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?

27 June 2012

Blowing Those Cherries But Not Drying Them

...Then the rain came.

Normally Tuesday would have been a no-fly day for me back in my real life. From sunrise it had been raining, and the visibility was very poor all morning. The tops of the surrounding hills were obscured by clouds. I mean it was scuzzy. But around 1 p.m. Joel, our farm manager showed up at the RV and said go fly anyway. And so I did. See, in this job we don’t really “fly.” We just hover. And as long as I can see the fields I can dry. Luckily it never gets as zero/zero foggy as it does in other parts of the country. Like Brewton, Alabama.

Normally we wait until the rain has pretty much stopped before we go out drying. But Monday was rainy and Tuesday was a wet, wet day. In fact, it has rained just about every day of the last week. The weatherguessers have been guessing wrong – and they really got it wrong this time. It didn’t look like it would ever stop.

In the Brewster area (Okanogan Valley) we are literally in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains. It’s strange. Weather systems approaching from the west usually rain themselves out before reaching us. But for the last week a low has been parked down off the coast of Oregon. The counterclockwise flow around it sent moisture up our way, circumventing our usual weather blocker. All of the rain that fell on me came in from the southeast.

If cherries stay wet they absorb water through the stem and can split open. And it had been raining steadily. So out I went, to blow off what water had accumulated on them even though more was coming.

Earlier in the morning I had seen our “Marine1” ship going up the valley toward the town of Omak where it was raining more heavily. Around noon the pilot stopped in for fuel. “I don’t know why we’re out there,” Dave said. “The cherries were just as wet behind me as they were ahead of me."  He shrugged, "Oh well, it’s good revenue.” Then he climbed back into the bird to go again.  Hey, if the farmers want to pay to have us go out and burn gas, it's okay by us!

Here's Marine1 getting ready to take off again to go cherry-...well...blowing

Indeed, it was good revenue. Everybody in the company flew a lot on Tuesday. It was very unusual, according to the old-timers who’ve been around longer than me. The fields I have right now (around 100 acres) take about an hour to dry. Usually I just do them once and am done. Tuesday I flew 3.8. It was fun.

I’m finally “back in the groove” with the S-55 which admittedly I was not when I got here. In aviation we place a lot of emphasis on currency in make and model. And during my first few flights in the old beast I was really rusty. Not scary-rusty, just not up to my own standards. If Mikey had been flying with me I would have been embarrassed at my clumsiness. 

Anyway, now it’s Wednesday and it’s…finally!...bright and clear. There were a few clouds right after sunrise but they dissipated completely by the time we all got together and went out to Smallwood Farms for a liesurely breakfast/safety meeting over which we debriefed each other on yesterday.

We used to have certain acronyms for weather. "W0X0F," for instance (wocks-off) comes from the bad old days when our aviation weather reports were just a bunch of confusing symbols inherited from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. It means, Ceiling Zero, Visibility Zero due to Fog. Or, “CAVU:” Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited. I say the National Weather Service ought to have another acronym for days like this: NACITS: Not A Cloud In The Sky). So far they have not taken my suggestion.

And here's my bird, 955 the following morning. What a difference a day makes!

26 June 2012

Erica's Questions

I appreciate all comments to this blog.  Unlike some bloggers, I do not edit or delete comments, nor even require "blogger approval" before they're posted (unless they're added after a certain period of time - it's a spam filter thing Blogger provides).  I do not mind intelligent discourse, even if the writer disagrees with me.  I appreciate all comments, good and bad.  (The woman blogger I wrote about in the previous post bans *all* comments from me.  I guess she only wants her viewpoint heard on her blog.  Oh well.)  Moving on, I don't feel the need to answer every comment, although I do read them.  So if you don't get a response from me, it's safe to say that your comment stands on its own merit and I thank you for it. 

My last post brought a response from a woman here in the Brewster area who coincidentally and conveniently asked a question I was going to deal with in this post anyway. Erica wrote:

"I have a question. The last couple of years have been deadly for you guys, especially farther south in Wenatchee, where there are power lines everywhere. It takes we growers' breath away, thinking of your lot's courage and skill, and the dangers of precision flying. So my question is this: are you guys REALLY flying with the passenger pilot sticking his head out the window, as I saw the other morning?!? Avoiding wind machines, power lines and trees is terrifying, so I wouldn't be surprised!

