When I bought my helicopter back in 2005, I was living in the Phoenix area. Arizona is nice — in the spring, summer, and autumn. But in the summer it’s brutally hot and no amount of air conditioning (which I didn’t have in my helicopter anyway) can make it bearable when you’ve parked on the tarmac with your cockpit in the sun waiting for a client. That’s if you can get any flying work at all.

After the summer of 2005, I’d had enough of it. Since another season at the Grand Canyon was out of the question, I began looking for other work for the summer of 2006. I was hoping that a tour operator in a cooler place would need an extra ship for their busy season.

What I got instead was a call from a guy named Erik based in the Seattle area. He told me that he was doing cherry drying work every summer and was always looking for pilots to help.

Cherry drying, explained

The explanation is simple: During the last three to four weeks before harvest, cherries are susceptible to damage from rain. If water from a rainfall is allowed to sit on the fruit, it can be absorbed through the skin, causing the cherries to expand and split. Moisture on the cherries can also cause mold and mildew. Any of these things can make the cherry unsalable. If 50 percent or more of an orchard’s crop is damaged, the orchardist won’t even bother picking and the whole crop will be lost.

To protect the cherries, orchardists hire helicopter pilots to stand by in the area with their helicopters. When it rains, they call the pilots out to fly, low and slow, over the treetops. The down wash from the rotor blades blows down into the tree’s branches, causing them to wave violently and shake the water off the fruit. Many orchardists refer to this as “cherry blowing,” which is a far more accurate description of what’s being done.

About cherry drying contracts

Cherry drying is contract work. Although it’s done in California, Oregon, and Washington, most of the cherry orchards and work is in Washington. The season is relatively short, starting as early as April in California and ending as late as August in some areas of Washington. Pilots are contracted either directly by orchardists or by service providers who are contracted by the orchardists who then subcontract out to pilots. Contracts are usually no shorter than 3 weeks; most include the possibility of “extensions” that may add days or weeks to that.

During the course of the contract, the pilot is required to base himself and his aircraft in the service area and stay there. That means getting lodging nearby and a means of transportation to get to and from the helicopter. Pilots are on call any time it’s light enough to fly — unlike frost control work, which I’ll cover in my next blog post, no flying is done in the dark. In Washington in June and July, the days are very long. Following the “eight hours from bottle to throttle” rule, it’s unlikely that you’ll go out drinking with your fellow pilots in the evening; you could get called before dawn the next day.

Pilots are expected to be airborne within minutes of getting the call. For this reason, they should be keeping an eye on the weather. If rain is in the area, the pilot should have the helicopter all fueled, preflighted, and ready to go. The pilot needs to get out to the orchard needing service and get right to work flying over the trees. To do that, the pilot needs to know exactly where each of his orchards are and be familiar with their boundaries and obstacles before the first call comes.

Contract terms have two parts: standby and fly time. Standby is the amount received for having the helicopter based at or near the orchards under contract. This daily rate should cover the cost of lodging and transportation for the pilot, as well as repositioning the helicopter to and from the contract base from home. It should also provide some sort of compensation for having the helicopter offline from other work. Obviously, the longer the contract, the more standby money is available to cover costs and possibly build a profit. Fly time is straightforward: it’s hourly pay for when the helicopter is actually flying over an orchard.

The work

When I say we fly “low and slow,” I need to make it clear just how low and slow we fly. My rule of thumb is 5-10 feet off the treetops and 5-10 miles per hour (or knots). It’s not unusual for me to come back from a flight with cherry tree leaves stuck in my skids where the ground handling wheels connect to my R44. Of course, with certain types of cherries — Rainiers, for example — a pilot needs to fly higher to prevent the more delicate fruit from getting damaged. And if a pilot is flying something bigger — say a Huey or S55, both of which are used in my area of Washington — he’ll need to fly higher so he doesn’t damage the trees.

A cockpit shot during a typical cherry drying flight. Note that the sun is out and my door is off.

A cockpit shot during a typical cherry drying flight. Note that the sun is out and my door is off.

Here's an example of a track for a quick dry of a large orchard. Areas I didn't cover were already picked.

Here’s an example of a track for a quick dry of a large orchard. Areas I didn’t cover were already picked.

How a pilot flies the rows of trees is something that varies depending on how dense the trees are. That varies with height, pruning, variety, age, distance apart, etc. Flying every other row is usually enough for most orchards. It’s even overkill for others. It really depends.  Depending on the orchard layout and obstacles, an R44 can dry 30 to 50 acres in an hour. The goal is to get the fruit as dry as possible as quickly as possible.

Because yes: the click is ticking. I’ve gotten all kinds of numbers from a variety of sources, but most of them agree that the cherries need to be dried within two to three hours of getting wet. That time is shortened if it gets warm and sunny out, which it usually does.

Although it’s usually done raining when a dry call comes, some orchardists will call to begin drying when it’s still raining. Some of them do this to make sure the pilot gets to their orchards first — with several (or even many) orchards assigned to a pilot, there’s a real competition between orchardists to get their pilot before another orchardist does. Sometimes a pilot will have to fly through a storm to get to an orchard on the other side of it where the rain has already stopped. (I’ve flown through more thunderstorms than I care to remember just getting from one orchard to another.) Sometimes a pilot will be halfway through an orchard when another rainstorm moves in; what he does then depends on orders from the person who hired him.

