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2014 Washington State Cherry Drying Season


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When you consider how long I've been in the helicopter industry, it's hard to believe that I *didn't* know they were used to dry cherries up here in Washington State. But I can be pretty dense sometimes.

 

And it's not just a few ships. As I sit here this morning, I'm looking out over a big grass field populated with *five* Sikorsky S-55's (three pistons and two turbine conversions). There is also a mighty Hiller 12E out there, and a Bell UH-1B. In the hangar are two more S-55's, another turbine and another piston, and a Bell 206B. Except for the Hiller spray ship, all of the above will be used to dry cherries this season. In addition we are putting the finishing touches on yet another S-55 (a piston version) which is intended to be a spare aircraft this season.

 

 

Fleet_zpsebe5d5ed.jpg

 

Five miles south, down at the Brewster Airport is another operator (called ADF Helicopters or something). They operate a fleet of seven or eight Sikorsky S-58's, which is the big brother to the older S-55. They'll be joined this year (as last) by a guy who's bringing another UH-1B over from Idaho. (Until we learned who he was, we referred to him as "Ninja pilot" because he walked around in a black flight suit and black do-rag all the time...even down in town after hours...which is kind of a little too "look at me, I'm a pilot!" for my taste. But hey, whatever...) And then I saw an Hiller 12-something arrive on a trailer the other day. I think it's a B or C-model from the wheezing, clattering noise it made when they started it up.

 

 

Speaking of Hillers, one year I was driving on a back road right near the Brewster airport and stumbled across a Hiller 12E-4 just sitting there by the road. Some of the other pilots in my company knew he was there; I hadn't seen him. So I found his RV, knocked on the door and invited him to our place for a cookout. Nice guy! But when you're a single-ship operator working for a small orchard owner, you're like the Maytag repairman.

 

 

Also in the Brewster area are a number of other single-ships...Schweizer 300's and R-44's. They're either flown or trailered in from someplace else just for the cherry season (June through end of July usually). They're largely "invisible," in that we often see them drying or ferrying from field to field but they pretty much keep to themselves. As I said, cherry drying can be a lonely job. You have to be ready to fly right up to sunset - which happens very late up here in the summer...like 2130 or so! And you also have to be prepared to fly as first light (usually around 0500) if it happened to have rained overnight. So it's not like you can be out drinking until all hours of the night...although sometimes some of us do. Not *ME* of course...oh no!

 

 

Down the river toward the towns of Chelan and Wenatchee are even more ships either based in orchards or at the Lake Chelan Airport.

 

 

Anyway...the cherries are beginning to grow. It won't be long until they turn red and need protecting from the elements. The pilots and aircraft are starting to arrive. The excitement is building. Soon our primary meeting place, the SweetRiver Bakery/pizza restaurant/whorehouse will go on summer hours (i.e. staying open later than 8:00pm) and we'll all have someplace to hang out together, drink some beer, sing some karaoke and swap flying stories.

 

I believe it's going to be a fun season.

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They'll be joined this year (as last) by a guy who's bringing another UH-1B over from Idaho. (Until we learned who he was, we referred to him as "Ninja pilot" because he walked around in a black flight suit and black do-rag all the time...even down in town after hours...which is kind of a little too "look at me, I'm a pilot!" for my taste. But hey, whatever...)

 

No, it can't be, that sounds like Ken from (Inter-Island Helicopters) Kauai fame. Also had a company called Smoky Mountain out of Idaho. Excellent pilot well known by many and I think anyone who ever flew in Kauai. Didn't know he was still flying, good for him.

 

 

Screenshot2014-05-24at82514AM_zpscc7faf6

Edited by iChris
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I met Ken @ KEIK Erie, Colorado, a few summers ago. He was either selling (or representing the seller for) a red MD530F. Definitely seemed intense from a far (and up close too I guess!) but a really nice guy. He gave me a quick hop in the 530 which was, needless to say, a real treat. He was fully suited up in the ninja flight suit, do-rag, what seemed like 75lbs of tactical survival gear, and several weapons - for a quick flight around the patch. You never know.... Boy Scout's motto, BE PREPARED!

