Recommending someone for a job is always risky. What if it doesn’t work out? It can make you look bad. This summer, both my friend Mikey and I recommended a total of four pilots for the job of cherry-drying, and only one of them worked out.
In the first case I’d known “Pilot A” from online helicopter forums for years…literally since the late 1990’s. I knew that he had quite a lot of flight time: 11,000+ hours in fact in both airplanes and helicopters. Although he had not flown since 2008, that should not have been a problem. The guy claimed to be the best pilot this side of Chuck Yeager. I like confidence in a pilot. But there’s a flip side to that: you actually have to be good as well. With this guy’s experience, I assumed that he was, and that he would check out in the S-55 easily.
The other guy, “Pilot B” was Mikey’s very first flight instructor. Mike had spoken to me about him before, and regarded him highly. This guy’s total flight time was relatively low (just under 1,000 hours) but the good news was that all his time was in piston-engine helicopters which are “harder” to fly than turbines. (See, in a piston helicopter the pilot usually has to manipulate the throttle to match the engine r.p.m. to the power demand. In turbines, the engine r.p.m. is governed automatically, reducing the pilot's workload.) The trouble was, “B” hadn’t flown since 2009. Still, Mike assured me that he could do the job with minimal training.
I had also recommended a third pilot, a low-time young guy I sort of knew from Facebook who seemed very well-respected by some heavy-hitters in the “Utility” end of our industry. (Word of mouth, baby!) But initially he was only to function as a copilot this season, not as full PIC.
We all showed up in Brewster, Washington around the first of June. Right off the bat, two of the new potential PIC’s had problems. You expect pilots who haven’t flown in some time to be rusty. But you also expect that they’ll pick it up quickly and get back in the groove. The first guy, “A” not only didn’t get his groove back, but he made our chief flight instructor doubt whether he had as much helicopter flight time as stated on his resume. He was rough. This was not looking good.
Generously, Mikey immediately took his old friend, “B” up in the Bell 206 first so he could get his “sea legs” back before even flying the old Sikorsky. However as with pilot “A” the results were not so good. Even though “B” had never flown a JetRanger before, it is – come on now – one of the easiest helicopters to fly. “B” was more than just rusty. Plus, he was (and is) timid to the point of making us doubt his self-confidence. There’s a fine line that pilots must walk between being overly conservative and too arrogant; this pilot was way too far on the “conservative” side. And yes, there is such a thing.
Granted, in their defense neither “A” nor “B” got much time with us on any given flight. The hops were short. But still, neither of the guys was progressing at any reasonable rate. With such experience levels, they “should” have been doing better. In the helicopters’ defense, they are not incredibly difficult to fly – they’re “old school” in many respects (okay, in every respect) but we’re just hovering, fer cryin’ out loud. They fly like every other piston-engine helicopter. From very early on we had our doubts as to whether either of these guys would check out as PIC (pilot in command). They both made reasonable-sounding excuses for their performance, complaining about this or that.
After a month of feeding, housing and paying them, the owner of the company finally had to let both of them go. “A” left to go home, while “B” stayed on as an unsalaried “copilot” for the experience and the fun. And who knows, maybe he’ll improve enough to be a PIC next season. Now here’s where it gets weird.
We still needed two pilots, so the company asked Mikey to reach out to another friend of his whom we all know. This guy (“Pilot D”) is both a certified mechanic and pilot, and has more than enough experience to do this job. But could he fly? We’d have to find out.
“D” bargained hard for, and got a higher pay rate than a standard first-season cherry-drying pilot; higher than I got my first season. Hey, more power to him. But that higher pay came with a catch: He had to be “shit-hot” on the controls.
“D” showed up on Saturday and began training almost immediately. I was happy to see him here. As I said, I knew him and I liked him. Plus, he brought his motorcycle up with him and I figured we’d be doing some riding on the nice, no-fly days of which we have many.
On Tuesday morning we were called to go dry cherries. “D” showed up at the base and immediately confronted Davy, the son of the owner of the company and the pilot “D” would be flying with that day. (If all went well during that first period, Davy was going to turn “D” loose to fly the machine by himself for the rest of the day.) But before they could even strap-in, “D” demanded to know that he would be getting paid from the day he got there (Saturday, only three days prior). Davy says that he told “D” that was not their deal, but in any case he should take it up with the owner – who happened to be away that day on a trip. “D” drew a line in the sand, saying that he was a professional pilot and that he didn’t fly unless he got paid. With that, he turned around and walked off the job.
We were baffled. Dave Senior, the owner of the company had been around all weekend. We were all at a big steak barbecue at his house on Sunday afternoon, and then he left on a trip late Monday evening. If “D” had an issue or question about his pay, he should have addressed it with Dave Senior while he was there, instead of bringing it up with the son right before they were to go flying. It seemed strange and, well, somewhat unprofessional. But as Mikey likes to say, it is what it is.
On the other hand, I’m happy to report that Pilot “C” turned out to be an exceptionally talented pilot. We gave him some extra training and he checked-out in the S-55 as a PIC with no problemo. He flew the second ship on my contract. (Check out my Facebook page for pictures and videos of him.) But we were still short one pilot…kind of. (Dave Senior would rather have stayed in the office and coordinate than have to go out flying.)
Needless to say, Mikey and I feel terrible. But that’s what happens when you recommend someone for a job. I can’t say I’ll never do it again, but it sure sucks when it doesn’t work out.