Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

28 July 2011


Aviation is cruelly unforgiving of mistakes. One mistake, you’re dead…period, end of story, cancel Christmas. We who have been in this business for any length of time understand this. I may appear all casual and goofy about flying, but I take it very, very seriously. I did not get to this stage by treating what I do in the air as a lark. Not crashing takes hard work.

Our company had a fatal accident this week. On Monday one of our young pilots died. While drying a field of cherries he managed to run into a powerline which caused him to crash. This happens a lot in “ag work” (which is what we do). It happens even when pilots know the wires are there, as this pilot did.

We are always stunned when we hear such news, especially so when it’s someone you’ve come to know and like. You shake your head in disbelief and ask, “How could this happen? He was such a good pilot.” And Stephen was. A good pilot, yes. So young (24) but full of enthusiasm and skill, with a ravaging thirst for knowledge. We say this next part a lot: "He’s the last guy you’d expect to go out and crash the helicopter." But crash it, he did.

The NTSB showed up quickly, as they do. What happened was obvious, both from witness statements and the strands of powerline wrapped around the rotor head. Stephen hit the lines while in a bank at the end of a row of cherry tress. Instead of cutting them cleanly, the rotor head spooled them up. A witness said the rotor stopped completely before the helicopter hit the ground. Horrible stuff to hear, because I do the same kind of work. I deal with wires in just about every field I dry.

What the immediate evidence tells us is that there was probably nothing wrong with the helicopter. Stephen did not hit the wires from above (which might have indicated a descent from a power failure, say). No, he hit them from below; the helicopter had been under control up to that point. Maybe he simply misjudged…maybe he forgot they were there…maybe he got distracted…maybe the sun was in his eyes…something…nobody knows. We pilots hate it when people throw the term “pilot error” around loosely. Accidents always seem to get blamed on the pilot(s) first. But the fact is that most general aviation accidents are caused by pilot issues than anything else. Mechanical failures, while they do happen, are rare when it comes to causing accidents.

And so we are left to pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively. The accident itself is over, but the effects linger. There are details that have to be taken care of. The wreckage has to be recovered from the field. Stephen’s family will have to come and collect his things (his car is still parked at our hangar, standing as a stark reminder). Last but not least, we still have a contract to service. We cannot just tell the farmers, “Sorry, you’re on your own now!” If it rains we’ll still have to dry them…with another ship…with another pilot.

I was out drying that day. I had just landed to get some gas, and was still in the cockpit shutting the helicopter down when my phone rang. It was the FAA in Spokane. “You know your company had a fatal accident today,” the guy said. No, I did not know that. Then he told me who it was. He had called me because everyone else in the company wasn’t answering their phone. Yeah, well it’s our busy season and all our ships are out flying. He asked for some details about the pilot: age, hometown and such.

As I climbed out of the helicopter, my farm manager came over with drying instructions – which fields to hit, which I could ignore because they have been totally picked. He could immediately tell that I was upset, so I told him what happened. “Take all the time you need before going back up,” he said kindly.

But this was not the first pilot who I’ve known who has died. It happens. I won’t say that you get used to it. We all deal with it in different ways. Me, I’m just good at compartmentalizing. As long as I don’t think about it, I’m okay. On Monday, after I heard the news about Stephan, I got myself together, refueled my ship and went back to work. “Up there” is where I feel in control. Up there I don’t have to think about other worldly things. Up there I just do my job and try really, really hard to not crash the helicopter.

24 July 2011

Flying The Sikorsky S-55, Part 1

Here I am, just landed after a one-hour cherry-drying flight. They stopped us short because it started raining again. Which means Travis and I will have to go out and dry the whole place again when the sun comes out. Oh-friggin'-joy.

Understand, the S-55 was designed in 1949 and produced through the 1950's. Helicopters have come a long way since then.

It took me a little while to get used to flying this strange machine. The control system is old and crude by modern standards. The three-blade main rotor has a diameter of 53 feet. But it only turns at about 220 rpm - very slowly in comparison to modern helicopter rotors which typically turn close to 400 rpm. The low rpm of the Sikorsky means that the long, limber blades can “whip” if you make sudden, jerky or aggressive cyclic stick control inputs (the “cyclic” is the main stick between your legs). The S-55 teaches…demands…you to be smoooooth on the controls.