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And to add to NR's post. Cherry contracts started in the tri-cities area already withe the same abundance of helicopters planted all over that portion of the state. While in Mattawa a few have started and more are coming in to start this week. A few days ago I was driving by Quincy and spotted an random Hiller sitting in a big lot. Every year it amazes me how many aircraft come from all over to hide out in E. WA. The guys down down south by tri-cities will probably end up north by july for the late stuff near Orville.

 

I'm with you NR. I grew in Chelan. I had no idea this was all going on until I moved away to go to flight school. Then, when I came back to work in the area I found out how much is actually going on.

 

It really is amazing.

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  • 2 weeks later...
  • 2 weeks later...

These old Sikorsky S-55s…we've got eight of them this year and man, they’re all different. In the first place, they’re all nearly as old as me, and I’m 58. Secondly, they’ve all had different histories and levels of care. Some were well used and abused; some were treated better.

 

The first one I got into this year (an ex-sprayer) was a nice ship and it flew pretty well, but it has such a loose, floppy cyclic that I can’t stand it. And the cyclic friction didn’t seem to do anything. That’s the thing with these old gals: Sometimes the various frictions don’t work at all. Apparently Igor must’ve meant for pilots to always have their hands on the controls. Not me! I like to be able to scratch my ass if the need arises…or adjust my…umm…well, droopy bits that get caught between my legs (more so now that I’m getting older).

 

The second one flew “better,” but had a strong tendency for the throttle to roll off in flight. You had to deliberately hold pressure on it or the manifold pressure/RPM would decay. Very annoying. And you’d think our guys would know how to fix that, but apparently the “fix” is not easy or simple, and the collective/throttle linkage is hugely complicated. They tell me they’ll “work on it.”

 

Then I flew “Danny’s” ship, which is supposed to be the nicest one in the fleet although it’s not. It does however have the best intercom, something of a challenge in these noisy old beasts. You cannot imagine how noisy these things are. The noise is a physical presence.

 

So in Danny’s ship Lauren and I were drying for my usual customer one morning. She’s a new PIC this year, returning to us after being a “copilot” last year. She’s a wonderful pilot – truly a pleasure to fly with. Very proficient. I knew this last year when she flew with me and I’m happy to see she’s only gotten better. I like when I can just sit back and watch someone else fly, especially when they fly well. I realize I can be intimidating, given my experience and the arrogant, judgmental, know-it-all attitude I (sometimes?) exude. But Lauren didn’t seem to mind.

 

At one point she said to me, “Sorry I’m not keeping it straighter in the row.” As if that was some sort of requirement.

 

To explain: We get into an OGE hover and then go up and down the rows of cherry trees. It’s like mowing your lawn, really. Back and forth, back and forth…until you run out of gas. Then you fill up and do it again. It’s tedious. Most pilots like to point the helicopter in the direction of travel, just like we’re taught in flight school. Thing is, it doesn’t matter one bit. Me personally, I like to have the nose cocked off slightly to the left while I’m drying. Just keep the mast over the space between the rows of trees.

 

So I said, “Sweetie, don’t you worry a hair on your pretty little head about it.” (I often lapse into my J.R. Ewing persona when addressing the women.) I said, “This here little ol’ helicopter doesn’t care which way it’s pointed. Heh, it can fly backward if you want!” I said, “Don’t fight it, toots. Just relax and go with the flow, babe. Let the helicopter tell YOU which way it wants to point.”

 

The S-55 is really tall, and has MUCH more airframe behind the mast than in front. (We call it “The Big-Nose Bitch.”) So it has this incredibly strong weathervaning tendency. It also has an 8.5 foot diameter tail rotor that’s unboosted. You WILL develop strong leg muscles changing the pitch in that bad boy. And when you’re hovering along over a row of cherry trees, sometimes it takes real effort to keep the nose straight. But why bother! Sometimes when it’s really windy we’ll find ourselves flying sideways down the rows if necessary. (Although usually when the wind gets that high we call it off.)

 

“What we do” isn’t performing super-accurate instrument approaches. These flights are not ATP checkrides. Once Lauren realized that I pretty much just don’t care about anything other than: 1) Not crashing; and 2) Getting every tree dried if possible (see #1) then she relaxed. The S-55s are peculiar, but they are a lot of fun to fly…in their own way. But it’s like dancing with a fat chick: Sometimes you just have to let her lead and go where she takes you.

