Cherry farmers ward off harvest-destroying rainfall using a novel tool: Robinson R44 helicopter.
It is an ungodly hour on a soaking wet gray morning, with occasional flashes of lightening still visible on the horizon as the recently passed thunderstorm moves out to the east. I am 150 miles from home, suspended some 15 feet above the tree tops, sitting on an uncomfortable fake blue leather seat, which itself is hanging from a six-foot rotating steel shaft connected through some belts and a transmission to a six-cylinder Lycoming 540 cubic inch engine, loudly roaring away at a steady 2,300 rpm just behind me.
I am making short passes up and down the rows over a roughly 10-acre rectangular patch of ground covered with cherry trees, being careful to keep my altitude low, avoid the power lines on one end, random tall posts holding large propellers that rise above my flight level, and building size blocks of empty cherry boxes stacked around the plot. Beneath me from time to time, I see a middle-aged worker of Mexican heritage, wearing a dusty old white cowboy hat, and riding a muddy, beat-up red Yamaha quad runner, checking my progress and carefully examining the trees I have passed over. He is a friendly fellow, and occasionally looks up, smiles over some tobacco stained teeth, and waves. In between concentrating on what I am doing, my thoughts drift to a nice cup of hot coffee, plus perhaps some scrambled eggs and bacon. But that won’t happen for quite a while.
The truth be known, most of us buy fancy flying machines more because we “want” them, rather than really “need” them. For similar reasons, we go out of our way to attend aviation events like Oshkosh. Once we give in to the “want” and actually own this expensive equipment, we then “need” to find some use for it that is at least halfway practical. Working on that particular problem is why I am flying a helicopter so early on this gray, wet morning.
As another example, when I initially purchased a Cessna 340 15 years ago, I planned to use it on some leaseback arrangement in which I could fly for hire, plus get use of the airplane personally. And for the most part that lease idea, in addition to creating a separate LLC that allows me to bill for pilot time, has worked out well. However, I still find myself looking for opportunities to put the airplane to work.
Then about 10 years ago, under the theory that if you own one flying machine, then owning two would clearly be twice as good, we bought a Robinson R44 helicopter. Our idea at the time was we “needed” it for local transportation related to a family-owned construction business we were involved in. But when the 2008 recession brought that business to a halt, we kept the helicopter. Yes, I admit, it was a “want to” thing.
Thus, the helicopter was added to my search for activities with which to employ our (now plural) flying machines. As it happened, a couple of years later while on a Lear trip to Palm Springs, I was complaining over dinner about all this to Terry, a pilot and retired lawyer friend living a leisurely life on a nearby airport. He told me that he had given up his law practice in exchange for the fun (and surprisingly) profitable job of flying his Hughes 269 helicopter. Among the more gainful flying jobs he had devised was using his helicopter on a seasonal basis to dry cherries
Wait, I thought cherries simply grew on trees and, with the exception of occasional pruning, more or less took care of themselves? But as it turns out, cherry growing, particularly for the export market, is a big business near the Columbia River in eastern Washington. There is a whole science to making it very profitable. Among other things, if you can get the fruit ripen early and harvested before your competitors, the price is much higher. To do this, sunlight-reflective white plastic sheets are placed on the ground under the trees covering the entire orchard, causing large blocks of acreage to look from the air like it just snowed. Other plots are entirely covered by white bird netting. It is not only time-to-market and protection from hungry birds that makes a difference, but also the size of the cherries themselves, with big being better. So, a couple of weeks before harvest, a “growth accelerator” is sprayed on the trees, which makes the fruit very hydroscopic, growing quickly and often producing cherries nearly the size of golf balls. These have great value in the Asian market, with the best being flown in refrigerated containers on cargo 747’s directly to Japan.
The problem is that the area is infamous for summer thunderstorms that can randomly dump buckets of water onto relatively small patches of ground in a very unpredictable manner. And, if one of those areas happens to be the cherry orchard that was just sprayed with growth accelerator, the cherries quickly absorb that extra water through the stem, which promptly splits them open making the whole crop worthless. A 10-acre orchard of perfect fruit can be worth a high six-figure amount, so should they become wet, getting the fruit quickly dried off becomes of paramount importance.
