IamA cherry-drying helicopter pilot. Ask me anything!
I am a helicopter pilot that received my training from both the FAA and the US Army. I have experience flying different aircraft including the Robinson R-22, Bell 206, and the UH-60 Black Hawk.
Right now I am flying a Korean War-era helicopter to dry off cherry orchards after it rains.
I did not know either, until I saw the job posting. I applied and they gave me a job!
Are free cherries a write-in on your contract?
When the farmers are feeling generous, they'll bring some by. And, yes, they are delicious.
How low do you have to fly, in order for the trees to dry off?
A typical drying day will be about 1 to 3 hours for my blocks. It takes a surprisingly long time. We are moving very slowly forward (technically it's still a hover). Imagine mowing the lawn; flying back and forth, back and forth.
Edit: Sorry, I read "slow" not "low." We are 10 to 30 feet above the trees.
To be honest, that sounds incredibly repetitive and tedious. What do you do to keep yourself entertained this whole time?
It is. I've got someone else in the cockpit with me, so that helps. Also, flying a helicopter is always demanding. Helicopters are not like airplanes in the sense that they require constant vigilance. If I take my hands off the controls, it's only a few seconds before control is lost. An airplane will fly along just fine with hands off.
The job requires maintaining proper positioning down the rows, flying over and around obstacles, and constantly assessing wind and effectiveness of downwash. So yes, it does get boring and tedious, but there's enough to keep busy and pass the time quickly.
Why wouldn’t you keep some airspeed and make multiple passes? Wouldn’t that be safer?
The downwash wouldn't be as effective, and also it would probably be more dangerous overall, because now you're flying and maneuvering close to the ground and obstacles at speed. An engine failure is less likely than crashing into wires or poles or the ground at that point.
What if you get a wicked nose itch? Or drop your coffee? Or any other normal thing that happens to drivers?
Simple you don't do anything else while flying.
Correct 🙂. You can also try to jam your knee under the collective to keep it up.
I couldn’t imagine flying below ETL for that long. Do you have SAS to help relieve some of the pressures and make it more comfortable to fly?
Lol, no. These helicopters were made in the 50s. The cyclic has hydraulics (collective and pedals do not, which makes it interesting), and there are frictions that help a little. But, the frictions are also made in the 50s...
How many times a week do you fly?
Not very often at all really. We fly when it rains, and the orchards are planted where it doesn't rain much. I'll say, on average, once per week.
Are you employed by the farm or do they buy your services when they need to? What do you do when lot drying cherries?
Employed by the farm. Watch a lot of Ancient Aliens. Turns out it's played almost all day, every day.
Who owns the chopper? And who does the maintenance on it?
The main farming company owns the aircraft, and all maintenance is in-house.
and all maintenance is in-house.
Which sadly means it's probably not done or not done properly.
Edit: lol being downvoted by people who probably know absolutely nothing about aviation maintenance.
I trust this outfit. I wouldn't be here otherwise, as I don't need this job. I'm here for the experience.
Sorry to be a bummer. I'm glad you work for a good company.
I work in helicopter maintenance, so I'm a bit cynical about civilian helicopters and the maintenance practices of companies. So many don't realize that inspections and flight hour limitations for parts aren't just there for the OEM to make money.
Ha no for sure. The Army originally trained me as a mechanic, and the more I learned, the less I wanted to know.
Have you ever dried a tennis court?
I have not. Is that a thing as well?
It’s a 30 Rock reference. GE executives used a company to dry theirs.
Oh haha. Haven't seen it. Although, I have heard of helicopters drying baseball fields.
Whats the yearly salary on that sorta work?
Abysmal. It's only two months out of the year, and I'm making enough to cover rent at home. This job is mainly for the experience, and not so much the pay.
What's "abysmal" to a helicopter pilot?
Wow... isn't that below minimum wage? Seems surprising: I wouldn't think helicopter pilot would be a saturated job market.
Wow... isn't that below minimum wage?
No, not really. And, we're also compensated with a place to live and most of our meals. Think of it like summer camp--with helicopters!
I wouldn't think helicopter pilot would be a saturated job market.
Aviation is funny that way. The barrier to entry is insanely high. Civilian training for helos will cost you about $80k-$100k minimum. And then you're not marketable upon graduation. So, you've got to slave away in low-paying jobs in order to build flight time. Then after about 1,000 to 1,500 hours, you can start to get paid a little bit more. You'll probably find a steady, permanent job at around 3,000 - 5,000 hours (5-7 years) making hopefully $100k/yr.
