I write about my friend, Mike Nehring so often that you might think there’s something funny going on between us. Nope, sorry to disappoint you. We’re just really good friends…kind of like father/son but also not. Our friendship has had its ups and downs. But no matter where we are and what we’re doing, I’m there for him and I know he’s there for me, and it’ll always be so.
Case in point: Every year when I finish up my summer job in Brewster, Washington, Mikey asks me to stop by his place on the way home. Trouble is, Olympia, Washington is not exactly “on the way” home. In fact, since Olympia is over on the coast to the west, it’s in the exact opposite direction I need to be going, which is east.
But this past season was different. I wasn’t in a huge rush to get home and decided to take my time. First stop would be to see Mikey (finally!) and then down to California to see longtime friend, pilot and fellow blogger, Hal Johnson.
I had planned on leaving Brewster before noon on Sunday, November 15th, but you know how that goes. I didn’t get started on the four-hour trip to Mikey’s house until around two-thirty. Fortunately, the weather was clear for the trip across the Cascades through Steven’s Pass and I made good time.
When I got to his house much later than expected, I could tell Mike had been cooking. He’d whipped up some of his world-famous fried chicken. All joking aside, he is the fried chicken king. He’d also made a green bean casserole, which was awesome, and a batch of cornbread. Now, I think I make some pretty good cornbread. But Mikey’s recipe has forever changed how I’ll be making it from now on. (His secret ingredient? Sour cream. Yum!)
We ate and ate. I reflected on how generous and considerate Mikey is. I mean, we could have just gone out – there’s a Burger King right down the road and that would have been fine by me. But no, he had to cook up a big meal. So we chowed down and drank rum and watched football and talked - just the two of us, not the usual big crowd we always seem to be a part of. Quality time for sure. He had to fly the next morning so we didn’t make it one of our typical binges 'til the early hours of the morning.
He was gone when I woke up, but he’d told me where he’d be working. He'd be doing what we call “slinging Christmas trees.” This is where workers in a tree farm bundle up a bunch of living-room-size pine trees and then a helicopter hauls them over to a staging area for transport. Here is a YouTube video of such an operation. Mikey is not the pilot although the helicopter is owned by the same company. And while the pilot below is putting the bundles into a truck, Mikey was laying them in a pile on the ground.
Monday morning dawned rainy, windy and cold. The visibility was not quite as bad as in the above video, but it wasn't great. Despite this, when I got to the site, Mikey was hard at work. Other than a couple of field workers, nobody was around but an old guy in a beat-up pickup truck. I assumed he was the farm manager; turned out it was the farm owner. (You just never know who you’re talking to, right?) I introduced myself as another pilot who was with Mike so he didn’t think I was just some trespasser/lookyloo.
Together we watched Mikey shuttling the Bell 206 back and forth, back and forth, with no wasted motion, expertly dropping the trees off onto one big pile where they’d be individually run through a shaker (to get out the bugs, bird nests, etc.) and then another machine that bands them up with a tight netting so they’re more compact.
His flying is so smooth and precise…Mikey really is good at what he does and I admire him so much. The way he flies is inspiring. I’ve been privileged to watch him grow from an inexperienced newbie ten years ago to the consummate professional he is today. He’s never lost his enthusiasm and fascination for flying. He always tries to be better than he was yesterday - a characteristic of really good pilots. Watching him fly makes me intensely proud, even though I've had little to do with his development.
The farm owner had very nice things to say about Mikey’s work. He was impressed with his smoothness. After a while, he pointed at the JetRanger and asked, “So you do this too?”
I laughed and said, “Oh no, sir! That type of flying is for younger guys, not for me.”
He looked at me funny. I explained that such flying allows no room for error; it is a “right on the edge” kind of thing. One slip-up, one microsecond lapse of attention or concentration, one little mechanical glitch and you’re in the trees. (Around that same time this year, a helicopter in Oregon crashed slinging trees. The cause is so far unknown.) It’s not that I don’t have the skill to do it – I just prefer not to. Too risky for this pilot. (…Says the guy who hovers low over cherry trees for hours at a time in a 60 year-old helicopter.)
The weather got worse, and Mikey wisely decided to call it a day. He’d be headed northbound back up to Olympia, and I was going south. We said our good-byes the way we always do: not knowing if or when we’ll see each other again. It’s not that we think either one of us will crash. But in our line of work…
POSTSCRIPT: Mikey always bristles when he reads my blogposts about him. Some of the ground people he works with (non-aviators) google his name and of course my blog comes up…a lot. So Mike has asked me to not refer to him by name in the future. Because I want to cooperate, I’ll do what he wants. So this is my last post about Mike Nehring. From now on. he'll just be "Pilot X." But you and I will know. It'll be our little secret. ;-)