The collective lever is located alongside the pilot’s seat on the left, and is hinged at the rear. It controls overall thrust of the main rotor. Pull up and all three blades change pitch at the same time. Here is an image taken from the FAA's "Basic Helicopter Handbook." It shows the controls of a small Enstrom helicopter, but all helicopters have similar control setups.

On the end of the collective is the twist-grip throttle, which as you would assume controls the rpm of the engine. In flight, the engine and transmission (i.e. main rotor blades) are "married." That is, if you increase engine rpm, you'll increase main rotor rpm. And vice-versa.

As you lift the collective lever higher, the main rotor blades increase their “bite” of the air. The more bite (we call it “pitch angle”) the more wind resistance (we call it “drag”). So they will slow down unless you increase the throttle to compensate. Thus, as you move the collective up and down in response to varying demands for power, you must also increase and decrease the throttle to keep the engine running at a very specific rpm.

Most modern piston engine helicopters have correlators that mechanically match the engine speed to main rotor pitch angle. Turbine-powered helicopters have speed governors that automatically control rpm. These devices make the pilot’s job a whole lot easier. Does the S-55 have one? Nope! Well, let me rephrase that: The manufacturer claims that there is a throttle correlator. However, if there is one installed, it doesn’t work very well. And by not very well I mean “at all.” This makes for a high workload - difficult at first for a guy who's spent the last, oh, thirty years flying turbine helicopters where you just set the throttle to "FULL OPEN" and leave it there.

Other Sikorsky helicopters I’ve flown have what we call a “heavy” collective. What this means is that even though the collective is hydraulically boosted, it will drop like a rock if you don’t deliberately hold it up. The S-55 does this as well. There is a crude friction lock, but they do not all work well on these sixty year-old helicopters. Most of these S-55’s have very heavy collectives. It feels like you’re lifting the whole helicopter up by your left arm. It quickly gets tiring. What we shorter pilots do is wedge our left knee under the collective to hold it up. Not the greatest solution, but it works.

The fourth control we have is for the tail rotor, controlled by two pedals. The tail rotor is that sideways-facing prop on the back of the helicopter that counteracts the torque of the main rotor and allows us to point the nose of the helicopter in any direction we want while hovering. Without it, the fuselage of the helicopter would spin uncontrollably under the main rotor. I think there’s some Newton’s Law that explains this. Anyway, that tail rotor is simply a big, controllable pitch fan. In the case of the S-55, the tail rotor measures 8’6” in diameter. The pedals my feet rest on control the pitch of the tail rotor through a linkage consisting of a series of stretchy cables and sloppy chains. Hey Sikorsky, were you perhaps related to that Rube Goldberg guy?

Modern helicopters have tail rotor controls that are hydraulically boosted; you control tail rotor pitch with the balls of your feet, like pressing the accelerator in your car. Not the S-55. This is a he-man helicopter! You stick your whole foot on the pedal and mash it like you’re trying to kickstart a Harley – or panic-stop your stuck-accelerator Toyota. Weird.

Did I mention the noise? The unmuffled 700 horsepower radial engine underneath my feet roars like a funny-car dragster at full throttle. The main rotor transmission located right behind my head also screams like a heavy metal rock band singer with his amp turned up to 11. Modern transmissions have gears that are cut on an angle so they run more quietly. Sadly, that particular bit of technology had yet to be developed when the engineers were laboring over the S-55 design. And soundproofing hadn’t been invented yet either. At least we have better noise-canceling headsets now. It's a wonder my father wasn't stone deaf. Oh yeah, and the seats suck (that was one of the first things I had to rectify – my poor, aching lower back!).

All in all, as crude as it is, the S-55 is a strong, dependable helicopter. Nothing fancy, no gizmos or newfangled electronic crap. Just a simple, basic helicopter that is well-suited for its role as a cherry-dryer. And in its own kooky way, it’s got a lot of, um, character and is actually a lot of fun to fly. But Lord almighty, do I miss my nice, modern, easy-to-fly, quiet, smooth, comfortable, turbine-powered Bell 206. My father must have been a real man to fly these things for as long as he did. Me? I am a wuss by comparison.