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Need an extra aircraft? I've got a B206BIII sitting for the next month or so...

 

Drop me a line at njord@ravco.com

 

Oh, and sorry Njordic, we own aircraft, we do not lease them.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Heyyyy, cool shot, Dave!

 

If I were a real smartass, I would suggest that you submit it to the NGPA for use as the logo for their helicopter division.

 

But I'm not.

 

So I won't.

 

But it is a great picture :)

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  • 5 weeks later...

The Wrap Up:

 

I know you've all been sitting on the edge of your seats wondering when ol' Bob would write something summarizing how the cherry-drying season went. Well unbate that breath, unfurrow those brows. Here it is

 

It was dull.

 

Here in the Brewster, WA area we did not get much rain. We got "some" right around the middle of June, and then a very little bit more in the third week of July. In between and thereafter, hot and sunny with the temps hovering (sorry) around 100 degrees. Good for the farmers, bad for pilots who like to fly, good for Bob who likes to sit around and talk about flying. Some areas got more rain. Down south in Wenatchee (50 miles or so down the Columbia River) they seemed to get more than we...and they got tons of rain up in Tonasket on the Canadian border. (We did have a fire - the biggest fire in the history of the state! But I'll save that for a separate post.)

 

We thought we might get through the season without an accident, but every year somebody crashes something. This time it was a 206A on low skids, and it was a fatal. We're not exactly sure what happened, but the *RUMOR* is that the pilot was lifting off after fueling and somehow rolled the thing over in such a way that it killed him (which usually means that a main rotor blade came through the cockpit). Very sad. The guy was not a kid (according to a post on Facebook) but I have no idea as to his hour level.

 

People often think that this cherry-drying work is "cake" or easy. I mean, it's just hovering, right? So easy a private pilot caveman could do it! Umm, no. There are very serious risks that must be understood.

 

I fly a relatively big helicopter: the Sikorsky S-55. It allows me to hover high, up above the wires and wind machines. Yes, it puts me up in the shaded area of the H-V chart, but I can deal with that. After all, I'm only at about 75% of MGW. In contrast, at the very beginning of the season I did a little drying in a Bell 206B that we own. All I can say is, "Yikes!" Man, I don't like being down that low over the trees at 85% of MGW. I don't know how you guys/gals in 206's, R-44's and such do it. That sh*t would scare the bejeezus out of me if I did it full-time. Me spoiled!

 

I did get to meet a few new people this year, some of whom I had "known" online. And I got to fly with some really good pilots, which is always fun. In fact, at this stage of the game it's sometimes more fun for me to let someone else take the controls. My friend, Brandon, for instance. He is SUCH a good pilot - I love watching him fly. I flew with a few pilots who did NOTHING that I would consider "wrong"...and I'm a pretty harsh critic. I mean, we all have our own technique...and every pilot does some things slightly differently than I maybe would. But I cannot force other pilots to do things MY WAY just because a certain technique works for me. Hey, as long as you don't crash the helicopter we're good.

 

We got down to the town of Chelan (slightly bigger than Brewster) and Wenatchee (the big city) a couple of times. I thought about inviting to lunch a certain female pilot (She Who Must Not Be Named!!) who lives down there and who, by God would certainly like to meet me. But for one reason or another we could never hook up. And I don't mean "hook up" the way the kids mean it these days (okay, maybe I do). I just mean...you know...meet up. Was it fate, or coincidence that kept us apart? Divine intervention perhaps? Who knows. Ah well... Oh, and I never got to meet the "Ninja pilot" I wrote about before, not even at the SweetRiver Bakery that we pilots hang out at. Wasn't really a big year for hanging out at the Bakery for some reason. Meh.

 

Anyway, I've got my last paycheck. My bags are packed, I'm ready to go. My flight home is on Wednesday. In some ways, I'm glad this season, my fourth, is over. Now I have to get back to Florida and my "real" life.

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I visited Wenatchee a few weeks ago and there was lots of smoke pouring off that fire they were having. It was hot, dry and windy the day I was there. Can't imagine it was an easy time fighting those fires.

Edited by SBuzzkill
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