Last year was bad. There wasn’t much rain, so there wasn't much cherry-drying flying to do. Plus, we had the Carlton Complex fire, the biggest in the history of Washington State. It consumed nearly everything around us, sparing the town of Brewster itself for some reason. It was crazy-stressful as we sat around on pins and needles wondering when we’d have to evacuate the helicopters to a safer place and how much of our ground facilities and equipment we’d lose to the fire. You can’t save everything.
There were other, personal and personnel factors that caused it to be a bad year as well. When I left, which I did at the first opportunity I promised myself it was my last year. But…the inquiring phone calls began shortly after January 1st. Just little, “Hi, how’s it going? Hope to see you soon,” kinds of things. I did not commit.
The deal they offer is very lucrative…and by itself it’s hard to say no to the money.
But the real trouble is that I like the guys who run the company so much. The owner, Dave Smith Sr. is notoriously publicity-shy, and he doesn't like when I write about his operation in specific detail. So I won’t. But he and his son Danny are damn good people. Dave’s been in the aviation business for over forty years, and he’s endured some incredible challenges and experiences along the way that make him a most interesting character. I’ve been working for him for four summers so far and I’ll bet I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the stories he’s got to tell.
But not only that, my young friends Brandon, Lauren and Chris are coming back, all of whom are by now seasoned vets now…dependable and capable…fine pilots who know the ropes. The chance to work side-by-side with them again is, to quote Robert Palmer, simply irresistible (1).
Plus my good friend and (platonic!) soulmate Mike Nehring, the guy who introduced me to this whole cherry-drying mess in the first place will be hanging around when he’s not stringing powerlines for the company he now works for in Olympia, WA. Although we talk on the phone nearly every day, I haven’t seen Mikey since last year. It’s always a party when he comes to town. The guy is just non-stop fun. He reminds me of me when I was his age.
Our fleet of helicopters is more diversified now. During my first season, we only had five Korean War-era Sikorsky S-55’s. Four of them had old-school radial engines (the kind you see in those old documentaries of B-17 bombers); and one was a “turbine conversion” whereby the old radial was swapped out for a smooth, quiet, reliable turbine engine of similar horsepower. This year the fleet has grown in size and type to eleven helicopters, with a couple of modern Bell helicopters added, as well as more turbine-conversion Sikorsky’s.
So I could - if I wanted to - fly a more modern, turbine-powered ship. But I don’t. I’ll stick with the piston-powered version. They’re more…umm…challenging to fly, and certainly more fatiguing than the turbine birds which are sooooo much easier to fly. But flying these old, loud, cranky, cantankerous beasts connects me with the past…and with my dad, I guess. In 1954 he flew the USMC version of this very helicopter which they called the HRS when it was brand-new as I was being born. I guess the draw is too strong. (Plus, oh please, anyone can fly a turbine!)
Given all of the above, how can I refuse to go back up? But this year will probably be my last, I swear! Just like last year was.
(1) Typically obscure reference to a song called, “Simply Irresistable,” by musician Robert Palmer from 1988.