I went down to a neighbor's orchard three days ago, to watch that wonderful old S-55 thunder above the trees. And I took some lousy pictures. But then, I notice the right-hand side window open, and a guy or gal LEANING OUT, motioning to the pilot! This was up Jack Wells Rd., above Chief Joe."

Erica, I don’t want to burst any bubbles, but what we do is not heroic or particularly frightening and doesn’t take an inordinate amount of courage. If it involved those things, I certainly wouldn’t (couldn’t?) do it! In fact, we work really, really hard to make the job as routine as possible. In the end, we are mostly just hovering around in an open field. It’s fairly easy to do, but as you point out it does have its hazards.

Not to give you a complete training program on cherry-drying, but let me hit you with the basics. Cherry-drying is simply a matter of slowly hovering up and down the orchard at an altitude that puts about a 15 mph downward breeze through the trees. More than that can bash the cherries together and damage them (we call it, “making cherry juice”); less than that won’t get them dry.

Before we enter a field, we always, always, always scope out the wire/obstruction situation. I will go so far as to say that every dang field has a powerline running either along one edge or perhaps through it – in rare cases both. But nothing takes us by surprise, believe it or not. A lot of times there will be cherry trees quite near the wires or other obstructions (e.g. roads, houses, pickers quarters, wind machines, etc.) so we figure out in advance how we are going to dry those trees when we get to them.

A lot of times we have an observer who is a commercially-rated helicopter pilot. Contrary to what some people might imagine, we do not take joyriders. We do ask the observer to keep an eye out and warn us if we’re getting close to an obstruction. But as I said, sometimes it’s a necessity to get the job done. Happily, with the S-55 I can usually hover well above the wires. Still, we do need to keep track of their location so we don’t run into them inadvertently.

Wind can blow our downwash around. It is not always directly underneath the helicopter. Sometimes it’s hard to see the exact trees you’re drying without some extra effort.  Erica, when you described the pilot leaning out the window, I thought you were talking about me! But I do not dry near the Chief Joseph Dam, which is where you said you were.

During the course of the job, I often do slide my door/window back and lean out to see the effect my downwash is having on the trees. That’s just part of doing a good job for the customer. If I have a copilot, I’ll do that for him when he’s flying and he’ll do the same for me when I’m flying. I do it when I’m alone as well. But I am comfortable and competent hovering in this manner (although I’ll admit that it’s not for everyone).

Some fields are easy and some are harder. Nearly all of the fields I dry for my customer are on flat ground and have no wires running through them. Very easy. There is one little corner of one field where two powerlines come together, but with a little advance planning even it is not that hard to do.

Our boss has repeatedly said that the cherries are not worth dying for. So we’re conservative. We try not to take unnecessary chances. Even so, we pilots sometimes make mistakes. Hey, we’re only human! Last year we lost a pilot who hit a powerline while drying in the town of Manson. He was in the middle of drying the field, and knew the powerline was there, so we are completely at a loss to explain how he could have hit the wire the way he did.  But we take lessons from every crash, especially that one, and we redouble our efforts to not let that happen to us. 

In the end, cherry-drying by helicopter is not an incredibly challenging job – just one that takes a little understanding and planning to do it right. And in the right helicopter (like the good, ol’ Sikorsky S-55) it is quite a lot of fun!

24 June 2012

Faith, Hope, and Bloggery

There is this woman with a blog who owns a helicopter company in Arizona. She operates a Robinson R-44, which is a popular small, economical four-seat ship powered by a Lycoming piston-engine. Every summer this woman flies her helicopter up here to Washington State and dries cherries with it. As we speak, she is located not far south of me.

In her blog, this woman often takes a strident, lecturing, know-it-all approach to her posts. We all know that writers can be very different people in person than they are on paper. In this case, the woman writes very well (and is a great photographer to boot). Nevertheless, I find her “personality” irritating. Unlike, oh, P.J. O’Rourke whom I’d love to meet, I really hope I never bump into this woman blogger in the Wenatchee Walmart.