23 July 2011

Mike's Luck With Cars

Mike's Geo Tracker

My friend Mike has the best bad luck with cars.

One night last fall, he and his girlfriend, Judy were at my house in Florida. At some wee hour they left in Mike’s 1992 Geo Tracker which has about a million miles on it. Ten minutes later he’s on the phone – broke down just a couple of blocks away. Could I come and get them? Sure! I did, and took them home. Literally, they had made it two and a half blocks.

Next morning we towed his car back to my place and did some troubleshooting in the cruel light of day. The engine would crank (turn over) fine but apparently had no spark at all. Something didn’t sound right. On a hunch, we popped the distributor cap and hit the starter. The distributor wasn’t turning. This could only mean one thing: The timing belt had broken. Meh- this is what happens when you buy a well-used car.

Technical Aside: Smack dab in the center of the engine, the crankshaft sticks out at both the front and at the back. At one end (the “rear”) it drives the transmission, as you’d expect. Where the crank comes first out at the “front,” there is a “timing belt” under a cover that connects it with the camshaft which in most cars is up in the cylinder head. The camshaft often drives other items, like the distributor which sends electricity to the sparkumplugs. Please don’t confuse the timing belt with the “drive belts,” which are on the outside of the engine and turn the water pump, alternator, power steering pump and (usually) air conditioner although not on Mike’s car. (Oh by the way, there are oil seals at both ends of the crankshaft, but we’ll get to them in a bit.)

Okay, back to the broken timing belt. We picked up the shop manual for the car and a new belt, spending a total of about 25 bucks. I read up on the procedure. It seemed very simple: Pull just about everything on the front of the engine off, remove old belt, install new belt, put everything on front of engine back on. Sounds complicated, but in reality it wasn’t. That little Geo has plenty of room under the hood to work on stuff, unlike most of the cars I’ve owned where it seems that the car was assembled upside down…by midgets with tiny, tiny hands.

Mikey started the job around 10 a.m. I had some errands to run, and when I got back he was buttoning it up. Total time on the job: About four hours, which is phenomenal I think. Had I stuck around to “help,” the job surely would’ve taken six or eight hours, maybe more.

So a couple of Saturdays ago we were tooling around up here in Washington in the very same Geo Tracker which has even more miles on it now. We’d just gotten back to his hangar when I smelled burning oil, which is never a good thing.

“Uh-oh, what’s that smell?”
I asked.

“Uh-oh, there’s smoke coming out of the hood!”
Mike said, alarmed. Smoke is not a good thing either.

Popping the hood, we saw that the engine compartment was covered with oil. Apparently it was coming from the very front of the engine, down low and being blown around by the fan.

“Looks like you blew a seal, Mike,” I said.

“Leave my personal life outta this,” he replied. {Rimshot}

Another Technical Aside: Oil is stored in the oil pan. It is sucked into the oil pump and sent directly to the crankshaft under high pressure, and then to other parts of the engine. There are the aforementioned seals at the back and front to keep all that oil inside. If one of them fails, it makes a big mess. If you don’t detect it in time, the “OIL” light on the dash will illuminate signaling that you’ll be stopping on the way home to buy a new engine. Because when that light comes on at speed, it is usually too late. Be warned! They don’t call them “idiot lights” for nuthin’. You’re an idiot if you let one of them come on.

Luckily for Mike, we detected the leak before all of the oil puked out. Again I went to the shop manual. Turns out that to change this part is not hard. You take everything on the front of the engine off, pry the old seal out with a screwdriver, press a new one in, then put everything on the front of the engine back on. Easy as cake!

The NAPA parts store here in Brewster does not stock the part, of course. And this was the Fourth of July weekend to boot, so even if they ordered it on Sunday, Tuesday would be the soonest it would get here. Maybe Wednesday. Fortunately Brandon, one of our pilots was over in Seattle picking up his girlfriend at the SEA-TAC airport. Using the mighty powers of the internet, we found a NAPA store in Seattle that actually had the $10.00 part in stock. A quick call to Brandon elicited a promise to pick it up before he made the four-hour drive back to Brewster. And that’s just how it worked. Brandon got back Sunday evening.