So, you've got an industry filled with debt-ridden pilots that can't get good jobs, and the only way to get good jobs is with more experience. It leads to a bit of desperation, and a combo of sketchy jobs with little pay.
The airlines are getting better at it, with starting pay up to $50k/yr (and cheaper training), but the helicopter industry has yet to catch up.
Are there any technical drawbacks to flying an older Korean war era helicopter?
Yeah, the biggest challenge was using a manual twist-grip throttle to control engine RPM. Modern helicopters maintain RPM automatically. And the way that helicopters work, the RPM requires constant tending. So the workload is increased some with this airframe.
But, overall, the airframe is well-suited to the job. It's got a large rotor disc that can cover a lot of trees. Smaller aircraft need to make more passes.
You cannot auto rotate at such low altitude I assume? What do you do if something goes wrong?
You are correct. The job is quite dangerous for that fact.
For those curious this is a Height Velocity Diagram. It illustrates different combinations of altitude and airspeed, and their associated danger levels, based on likelihood of successful autorotation (emergency maneuver for engine failure). The big red area on the left that says AVOID is known as the "dead man's curve." We operate squarely in the AVOID area.
One, you pray nothing goes wrong. Two, if something does go wrong, you just get to the crash scene slower than normal.
Fixed wing pilot here. Thanks for sharing that diagram it’s very interesting. What makes the low altitude high speed regime dangerous? I would have thought you could trade that excess airspeed for enough altitude to sort yourself out or is it a matter of not being able to react quickly enough to arrest the initial descent after you lose power?
or is it a matter of not being able to react quickly enough to arrest the initial descent after you lose power?
Bingo! That area is where we spend a lot of time in the black hawk. Although, a dual engine failure is extremely unlikely.
Edit: just looked again. That's pretty low. We're usually 25'-50' and 100+ kias. Although, I have seen in the teens.
An engine loss going slow at that height over trees is definitely something you would walk away from though - you would get a pretty decent cushion out of it and wouldn’t be falling that fast, plus the trees would break your fall pretty nice.
Correct, but probably still gonna have some injuries. Good chance of a broken back. We're probably in the "hard landing" height.
All my flying experience comes from doing unadvisable things in simulators.
What's the sketchiest situation you've flown yourself out of?
So far, most everything has been quite safe-ish. Flying with NVGs in 0% illumination over a featureless desert is my least favorite thing. And then landing to that desert is worse.
One time, under NVGs, we were both looking inside the aircraft, and were heading right towards high-tension power lines. When we noticed, it wasn't an emergency, but had we waited a few more seconds, it would have been.
Oh, and there's been a few close calls with mid-air collisions over the years.
Where are you located? My wife's family grows cherries in the Yakima Valley in Washington St.
Okanogan Valley, WA.
My family used to vacation on a little lake next to Tonaskit this time every year. I kinda miss driving up through the orchards in Brewster.
It's pretty country up here.
Have you ever had an accident on the job & if so, what was the severity of the incident?
Personally, no. There have been fatalities drying cherries in the past.
How do you balance mental, physical fatigue?
Stamina is built up over time. I've got roughly 700 hours of flight time. Longer flights feel shorter after time, and difficult tasks become easier. And the helicopters have about 2 hours of fuel onboard, meaning we get to rest to refuel at that time. But, yes, during the early days, I'd come home exhausted after a one hour flight.
Do you feel inadequate flying the Robinson after having flown the 206? That is a pretty big step down.
The Robinson was first. I haven't flown a Robbie in about 10 years, but would love to again. It'd be like a go-kart compared to what I'm used to.
Do you love flying? If so do you ever get to do anything out of schedule or fun/free style?
Do you miss flying for the military?
I still love flying. Like with anything else, if I fly too much in a short time, I'll start to get burned out. But give it a few days and I'm ready to be back in the air.
I'm still flying in the National Guard. We do some incredible flying at times, but the military can be a drag. It's been fun flying on this job without all of the regulations of the Army.
How many cherries have you popped?
All of them.
How much does it cost to get your 10 acres helicopter dried?
Not positive, but I'm fairly certain these helicopters are over $2,000/hour to fly. So...a lot.
Hey, I see you fly for the guard?