The very first blogpost I read of hers concerned a conflict she had with a helicopter tour operator at some desolate, uncontrolled airport in the southwest (must’ve been near the Grand Canyon). Apparently the tour operator normally used two of the three front parking spots on the ramp. Instead of parking on the third front spot, this woman parked her helicopter on a spot behind the front three which was closer to the vehicle parking area than the third front spot. This interfered with the rapid approach and departure of the tour guys. They asked her to move, she declined, and it went downhill from there.

I won’t take sides because I obviously was not there. The tour pilots clearly felt that this woman was in their way, impeding the efficient flow of their operation on their airport. Hey, I know how pilots can be.  Oh, do I!

But instead of working it out with the pilots themselves or their Chief Pilot, or merely being cooperative and accommodating, this blogger woman mounted her high horse and went straight to the FAA. A lot of us would consider this a pretty chickenshit thing to do. But when you’re a pompous, relatively low-time “expert” in a field, you know better than anyone, by God! And that’s how this woman comes off in her posts.

I should ironically note here that this woman is proudly atheist. In another post, she bragged about browbeating a couple of religious proselytizers (probably Jehovah’s Witnesses) who made the mistake of knocking on her door. It was a middle-aged woman and a young girl. Our blogger says she invited them in and sat them down. Instead of a genuine back-and-forth discussion of faith, she proceeded to ridicule their beliefs and their religion, and openly try to change the mind of the young girl to a belief system that denies God.

As a person of faith, this was extremely offensive to me. You don’t want to believe in God? Go right ahead. But mocking someone because they do have faith is just childish and rude. As I’ve written before, humans have faith in a lot of things, not just a Creator. Without faith, it would be hard to get out of bed every morning. To deny this is silly. Yet atheists do. Alternatively, they want it both ways: They want to have faith in some things, just not a Creator. Yeah. Right.

In all of her writing, this blogger seems very unhappy and, you’ll pardon the term, unChristianlike. She complains a lot. A lot. Almost nothing goes her way. In fact, her blog is one diatribe after another chronicling some transgression someone has committed, or some rude thing she’s said or done to someone. She alluded to the breakup of her marriage. “…I’m going through some big changes right now,” she cryptically noted. (Gee, I wonder why, he thought sarcastically?)

It pains me to read the words of someone whose life is so fucked-up, especially that of a fellow helicopter pilot (and motorcyclist)! I know in my heart that this woman’s life would turn around if she would simply accept the fact that there is a Creator (whom most people call “God”), and realize that this Creator loves her and wants the best for her…a Creator she can call on to help her in times of stress or duress.

She would dispute this, of course, as all atheists do. She would swear that her life is just fine, thank you very much, Mr. Buttinski. “I have my own helicopter company and I’m a (self)published author and…and…” And yet it seems so empty or lacking to the outsider.

Let me ask you readers of this blog something. Does it seem like my life is bad? Does it seem like, in general, things don’t go my way or that bad shit is always happening to me? Wait – I’ll answer that for you: HELL NO! I love my life! I’d like to have more money (wouldn’t we all?) but I wouldn’t change a damn thing. Do I “owe it all” to God? No, but it would be wrong to deny His existence and influence and affect on my life. And anyway, on the other hand maybe I do owe it all to Him.  Maybe I owe more to God’s power and good grace than I’m even aware.

And so I continue to read this woman’s blog, hoping that one day she’ll “see the light” as it were and realize that there is “something” bigger than her out there. But right now, she is the biggest thing in her world. That’s a troubling philosophy, I’ll tell you what.

My faith is what sustains me, gives me the strength and courage to face and get through every day. My faith is what gives me hope that things can always get better…better even than they are now! Without faith there can be no hope…without faith hope is merely wishful thinking. This is why I feel so sad for atheists: Without hope, is life really worth living? I think not.

22 June 2012

What I Know About Weather: Nothing

Up here in north-central Washington State, things get tense in the summer, specifically mid-June through July. The cherries are popping! The farmers don’t want rain, but the helicopter operators do. We all watch the skies warily, intently poring over weather websites. In the extended forecast, a day of rain will either be a cause of dismay or joy, depending on which side of the revenue fence you sit.

The trouble is, forecasting the weather for this area must be tough. We watch the Accuweather, Intellicast, Weather.com and Weather Underground sites. None of them agree. There is a lot of inconsistency among their forecasts. One site will call for a day of rain while another says it’ll be sunny. It tells me that nobody really knows what’s going to happen until the day it does. Or that maybe nobody really cares what goes on in this vast, unpopulated section of Washington State between Seattle and Spokane.