Various kinds of post fans are tried, but they blow air mostly horizontally, and rarely do an adequate job. The better solution is to have a helicopter parked right in the orchard, with a pilot on 24/7 standby for the six to eight weeks of the harvest season. As soon as it stops raining, the machine is immediately put in the air and slowly flown over the orchard at about 10 knots and a height of 15 feet, with the main rotor downwash blowing enough air to dry off the fruit, thereby saving the million-dollar crop.
And so, after looking into all this, several years ago we set up a seasonal business with the R44, which keeps the machine in the orchards and available for immediate use should it rain. The pilot is usually Jared, a nephew of mine with a commercial license who is building helicopter time. My only job is to fly over there from time to time in the Cessna 340 to monitor the business and when needed, fly the helicopter. It is sort of a “win-win” deal, in which we make good money, use all our flying machines in a practical way, and yet still have fun doing it. The orchard owner is also usually delighted that in a just a half-hour or so, we are able to save a crop he had spent an entire year working on. An additional benefit is we get to eat all the cherries we want.
Destination: Desert Aire
The trip over to the cherry orchards, which I make every couple of weeks in the 340, is usually flown at 15,000 feet and 200 knots, crossing the Cascades in a southeasterly direction above of a broken layer 2,000 feet below, then paying careful attention to avoid an area of military airspace just south of Wenatchee. The top of descent (TOD) is the FEBUS intersection some 15 minutes from landing at Desert Aire (M94) a 3,600-foot paved strip near the small town of Mattawa, which is located in the middle of orchard country and right on the Columbia River. Most of the time the surrounding foothills are yellow, the temperature in the 90s, and the winds are from the west.
Once the airplane is tied down, I then switch over to the helicopter, and that is where the game changes entirely. The helicopter is flown at 0.1 percent of the airplane’s altitude or about 15 feet above the tree tops, usually doing no more than 15 knots, in an area of operation confined to a given orchard measured in acres. Military airspace, and FAR minimal height above ground rules, all become no longer relevant, compared to the looming importance of power lines and other obstructions that seem to blossom at this scale.
The pilot position and control inputs are also entirely different in the helicopter than the twin-engine, pressurized airplane I just flew over in. In a helicopter, the pilot sits on the right side under a hot Plexiglas canopy, with small altitude adjustments being made with the left hand on the collective control, while pitch and turning adjustments are made by the right hand via the cyclic control. The throttle is “motor cycle” style rotary device on the end of the collective. Luckily in an R44 it is governed and usually takes care of itself. Coordinated flight requires some anti-torque adjustments with the foot pedals as the collective goes up or down and the power is adjusted by the governor. It is also not uncommon to bring the helicopter to a complete halt some 15 to 25 feet above the ground, an activity, which for a fixed wing pilot is very disconcerting. Finally, there is no autopilot in the helicopter, so you are actively “flying” the thing the entire time you are airborne.
Air Dried With Care
It takes about 30 minutes to dry a typical 10-acre plot, at which time you move on to another one owned by the company. Each plot has its own often odd and peculiar name. When the guy on the ground tells you to next go to “Rattlesnake” or “Bandit,” you head to that location. You would think that navigating the helicopter from one nearby orchard to another is much easier than flying the twin Cessna over 150 miles of mountainous terrain to a small airport like M94. Not so at all. Operating 15 feet over the trees you do not have the benefit of altitude to provide perspective, and GPS is just not that helpful when operating on a scale confined to 10-acre plots. Actually, I find flying a Citation from Washington to Texas much easier from a navigational point of view, than flying the R44 at low altitude from one 10-acre site to the next. Even though I have 1,500 hours in the R44, when jumping out of the airplane and directly into the helicopter, I give all these differences a lot of careful thought before even starting the engine.
The sun is well above the horizon and the day already getting hot, when after a very fatiguing, sweaty hour of flying back and forth very low over cherry trees, the guy with the white cowboy hat, and tobacco stained teeth, riding the red quad runner around on the ground, calls me via the cellphone hooked to my headset to say in a distinct Spanish accent that he thinks this particular plot is pretty well dried.
It is time to land, make a long overdue visit to the head, refuel the helicopter from the red “Tidy Tank” in the back of the pickup and look into getting the bacon and egg breakfast I have been thinking about since shortly after dawn. Then perhaps get in the 340, turn on the air conditioner, climb to 16,000 feet where the air is cool and smooth, and fly at 200 knots back across the Cascades to home, which on the green side of the state.
But, since I am already in the orchard, maybe I should first pick some cherries.