then I forgot about it. I remembered it six days later and spent about an hour filling it out. It was pretty straightforward, asking for basic information about the aircraft and my logged flight time, as well as a narrative about the crash. There were full pages I was able to skip because there were no other aircraft involved and no other crew members or passengers.

Along the way I had to tell my Part 135 POI that the helicopter no longer existed. He asked me to write an email officially asking to remove it from my Part 135 certificate. That was a 10-minute job.

And that’s it, so far. Although the FAA might ask me to do a special check ride with them, no one has asked yet. I don’t think there’s any doubt that I know how to fly safely. I was very forthcoming with the dumb thing I’d done that caused the accident. I do my Part 135 check flight in June anyway and I bet it would take them that long to schedule a special flight.

So my dealings with the FAA and NTSB have been pretty worry-free and very professional. I’m happy with the way they all actually seemed to care about me and my wellbeing. There were no accusations or unfair finger-pointing. After all, how could there be? I blamed myself because it’s my fault.

Why Deny the Truth?

And that’s another weird thing that I’ve realized: too many pilots won’t take blame for accidents that are their fault.

I know a good example. A few years back a pilot was flying a Schweizer 300 on a cherry contract. He had full fuel and another pilot on board so they were pretty close to max gross weight. He came in over a cherry orchard at high speed and made an aggressive turn that involved coming to a stop and descending. The helicopter went right into the trees. He claimed that the engine lost power but the NTSB, which took the wreckage in for investigation, could find nothing wrong with the engine. Instead, they reported that the accident had been caused by the maneuver he’d used to come in over the orchard: descending at a near stop had likely caused him to settle into his own downwash. Settling with power.

While it’s true that the pilot may really believe that the engine lost power, it’s more likely that he’s in denial of what really happened and his part in the cause of the accident. After all, when you get into settling with power, pulling pitch just makes it worse. It might seem as if there’s an engine problem. But we’re trained to avoid, recognize, and recover from settling with power and he was a flight instructor so he should understand what happened.

I’ve met this pilot and years after the accident he was still defiant, claiming the NTSB had gotten it wrong. As if the NTSB, which exists to investigate transportation related crashes, doesn’t know what it’s doing.

Now suppose I was in denial about my part in this accident. Suppose I claimed that the helicopter had lost power in flight and I’d found myself flying into trees. All of a sudden, the case isn’t cut-and-dry. The NTSB would have to take possession of the wreckage and perform all kinds of tests on the engine to see if it had lost power and why that might have happened — all on the taxpayer’s dime. (And yes, I’m a taxpayer and I care about how the government spends our money. Don’t get me started on $30K dining room sets, please.) Robinson would get involved. Reports would be delayed, I’d be questioned over and over. All this would still be going on now — and likely for months.

At what benefit?

Isn’t it better when a pilot honestly reports what happened and takes blame when he/she is to blame?

As far as I’m concerned, this chapter in my life is nearly closed; I’m already moving forward with the things I need to do to replace the helicopter and continue my work. That wouldn’t be possible if I didn’t recognize and admit what really happened and work with the authorities to help them quickly get the facts they need to complete their investigation.

On my Well-written Account

A few folks have commented about how “well-written” my blog post about the accident was. I appreciate the praise but, in all honesty, this one makes me giggle.

While lots of people know me as a helicopter pilot, what they may not know is that I became a helicopter pilot and bought a helicopter by building up a 20+ year career as a writer. Yeah — I wrote for a living. A good living. I think that says something about my writing skills. Somebody who can’t write can’t earn enough money as a writer to pay for helicopter flight training and buy a helicopter.

I wrote boring stuff. Books about how to use computers. Step-by-step instructions with lots of screenshots and captions and sometimes even callouts. I wrote it all and I often even did the layout. I wrote for numerous publishers, some of which you may have heard of: Peachpit Press, McGraw-Hill, Macmillan, Brady, Sybex, Microsoft Press, etc, etc. Some of the later books, which I’ve self-published, are about more interesting topics. If you’re interested in numbers, the count so far is 86 books.

I also write for magazines, both print and online. I wrote for computer magazines in the old days (pre 2012) and now write for aviation magazines. The most recent issue of Vertical included an essay I wrote, right near the beginning.

I started this blog in 2003 as an outlet to write stuff I found interesting — mostly stuff from my life, including my flying life. I use it to record and save information I want to share or consult later, like recipes. I use it to vent when something pisses me off or heap praise when something makes me happy.