Take today for example. All of the weather sites were calling for rain in various amounts today. The usually-reliable Weather Underground was even calling for a 50% chance of rain last night (although none of the others were). I went to bed early (for me), feeling pretty confident that I’d be flying at sunrise. But we did not get a drop. The sun rose into clear skies. And today we’ve only gotten scattered sprinkles – not even hard enough to call it “drizzling.” Bands of rain do move in from the south, but they either fizzle out before they get here or split and go up the ridgelines on either side of the Okanogan River valley. It’s fun to watch…unless you’re a young pilot eager to build flight time. Then it’s frustrating.

I’m living in a camper some 20 miles north of Brewster, based with my helicopter in an orchard out in the middle of nowhere. Last year I was deaf, dumb and blind to the weather (to which my smartass friends would retort, “Just to the weather?”). This year I’ve got a smartphone that has good 3G service here in the LZ (landing zone), so I can monitor the weather more closely, in a detailed, real-time way (and I can make blogposts!). Last year I had to phone people with smartphones and ask, “What’s it doing?” It’s a whole lot nicer when you can actually see what’s actually happening.

And you know what? The more I learn about the weather, the more I realize how little I know about the weather. Apparently the various weather services are in the same boat.

18 June 2012

Sitting On "Go!"

Here's my sweetie: N955TC- same ship I flew last year, parked at the LZ in Malott, Washington, ready to go to work.

This is the one we call "Marine 1" getting some last-minute adjustments at sunset before leaving the Brewster Airport.

Life is pretty slow and mundane here in Brewster, Washington. Except for when there’s the forecast of rain. Then everyone gets antsy. When it actually rains, everyone goes crazy. The farmers usually wait until the rain starts before calling to say they want to be dried. It’s no problem for the ones who have signed contracts with us, but there are some smaller farmers who don’t want to pay the up-front money to keep a ship on dedicated stand-by for a couple of months. When they call, they’re usually desperate but they’ll have to take what they can get. We do keep one ship available for back-ups, breakdowns and ad-hoc work, but...  If all of our helicopters are out drying someone else, well…oh well. We cater, obviously, to the ones who sign contracts.

The orchard owner I’m assigned to is pretty squared-away. They get their contract signed early, leaving the actual start date to be determined. Then they coordinate the beginning of the stand-by time to the first real rain after the cherries have begun turning red. If they start the stand-by time too early and the season goes long, it can get expensive for them. That’s what happened last year; we stayed an extra two weeks on the job because the cherries ran late.

On Father’s Day Sunday, we knew the forecast for Monday called for rain. If it rains overnight we have to be read to fly at sunrise, which around these parts is like 0430. Yes, 4:30 a.m.

This (Monday) morning I got up at four. I felt the top of the travel trailer I’m staying in, and it was dry – no rain overnight. But the skies were ugly and threatening, and the radar showed a big blob of green right over us, extending well south of the town of Bridgeport. But weather radar is deceptive. Light green does not always mean it’s raining on you, only that there’s moisture in the clouds which the radar beam picks. up. Where that moisture comes down (if it even does) is up to Mother Nature.

I preflighted the ship and took the blade tie-downs off; ready to punch the button when the farm manager said “Fly.” It rained for a little bit at 4:30, but it was just a light drizzle. At 5:30 it started again, more steadily this time and it didn’t let up. I knew we’d be flying. I had some breakfast and called Mikey. He was already up at his hangar as well. It had been raining harder and longer down south, so he was waiting for the inevitable signal to pull the trigger.  (We pilots have a lot of euphemisms for starting the helicopter.)

Joel, our Farm Manager stopped by around 6:00 to tell me which fields to hit (we don’t normally do all of them unless it has really rained heavily). “Let’s dry when it stops,” he said. “There’s no rush – unless the sun comes out strong. I’ll check the fields, and check the radar, and I’ll stop back by to let you know.”

I went back into the trailer and lay back down. No sense pacing or doing anything.  I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.” Something like that. Anyway, I agree!  And so I lay down and waited. The call to flip the switch finally came at seven. I was all done by eight.

Hurry up and wait! We do a lot of that in aviation…in all aspects of aviation…especially so in the cherry-drying business.