Daredevils fly to keep cherries dry
Family operation operates fleet of S-55 helicopters
By DAN WHEAT
BREWSTER, Wash. -- Dave Smith Jr. stood on a tall step ladder to work on the controls of a helicopter on the tarmac at Anderson Field.
Two helicopters of the same make sat nearby and six more were in the hangar. Climbing down his ladder and looking for a rag to wipe grease from his hands, Smith explained they are likely the largest active fleet of Korean-War-era Sikorsky S-55 helicopters in the world.
The helicopters are uniquely equipped to dry cherries, said Dave Smith Sr., 69, who with his son owns Golden Wings Aviation.
With slow-turning, 53-foot blades, the S-55s move a lot of air at low velocity in their downdraft to dry but not bruise cherries.
"These do two to three times the work of a smaller ship," the younger Smith said. They dry six to eight rows of cherry trees in a single pass versus two rows by smaller craft.
"The blades are turning slowly," he said. "The pulse is almost nonexistent. You can see branches push down and shake, but no whipping like you see from smaller and larger ships."
The smaller and newer Bell Jet Ranger is commonly used to dry cherries. Larger Hueys are less popular as the strength of their downdraft requires them to remain 100 feet above the trees to prevent damage, he said.
"I've done Rainiers with this (S-55) four times and the grower still had great pack out," he said.
He also uses the S-55s for frost protection, pulling warmer air down to tree level during inversions.
The elder Smith started the business in 1969 when his namesake was 2 years old. They do agricultural spraying, forestry work, charter service and aircraft restoration.
"It's not an easy job. You have to know the varieties, the maturity of the fruit," Smith Jr. said. "There are so many nuances, like how much moisture, how dense the canopy. It's stuff you can't get without experience. Just entering and exiting a field can be dangerous."
He generally dries the cherries from about 10 to 15 feet above the trees at about 5 mph. Jet Rangers and Hillers are operated lower, skids at tree tops.
Smith Jr., 44, began drying cherries when he was in high school. He flew for three years with another pilot before doing it himself.
"It's extremely challenging. It's not a job for beginners," he said. "I've been caught in downpours so bad, in a Huey, that I couldn't see beyond the ends of the rotors. I've dried in fog in near whiteout conditions."
There's no time to ponder decisions.
You must be mindful of power lines. Wind can be more than tricky blowing around wind breaks and coming out of steep mountain valleys. Smith Jr. believes weather patterns in recent years are getting worse.
In heavy rain years, he has logged 50 hours drying cherries. Last year wasn't that much. This year, he thinks it will be more.