Down in Honduras I flew a helicopter in support of a construction project, and the ship was frequently tasked as an EMS (emergency medical services/air ambulance) role, taking injured/sick people to the hospital on a stretcher.
Most recently I flew a wealthy entrepreneur around to his various interests, both business and personal. We often were able to accomplish in one day things that would have taken two days or more by ground. We’d also survey the large tract of land that he owns and hunts on.
There are other things that civilian helicopters do. My friend Mike has just taken a job in which he’ll be putting out forest fires with his helicopter. He’ll carry a bucket on a “long-line” underneath the ship. After dipping and filling the bucket in a nearby body of water, he’ll fly over to the fire and drop it in a predetermined spot. You’ve undoubtedly seen airplanes and helicopters do this kind of work before.
But helicopters can be used to set fires as well: small “controlled burns” to stop the spread of a really big fire.
In the agricultural industry, we all know that since the very earliest days helicopters have always been used as crop-dusters. But they are also used in cold weather to hover over fragile crops, blowing warm air down to keep them from freezing. This is typically done in the middle of the night, when the temperature drops to 32 degrees. I’ve done this; it is not fun.
Helicopters are also used to dry cherries. “Do what?” you ask. Dry cherries: blow the moisture off the trees after it rains. If the cherries absorb too much moisture they can split open. Growers use helicopters to modulate the amount of moisture the cherry orchards get. There is a veritable fleet of helicopters engaged in cherry-drying. Many of them are in central Washington State, east of Seattle and west of Spokane.
For a couple of years now, my friends Mike and Scott have been urging me to come up to Washington to “dry cherries.” I was only vaguely aware of that segment of the helicopter industry, and frankly wasn’t too keen on the idea. Plus, I already had a job…a good job that didn’t offer three months of time off in the summer. But Mike and Scott were persistent, telling me how much I’d love that part of the country…a part I’d never seen before.
This year it turned out that I’d be free. I’d submitted my resignation to my then-current boss. Mike was already goading me to go to Washington to fly a certain Bell 206 that he knew would need a pilot. Then, out of the blue Scott called and said he could pretty much guarantee me a job with a local operator. The operator that he referred to happened to use a helicopter called the Sikorsky S-55. I was intrigued. He called them and gave me a good recommendation. They were intrigued.
The S-55 was a helicopter my father flew extensively as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot during the Korean War-Conflict. Originally designed and first flown in 1949, it was one of the first medium-sized “transport” helicopter – in other words, not a small observation helicopter but one that could lift a serious load. It was, arguably, Sikorsky’s first really successful design. Thousands were built. It was used by all four branches of the U.S. military, and by military and civilian operators all over the world. It was the first helicopter used in scheduled airline service in the United States.
Here's an archival shot of an actual Marine Corps HRS/S-55 in service in Korea.
It's kind of an odd-looking helicopter, no?
I’d heard and read a lot about the S-55, mostly from my dad (the Marines called it the HRS), and I’d always wanted to fly one. But I’d never even seen one in the flesh. And there are damn few of them operating anywhere anymore. Maybe this was fate? Since the company with the S-55’s was right in the same town Mikey was living, I called him up and asked him to go by and check them out. Turned out he already knew the guys, and said they were all right.
Anyway, he did go by and then call me back, all excited. “Bob! You’re going to love this! They’ve got one painted up in Marine colors!” I laughed. Now that was just too coincidental for words. I fired off a brief resume and summary of my flight time.
Shortly thereafter, Dave Smith Sr. of Golden Wings Aviation called me up. We talked for a good hour. Bottom line: I agreed to come up for the summer and he agreed to hire me, kind of sight-unseen. But that’s how I got my last three jobs.
Once my last job finally ended, I packed the motorcycle, made sure the iron and the stove were off, and then took off north-westbound. (That was an adventure in itself!) And so here I am, in a little town called Brewster, Washington. It is…different…from Pensacola as you would expect.
That's me, just after I'd arrived in Brewster, Washington, standing in front of a helicopter that is older than I am. It is the one they promised I'd be flying. The paint job is not totally accurate. They know this and will correct it.
It will be interesting to see how this summer unfolds.