I’ve also been working on a book about my first ten years as a helicopter pilot. It’s about halfway done. If I get a little more motivated to work on it, I hope to have it finished by this summer. (And yes, I know I’ve been promising that for a while now.) Will it include this accident? No. I’ll save that for Book II, which will cover the next 10 years.

So to those of you who think my accident account was well written, thanks. It better be.

That’s All for Now

And that’s pretty much everything on my mind in response to the comments I’ve gotten on my accident blog post, in email, and by phone. Once again, I want to thank all of the folks who took the time to reach out. You really made me feel good.

It also brings the situation up to date as far as my plans for a new helicopter and dealing with the authorities. I’m sure some of you were curious. This should satisfy that curiosity.

Any new comments or questions? Use the comments link for this post and I’ll try my best to address them — hopefully individually this time.

Another Stupid Pilot Trick

An accident fueled by complacency with a very lucky pilot.

It was still dark when the pilot lifted off from the small county airport at 5 AM on Saturday, February 24, destined for the 1,100-acre almond orchard she and the other two pilots on contract were responsible for protecting on a frost control contract. The horizon was barely visible as she climbed to 300 feet, per her altimeter.

On the ground, she had already loaded the moving map image that outlined the orchard and she knew which section of it she was supposed to cover. But as she headed to the orchard about a mile away, the moving map wasn’t indicating her position, making it impossible for her to determine where she was in relation to it.

She checked her altitude again, then reached forward to tap-tap-tap on the iPad’s screen — as she had hundreds of times since the iPad had become her FAA-approved electronic flight bag six or seven years before. The usual routine was tap-tap-tap and then look up to confirm all was okay before another tap-tap-tap. But this time, when she looked up that first time, she saw a row of tall trees right in front of her.

“Oh, shit,” she thought. “This is it.”

She’s not sure whether she pulled back on the cyclic in a vain attempt to avoid the trees, but she knew it wouldn’t matter anyway. Collision was impossible to avoid. Oddly, it happened so quickly that she didn’t even have time to be afraid.

She may have closed her eyes as she went through the trees because she doesn’t remember seeing anything. But she heard the racket as the helicopter’s 16-foot blades, moving at roughly 400 RPM, impacted branches as they pushed through the trees. The tail rotor, skids, and horizontal stabilizers were ripped off but the helicopter’s fuselage kept moving. The pilot didn’t feel the impacts as the helicopter struck the ground once or twice in an open field on its way to its final resting place about 100 yards away from the trees, facing the direction from which it had come.

On realizing that she was on the ground and still alive, the pilot fumbled for her seatbelt and got it open. She climbed out of the wreckage.

Text Message

The next few minutes are hazy to her. She saw the fire back behind the engine. She was worried that the other pilots, who had departed after her, might see it and think she was hurt so she texted one of them. That was at 5:04 AM.

Then she found the fire extinguisher. While she has no memory of using it — in fact, she thought later that it was broken — she may have pulled the pin and used it to try to extinguish the flames. (According to the police, someone did and she was the only one there.)

She may have still had it in her hand when the phone started ringing at 5:17 AM. It was the pilot she had texted. She told him what happened, assured him that she was okay, and told him to keep flying.

The engine fire got a little bigger. She decided it would be a good idea to move away.

Still not thinking clearly, she called her insurance agent, who is also a friend of hers. It was 5:23 AM and she was on the phone with him for 9 minutes, although she doesn’t remember talking that long. She does remember feeling the pain in her right leg around that time and looking down to see the huge swollen bruise forming. She started wondering if maybe she had broken her leg and decided to sit down. He asked if she’d called 911 and she said she hadn’t. The thought hadn’t occurred to her.

She hung up and called 911. That was at 5:34 AM. She told the woman who answered that she had been in a helicopter crash and that she was okay but might have a broken leg. She said there was a fire but it didn’t look bad. The 911 dispatcher asked for her position and she was able to use Google Maps on her phone to provide cross streets. The dispatcher said she’d send the police and fire truck and EMS helicopter. The pilot, now sitting on the ground as the sky was brightening, begged her not to send a helicopter. She didn’t need it and she wasn’t going to pay for it. She must have said that a dozen times.

The 911 operator kept the pilot talking on the phone until emergency services arrived. “Let me know when they’re right next to you,” she said.