Mike started working on the car around 10 a.m. on Monday morning. The job went pretty well…only…one whole hour was wasted due to just one glitch. The picture in the manual showed four small bolts holding the front pulley on when in reality there were five. Both Mike and I thought that fifth “bolt” was just a locating dowel or something. D’OH! Once we (he) got that off the job went 1,2,3. As usual, Mike did all the very dirty work while I stood around and helped…err, watched (read: kept my hands clean).

And fortunately, he’s done most of this very job before. To do the timing belt, the only thing he did not take off which he had to this time is one little sprocket on the front of the crankshaft to expose the leaking seal. Even with the wasted hour, he was all done well before five o’clock, which I think is amazing. He had the car buttoned up and test-driven in plenty of time to get himself cleaned up and drive to a Fourth of July dinner party. Then again, he is a pretty good mechanic. Me, I’m a pretty good stand-around-and-watcherer.

I wish all of my breakdowns were this easy. They’re not. When my cars break, they go on the back of a flatbed and mechanics charge me a whooooole lot of money to fix them.

Mike must live under one hell of a lucky star.

12 July 2011

The Rain Came

With apologies to Ray Charles… Oh, it’s drying time again, we’re going to fly now…

Yeah we finally got some rain today! All five of our contracted helicopters flew. All of our low-time pilots are happy. The boss is happy. I’m happy.

We have two S-55’s now at the orchard in Malott, Washington, north of Brewster, where I'm staying. Travis is flying one and I’m flying the other. The second ship arrived just yesterday. Timing, as they say, is everything. Although I’m comfortable in the helicopter, I was initially supposed to fly with Travis as “copilot” in order to get some actual drying experience before going out on my own. It did not work out that way. Instead, since both helicopters had to fly, the boss came up and flew with me this morning. Tomorrow I'm on my own.

Here’s the deal with cherry drying – it’s not that hard: A hovering helicopter produces a downward-moving, vertical column of air. The pilot hovers slowly along the rows, using the downwash to blow the water off the branches. Hover too low or too slowly and you risk damaging the trees. (A big helicopter like the S-55 puts out a lot of downwash.) Hover too high or too fast and you won’t be shaking the branches enough to get the water off. There is a “sweet spot” that varies depending on the size of the trees and the wind. Wind blows your downwash around.

We have detailed maps of the groves that show us which fields are cherries and which ones are apples and pears. Apples and pears do not need drying. Travis will go hit some fields; I’ll get others. Together, we put in about two hours apiece with a break for fuel in the middle.

Beginning in early morning, rain blanketed the area today, from as far south as Chelan, where we have a ship, north to Malott. In between, two other aircraft flew around Brewster. Even Mikey flew!

But now, this evening as I write this, the clouds have moved off and it’s another spectacular sunset. There’s only a 30% chance of rain tomorrow. So who knows. At least we all flew today. It felt good! And we all needed it. We pilots prefer to fly, not sit around and look at each other.

10 July 2011

Brewster,Washington: The Weather Here

See that picture above? It contains four (of six) flyable Sikorsky S-55 helicopters under the clear, blue sky that exists above us every day here. The helicopters are waiting to go to work, as are the pilots who fly them. All we need is rain. And we're not getting any. It has been a cool, dry summer, with no rain so far and none in sight. My boss is really, really depressed. I try to sympathize, but I’m really digging this weather.

When I first got here, one of the first things I noticed was the low humidity compared to back home. People think that the entire state of Washington is as rainy and dreary as Seattle, but I’m here to tell you, it’s not. It is unbelievably dry here. So pleasant! I’d kind of gotten used to the hot, humid weather in Pensacola. Now I’m wondering if I even want to go back.

One afternoon Mikey and I had nothing to do and were hanging out at a little beach along the Columbia River on some property his boss owns just downstream of the Chief Joseph Dam. The water was very cold, and we could only stand to be in it for short periods. You know how sometimes you think the water is cold at first but once you get in, your body gets used to it and it’s not so bad? It wasn’t like that at all; it was freezing! So we did a lot of hanging out on the bank in just our bathing suits.