How is the guard in terms of holding a civilian career down at the same time? I'm a former active duty enlisted soldier and am looking at going warrant. My fear is that being a NG warrant for the guard would be a full time job and not allow me to succeed in my full time job as an engineer. Any insights?
It's a big commitment. I've been Guard my whole career, and going warrant complicated things. A lot of guys are unemployed after flight school and struggle to find work that is compatible. I know I did.
To meet flight hour minimums, you've got to fly, on average, once per week. It sounds awesome at first, but then you realize it's once per week. A lot of employers are not going to be okay with that.
But with that being said, people make it work because they have to. It is possible. I think it's just a shock originally, and then you get used to it. You've already been in the service and are familiar with bullshit and commitments, so you're already ahead of your peers.
Ah appreciate it man, maybe I'll reexamine here in a few years. Either that or go active duty if I decide I really hate working behind a desk.
Sure thing man. I'm not terribly active on this account, but feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
How soon do you have to dry them? What if it rains early in the evening. Do you have to fly at night?
If you don't fly at night, what's the point of drying them? If you have to wait until it gets light the cherries have been wet for maybe 10 hours already (and would have dried up by themselves )
Excellent questions. We will dry immediately after it rains, unless it rains into dark. We don't dry after dark. If it rains at night, we get up at first light and start drying at that time (if they are still wet enough). And, I believe it has to do with a combo of wet and sunlight/heat.
Probably a boring question but since the blackhawk is pretty much my favorite piece of engineering i just have to know....what’s it like to fly one? How does it handle?
It's a dream to fly. It's got power for days, and it's surprisingly agile. Flying 50' off the ground through a narrow valley, or fighting mountain fires is the most fun I've ever had.
wait...how do you dry them? with your blades? or do you have some extra fan below?
and how come the "wind" you are making is not damaging the fruit?
first time i hear about this thing
We are literally using the rotor's downwash to blast the trees with air. And, sometimes the wind can damage the trees, so we adjust altitude accordingly. The cherries are fine, but we will damage the nearby apples; either bruise or knock them down.
I don’t see how flying a helicopter to dry cherries is economical. Isn’t there a better way?
Surprisingly, no. There are thousands of acres to dry, and the helicopter is the best way right now.
Sounds like a job for large automated quadcopters. Think your kids go pro caring toy, but much, much larger lol
It would be interesting to see if one exists that's strong enough. Our helicopters weigh a few thousand pounds, and put out a proportionate amount of wind.
Why don't you clean your windows? Guess it won't last for long?
We will when they get really dirty. But mostly they look about like that.
what do you think of using DCS helicopters as a tool used in flight training?
Simulators, and especially computer-based sims, are good for procedural training. You'll never get the feel of flying from sims, and therefore your control touch won't be exercised. However, if you're looking to run through Instrument Procedures or Start-up and shutdown procedures, then they're a good tool for that. Years ago, I found youtube video of the DCS Blackhawk startup and it really helped me get used to the order of the switches and which lights illuminate at which times.
Are helicopters like cars to you (in terms of being a collectible, the style, etc.)? Is flying an old helo any harder to learn than one from the current century?
How the fuck did you even get a helicopter that old! :P
Funny enough, not really. I'm odd in that I love watching and discussing airplanes (but hate flying them), and don't really enjoy talking helicopters (and *love* flying them).
I've got another reply talking about the manual throttle control. Other than that, most helicopters fly the same and only require a few hours to get familiar with the model.
And, luckily I didn't have to find it or the parts. I was simply hired to fly it! :)
wait to you carry something slung beneath the chopper or is it just the downdraft?
Just the downdraft. Think of it as flying a giant fan.
What's the point of drying off cherry orchards? Seems like the water would drip off fast enough. The main problem I know about is cherries splitting if it rains too much but I think that's via wet soil, not via them being wet.
but I think that's via wet soil, not via them being wet.
Then I'm not really sure. I'm told it's to keep them from splitting. Someone on the TIL that inspired this post, claimed it was for brown mold control.
I only thought that, and it seems you're right, it is via the skin. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/fruits/cherry/fruit-split-in-cherries.htm says it is via osmosis, with the higher sugar concentration inside the fruit sucking in water through the skin. Maybe this will be useful because I have ripe cherries and rain now. Thanks!
You'd better bust out your helicopter!
I had no idea this profession existed, how did you get into it?
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