That happened 22 minutes after making the call. There was an ambulance and maybe a fire truck and a police car. Two medics came up to her. A while later, they were helping her into the back of a pickup truck’s crew cab for the short ride across the field to the ambulance. At her request, someone fetched her iPad from the wreckage, along with her purse. She didn’t realize it, but the fire was already out.

In the ambulance, the medics wanted to start an IV. She told them not to. She said she wasn’t hurt that badly.

In the hospital emergency room, they wanted to cut off her pants. She wouldn’t let them. Instead, she got undressed, wondering how she’d gotten grass stains all over her pants, and slipped into the hospital gown they provided.

They started an IV. They dressed a cut on one leg. The bruise there was huge and swelling bad.

They sent her to pee in a cup to make sure there wasn’t any blood in her urine. She was surprised they didn’t want to do a drug test.

The adrenaline that had been running through her veins started to wear off and she found herself shaking. They put a warm blanket around her.

People called on her phone. The other pilot she’d been flying with. Her insurance agent friend. The NTSB. Another pilot who didn’t know about the crash but was looking for a landing light to replace one that had gone out on his helicopter that morning. She talked to them all before 7:30 AM, grateful that the emergency room staff had let her keep her phone.

They took her to get her leg X-rayed. They did her spine, too, even though she didn’t feel any pain there. Around then, she noticed her right hand scraped up and swelling. In the days to come, she’d notice other bruises and scrapes in other places.

A doctor came to tell her that there were no broken bones. He pressed down on various places to see if there was pain in her abdomen. There wasn’t. Just her leg, really. He offered her a pain killer. She told him that most prescription painkillers didn’t work for her so she’d still with ibuprofen. A nurse came with a 600 mg dose.

The doctor offered her an overnight stay for observation. She declined. She checked out of the hospital at 8:29, just three and a half hours after the accident.

When I climbed out of the cockpit, I didn’t realize it was lying on its side. I’m still not sure if I came through the door or the windscreen.

The pilot she’d been working with, took her to see the wreckage. By that time, it was fully daylight out. She was surprised the helicopter was lying on its side; she thought it had been upright. She was also surprised by how beat up it was.

And that’s when she started to realize that she might be the luckiest person on the planet that morning.

Wondering why I know so much about this crash? By this point, it should be pretty obvious.

I was the pilot.

Yes, I crashed Zero-Mike-Lima last Saturday morning at around 5 AM. I crashed it because I was stupid and allowed myself to be distracted while flying at night. The fact that I’m alive to tell people about it amazes me every single day. In fact, when I was in the hospital I developed a notion, fed by a life of reading science fiction, that I had actually died and the “afterlife” was just a continuation of real life.

But I’m here and I’m embarrassed.

Can you say “totaled”?

Throughout this blog, you’ll find posts where I analyze various helicopter crashes. The vast majority of crashes are due to pilot error and my crash is no different. I’ve got about 3700 hours in helicopters, including more than 2200 hours in the one I crashed — hell, I owned it for 13 years! — and I still made a stupid mistake that destroyed the helicopter and could have taken my life.

I’m really not in the mood to analyze what happened now. Hell, it took me a week to write this. It’s actually pretty straightforward: I allowed myself to get distracted while flying at night relatively close to the ground. Duh. You can’t perform a much stupider pilot trick than that.

Various people at Robinson Helicopter saw the photos — I was at Heli Expo this past week — and pretty much agree that the bladder tanks, which I whined about back in 2012, probably saved my life. So there’s that crow to eat, too.

There is some good news in all this — other than the fact that I’m alive, no one else was hurt, and there was no property damage (other than those trees): the helicopter was fully insured and I’m already shopping for its replacement. In fact, I put an offer on a nearly identical helicopter just yesterday. So I’ll be back in business soon enough.

And you can bet your ass that I won’t be on a frost control contract next year or ever again.

I debated leaving comments open for this post. I’m not sure if I want to address them given how I feel about what happened. But I’ll give it a try.

If you want to tell me how stupid and/or lucky I am, fine, but do it gently. I already know. Read the Comments Policy if you’re not sure whether what you have to say will be approved. If the comments section turns into a “let’s beat up on Maria” party, I’ll shut it down.

Cherry Drying, Cockpit Distractions, and Safety

My thoughts.

Today I had to withdraw a cherry drying contract from a pilot who wanted to fly for me because he insisted on being allowed to have a “pilot friend” fly with him during cherry drying missions.

Because more than half of the cherry drying crashes in this area have occurred with two people in the cockpit, this is something I simply don’t allow — and I specifically forbid it in the contact terms.