It was an absolutely cloudless day, and even with a SPF 8 sunscreen I thought I was going to be sunburned to a crisp, which would have been the case in Florida. To my surprise, I didn’t get burned at all. Not even the tops of my feet, which are usually the first to go along with my ever-expanding forehead.

The next day a bunch of us went up to Soap Lake and again I hardly got any color at all. I guess the sun is weaker this far north, which is logical.

I'm happy to report that the weather is very nice up here. They keep telling me about how hot it gets in July – and perhaps it will. Meantime, I’m just thankful I’m not down in the southeast. When this gig is over, I think I’ll take the long way home, and get back there in September when it starts to cool off.

05 July 2011


I was thinking about my last blogpost, the one just below this. And I was thinking about fun, and how important it is to me.

A long, long time ago I was visiting with a guy who was my first real mentor in this business. In fact, it is his name that is on the first line of my very first student pilot logbook. Although retired now, his name would still be familiar to many within the helicopter industry. I will not name names, because what I’m about to write might seem critical or harsh although I most sincerely do not intend it as such.

Anyway, I had been a commercial helicopter pilot for a while, and as I said went to this man’s house to visit. In turn, we went to the house of a neighbor of his, a Captain for TWA (a now-defunct airline) who flew jumbo jets across the Atlantic and had been doing it for a very long time. I was impressed! I’d always wanted to be an airline pilot, but somehow got diverted into helicopters and my fate was sealed. However, this airline captain was an interesting guy, and along the way I asked him if he still found the job fun?

I remember that he thought about it for a bit before answering. I don’t recall his exact words so I won’t pretend to quote them although that would be the typical literary technique at this point. The gist of his reply was that no, it was not fun; it was merely a job. Some aspects of it were more enjoyable than others, but for him flying had ceased being “fun.” I was a little disheartened, being at the start of my career at the time and having a whole lot of fun flying helicopters. Would it ever not be so?

After my mentor and I left, we were in his car when he turned to me and said, “Bobby,” in that rather stern voice that he used when he was displeased with me. I braced myself for a lecture.

People don’t generally call me Bobby. My family does, and certain close friends do, and I do not mind it. But I am not really a “Bobby.” It’s kind of the reverse of how we’d never think of calling Bobby Kennedy “Bob.” He was always a Bobby to everybody.

My mentor said, “You shouldn’t have asked that question back there about whether he still had fun. Fun is an immature concept.” (I do remember those exact words quite clearly.) “When you’re paid to do a job, it’s not fun. And it shouldn’t be.” Ouch! He had made me feel like such a child.

I was stung by the criticism. Up until that point, life had been nothing but fun for me. I was having a blast flying helicopters, and I couldn’t imagine doing something for a living that wasn’t fun. What kind of life would that be? Drudgery, that’s what.

Over time I came to understand my mentor’s point. I don’t agree with it, but I understand it. For some people, work is serious business. It is not fun. Because fun is an immature concept. For some people.

I may die a poor man. I may never attain great wealth, or achieve "success," or own a business, or own beach houses here and abroad, and multiple hunting camps like my former boss in Alabama. I will probably never get married, and I sure don’t plan on having any kids to carry on a legacy of any kind. I may never cure cancer, or write the next Great American Novel, or become POTUS, or for that matter do anything truly “great” with my life. I admit that I’m a pretty irresponsible guy, one who puts more value on riding motorcycles like a madman and chasing strange helicopter jobs around the country (the next one will be even stranger still…if it actually materializes).

But when I get to the Pearly Gates, I’m gonna wipe the sweat off my brow and tell St. Peter, “Holy cow, that was fun!” And I think he’ll say, “You sir, have learned the true meaning of life. Come on in. Welcome home!”

But he might not.

01 July 2011

This Crazy Business (Flying)

My friend Mikey and the two helicopters he flies.

It’s a nutty business, this aviation. I wonder if people in other occupations have as much fun as we.

On Wednesday there wasn’t a cloud in the sky (rats!), so I hopped in the car and went down to the airport. Dave Smith Sr., owner of Golden Wings Aviation provides lodging and two meals per day for his pilots. My intent was to get lunch but I knew I would probably have to cook it, which is fine by me. Sure enough, most of the guys were out doing stuff and none of the remaining ones were in a mood to do anything (people much prefer to eat than cook), so I fired up the charcoal grill just outside the hangar door. Funny, how everyone seemed to break loose of what they were doing to come eat. Soon we had burgers, chips, macaroni and potato salad. Basic, yes. Filling, very. Lunch is something we do very, very well around here.

