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!