Why Just One Pilot?

I blogged about this back in June 2012. There had been a crash with a fatality just a few days before. Two pilots had been on board, although the dual controls were reportedly not installed. The aircraft hit wires and crashed into the trees. The passenger was killed; the pilot sustained serious injuries. In my blog post, I raised the question of cockpit distractions.

The previous July (2011), there had been three crashes during cherry drying work. Of the three, two of them occurred with two people on board.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

Although performance might not be an issue in an R44 — which the guys who work for me fly — in these flying conditions, distractions can be. Cherry drying is done in an obstacle rich environment just a few feet over the tops of trees.

Cherry Drying Near Wires
Wires and poles and trees, oh my!

So many pilots whine about the danger of flying in “the deadman’s curve.” That’s not my concern when I’m hovering with my skids brushing the treetops. My concern is wires and wind machines and bird houses on poles and tall trees bordering the orchard. I’ve struck a pine tree branch with my main rotor blade and trimmed a treetop with my tail rotor. That’s how close I can get — which is obviously too close — to obstacles that could easy damage my aircraft enough to bring it down into the trees.

Now imagine having a chatty friend on board. Or the dual controls installed and someone “following along” with you on an instructional flight. Is this a good idea when you need to keep focused?

I don’t think so. I think it’s dangerous and I won’t allow it.


The argument I hear most often about why two pilots should be allowed to fly cherry drying missions is training. How can a new pilot learn the ropes unless he experiences the flight?

Easy: teach him on a nice clear day, when weather is not an issue and there isn’t an orchard owner on the ground freaking out because he’s worried about losing his cherry crop. A day when there’s no stress and no demands to get the job done quickly and move on to the next orchard. A day when rain isn’t making the cockpit bubble nearly impossible to see through and you have to worry about the flight path of the other helicopter on the next orchard block.

Start with an overview at an obstruction-free orchard and show how you scout for obstacles in a new orchard and determine where to start work. Descend slowly and start your instructional passes high, showing the student how the downwash affects the trees. Work your way down to the point where the future cherry drying pilot should be flying.

Of course, you’re doing all this after some ground training where you’ve already sketched out how the job is done and discussed all aspects of the work.

This is how I learned to dry cherries. I spent 2 hours talking about the work with an experienced cherry drying pilot and some notepaper that we sketched all over. Then we flew for about an hour over some uniformly tall trees and practiced various maneuvers.

And this is how I teach new pilots to dry cherries. In a controlled, stress-free environment.

So the argument that having a pilot on board during an actual cherry drying mission is the only way to teach him simply doesn’t fly with me. (Okay, pun intended.)

Is This a Contract Killer?

Is the one person vs. two people on board argument worth preventing a contract agreement? Apparently, the pilot I withdrew the contract from and I think it is.

In his words, “If this is not possible I don’t see this working for my business.” That makes me wonder about his “pilot friend.”

It seems to me that a friend should understand that when you have work to do, he needs to stand aside and let you do it. I have friends who fly fire contracts and power line contracts and heavy lift contracts and spray contracts. I am one of their “pilot friends.” I’d love to experience one of these flights first hand. But I know that (1) their employers most likely prohibit fly-alongs for pretty much the same reason I do and (2) my presence could jeopardize our safety or their job. So I don’t even ask and they don’t offer.

The claim that having only one person on board won’t work for his business makes me wonder whether there’s some financial gain to be had from having that second pilot on board. Would that other pilot be paying for that flight time, perhaps as a student? In that case, it’s “double-dipping,” pure and simple — being paid by two separate parties for work on one mission. And frankly, there’s a bit too much of that in this industry for my taste.

I pay a generous per-hour flight rate for cherry drying work. The rate is considerably higher than any charter or utility rate a pilot could charge for flying the same helicopter. I pay that because the work is risky and because that’s what the market will bear. Isn’t this enough to head off any need for double-dipping?

As for me, I want my pilots safe and their flights accident-free. I can’t serve my clients when one of my pilots crashes in an orchard and his helicopter is put out of commission. It’s my goal to minimize the risk — that’s why I require pilots with at least 500 hours of flight time and at least 100 hours in the helicopter they’re flying. That’s why I don’t allow two people in the cockpit when flying in an obstacle-rich environment.

It’s not all about money and milking the system to maximize revenue. It’s about the safe and reliable performance of a mission to best serve clients — and live to fly another day.