Mikey called right at lunchtime as he sometimes (read: usually) does. He flies for a grower who owns his own ships. Mikey has flown up here for three seasons now, and all the Golden Wings guys treat him like he’s one of their own. It doesn’t hurt that a) he’s a great guy, and b) he and I are good friends. We are all like a big, happy family. I’ve had the terrific pleasure of working with some great groups of people in my life, and I’m thrilled to see this has not changed. We have a ton of fun at the Brewster Airport.

Because we are all technically on stand-by to dry cherries, Mikey normally spends his days at their very remote company hangar which is in a big grove up on the side of a hill about 8 miles south of town. After all, it can rain on any day and we have to be ready to pull the trigger and go dry. For him, it can be an isolated existence. Luckily his generous boss lets him take the ships out and “stretch their legs” whenever he wants. Sweet deal, if I do say so myself. So anyway, Mikey asked what we were doing for lunch? I told him I’d throw an extra burger on the ‘barbie if he wanted to come down.

“I’m firing up the Huey…be right there!”
he said.

I laughed. I thought to myself, "Sure, just jump in your helicopter and come visit for lunch." How many people get to do that?

Soon, we all heard that iconic blade-slap sound that lets everyone know a Huey is approaching. (Actually, I can usually hear the equally-distinctive growl of the tail rotor first.) Under the scrutiny of eight other hyper-critical professional helicopter pilots (no pressure!), Mikey shot his approach cross-wise to the runway (as per the federal regs governing such things), then hovered into the ramp and set down, just as smooth as can be. (That boy can fly! a damn helicopter, and I love watching him do it.)

These S-55’s, with their big, Curtiss-Wright radial engines need to be run-up every three days if they don’t fly. See, over time all the oil drains out of the single, humongous main bearing in the engine. If you let it sit for a while and then go to start it up, that bearing can get damaged before the thick, 120-weight oil makes it up there from the oil pump. The “simple” solution in that case is to hook up a portable pressure-lubricator device to an oil line on the engine utilizing a quick-disconnect fitting, and then pre-oil the bearing. To prevent having to do that rigmarole, if we haven’t flown we merely start ‘em up every three days to circulate the oil. And “my” ship was due for a run-up…my ship which is located in a cherry grove about 8 miles north of town.

Pilots LOVE getting “stick time” in different aircraft. The plan was for Mikey to fly young Brandon up to our field in the Huey. Travis (who was already there) would then fire up our S-55 and take Mikey (who hasn’t flown an S-55 yet) for a ride “around the pattern,” which is pilot-talk for “going up and having a little fun for no good reason.” Then Mikey would take Travis up and let him fly the Huey back to his hangar. Three guys would get a little stick-time in two ships on an otherwise no-fly day. (And I wasn’t one of them, dammit!)

Brandon’s face lit up like a kid on Christmas morning when Mike offered to let him fly the Huey. He quickly grabbed his headset and bounded out to the ship with an enthusiasm that caused us old-timers to smile, remembering back to when we were at that stage. Mikey hovered it out to the runway, set it down, and then gave the controls to Brandon. Never having flown one before, Brandon did a nice job of lifting it off the ground into a stable hover. I could just imagine the grin on his face as he pulled up on that big collective lever by the side of the seat to increase power, nudged the cyclic forward and eased into forward flight.

Later, Travis had asked me to pick him up at Mikey’s hangar, so I drove up to be there before they landed. The wind was really ripping by the time I heard them coming, so Mikey did the actual landing in their tight LZ (landing zone). Nevertheless, Travis had gotten enough time in the ship, including a landing up on the beach at Soap Lake, to give him the perma-grin.

I love flying, I love aviation, and I love people who fly. We have this neat opportunity to see the world as few others do, to master these wacky machines, and to make a living at it. As I've said before, I'm one of the luckiest sons o' bitches on the planet. I didn’t fly at all on Wednesday, but it was one of my best days ever in this crazy business

Me and Mikey out messing around in "his" Bell 206B