The Columbia River between Pateros and Chelan, Washington. The dark part is a little canal that runs between a railroad track and the road.
As long-time, long-suffering readers of this blog know, in the summertime I travel up from Florida to Washington State to fly a helicopter that hovers over cherry trees after it rains. I usually come up prior to June 1st to help get things ready. By the end of July or slightly into August the cherries are all picked and there’s no need for us, so we pilots beat feet back to our regular lives, families, and jobs.
The company I fly for provides a decent salary, plus food and lodging. It’s not a bad deal, but then again once the farmers put us “on contract” we’re basically on continuous duty for the next forty-five days: We have to be ready to fly any time it rains. We can’t be goofing off over in Seattle. There are no spare pilots, so there are no days off. Hey, that’s the deal.
The good news is that it doesn’t rain much up here. The interior of Washington State is fairly dry and there are some pretty good rivers for irrigation, making it a great place to grow things like apples and cherries. So even though we’re kind of captive and on constant standby, we can have all kinds of fun – as long as we keep a close eye on the weather and don’t stray too far. Since we all have smartphones with apps that show weather radar, this is not hard to do.
This was an average year, as cherry-drying goes. I flew about thirty hours for the grower to which I was assigned, the same one I’ve been on since I got here three years ago. I like them; they like me. It’s a two-ship contract at a remote location north of town. The other pilot and I live in separate RV’s. We are handled on a daily basis by the farm manager, Joel. When he needs us to fly, we fly – simple as that. Otherwise, we run pretty autonomously which is how I like it.
When the cherries were all picked and our contracts were over, some of the pilots did leave. But Brandon, Chris and I hung around because…well, Chris lives pretty close, and Brandon and I just had nothing else to do. And it’s beautiful up here! Brandon set about to have the most fun possible (which is what he does). I just kept going to the airport every day to help out. Eventually the boss said he’d just put me back on the payroll.
There’s so much to do! The outfit I fly for operates eight helicopters and two airplanes, and they don’t just stick the things back in the hangar at the end of the season. There are always maintenance tasks that have to be performed. In addition there were two engine-changes to do on two separate helicopters (not exactly a simple procedure). We’ve also bought some other helicopters that have to be retrieved. Two are in Montana, there’s one each in New Jersey and New York City, and there’s one in Idaho. I’ve already been to Idaho once to get the parts associated with that aircraft; this coming week we go back to get the rest.
The boss and I get to the airport around 0730 to plan our day. Most of the time there’s plenty to keep us busy. But sometimes our biggest task is figuring out where we’re going for lunch. I feel a little guilty when I’m getting paid and not doing anything, so I try to at least look busy. I sweep, I clean up the place, I mow the lawn…stuff that nobody else wants to do and won’t get done by itself.
Me, washing N955TC before she goes into the hangar for maintenance/inspection
As I mention again and again, this part of Washington State is unbelievably gorgeous. There is a strong urge to move up here full-time. The deal-breaker of course is the snow. I can take the cold, just not the snow. My parents moved from California back to New York City when I was four years old, so I had to deal with winter snow just about all my life until I was 32 and finally moved south. Enough was enough.
I was hoping to get out of Washington and head back to Florida before the first snowfall, but now it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. But Thanksgiving! I’m definitely going to be home by Thanksgiving.