A fly call can come as early as 4 a.m. if it rained overnight. That doesn’t mean a pilot has to launch then, but it does mean he has to get ready to launch. I’ve spent more than a few predawn minutes sitting in my cockpit, waiting to see the horizon so I could crank the engine and prepare to depart. The earliest I’ve ever been over an orchard was 4:30 a.m.; although it was still quite dark, I was very familiar with the orchard and felt confident about flying it with the aid of my landing lights. Other times, I’ve flown past sunset. My rule is: if I can see, I’ll fly. When I can’t see, it’s time to go back to base.

When the sun comes out during a flight — which it almost always does — it can get unbelievably hot in the cockpit. It’s a miserable feeling to have stinging sweat dripping off your forehead and into your eyes and not be able to use either hand to wipe the sweat away. For this reason, I always fly with one door off. No matter how cold and cloudy and possibly even still rainy it is when I launch, I’ll be very glad I took that door off when the sun comes out.

Skilled pilots needed

The flying is intense. Both hands and feet are on the controls making tiny adjustments to all flight controls for hours at a time. Excellent hovering skills and familiarity with the aircraft are vital. A tailwind will have a pilot working the pedals just to keep flying straight. And if the orchard is on a hill, there’s plenty of sideways flying to keep the tail rotor out of the trees when flying downhill in order to remain close enough to the trees to stay effective.

Obstacles can include power lines, sometimes with poles right in the orchard.

Obstacles can include power lines, sometimes with poles right in the orchard.

With cherry trees 10 to 30 feet tall, all flights are well within the Deadman’s Curve. No doubt about it: if there’s  an engine failure, the helicopter is going down into the trees. The pilot has to hope the trees break the fall and keep the main rotor blades from entering the cockpit. (That’s one of the reasons I fly over aisles between trees and not the trees themselves.) Pilots who are squeamish about things like this need not apply.

The flying can be dangerous, especially when pilots lack the required skills or become too complacent to stay focused. We normally have at least one bad crash a year. Want to read up on some of the accidents? Here are some links to get you started; the two Sikorsky crashes happened on the same day:

(*Apparently, some operators are conducting “training” flights while on actual cherry drying missions. I think this is a huge mistake.)

Finally, drying cherries is not a time-building job. My first season, back in 2008, was 7 weeks long. During that time, I flew about 5 hours. The following year I had 11 weeks of contract work and also flew only 5 hours. Since then, it’s been a bit rainier each season, but I still average less than 3 hours of flight time per week. Last year was especially disappointing, with two of my pilots not getting any flight time at all.

Getting Started

If you like what you’ve read and think you want to try a season of cherry drying, the best way to get started is to keep your ears open for service providers looking for helicopters. Unfortunately, they’re not looking for pilots unless those pilots can bring a helicopter. So don’t bother calling around unless you also have a helicopter lined up to bring with you.

R44 helicopters are the ones most commonly used for cherry drying. Why? Because they’re cheap to operate and they move a lot of air. (I’ll argue that they move as much air as a JetRanger.) Generally anything relatively large with a two-bladed rotor system will do the job well. R22s are too small to cover a large orchard quickly, although they’re handy for small orchards with lots of obstacles and tight space. Ditto for Schweizers, although I think they push more air than R22s. The owners of large orchards prefer larger helicopters because they can blow more cherries faster.

Most service providers hire pilots/helicopters for a minimum contract term of three weeks with an option to extend by days or weeks as needed. In most cases, need is determined by the acres of unpicked cherries and the upcoming weather forecast. Each pilot gets a handful of orchard photos or Google satellite view images with coordinates and is expected to learn them. There usually isn’t any overlap; a pilot is responsible for just his orchards. That’s a two-edged sword: if it rains in a pilot’s area, he can do a lot of flying. If it rains elsewhere, he won’t do any flying at all.

I work my contracts with other pilots work a little differently. Last season, I hired four guys to work with me with contracts of at least four weeks each. We work together in two teams serving two different geographical areas. Each team knows where all the orchards are in their area. When the calls start coming, I start dispatching us to orchards. My goal is to to provide my clients with the fastest service possible, making the most of my assets (the pilots and their helicopters). If only one big orchard gets rained on, it’s not usual for me to put two or even three helicopters on it. But if rain is widespread, so are we — covering individual orchards as quickly as we can. Although I try to dispatch based on area, when there’s a lot of rain, all of the helicopters are in the air, even if that means a pilot has to fly across town to get to the next orchard that needs attention.

Of course, of the two areas we serve, one didn’t get any rain at all. Those two pilots didn’t fly; it simply didn’t make sense to fly them to the other area where they might have gotten an hour or two of flight time. But if a pilot can’t make it work financially based on the standby portion of the contract, he probably shouldn’t bother taking the contract at all. You have to go into a contract assuming it won’t rain — and be very happy when it does.

When the weather is clear and sunny and there’s no rain in the forecast, pilots are pretty much free to do whatever they like — as long as they watch the weather and can get back to base in a hurry if things change. Hiking, bicycling, swimming, paddling — there’s plenty to do in the area to keep busy. I used to think of it as a paid vacation with a handful of days when I needed to work. While it isn’t for every pilot, I certainly enjoy it.