Christmas is about 90 days away but Christmas tree season for helicopter pilots begins in about 35 days. I have worked a few seasons slinging Christmas trees but last year was not one of them. Instead of fighting rain ,snow , low visibility and some crippling flying, I was down in Belize. I flew in Belize as well but the flying there was far less effort ,as is the way for just about everything that happens in Belize.
I don’t know if I will be flying trees this year or not. I don’t know very much about any of the flying I will be doing past the end of this month and that as they say is all I can say about that. Not knowing is not a new experience for me. In the past 34 years of flying I have seldom known more than a week in advance what was in store for me.
I have been thinking, remembering, reading my old logbooks and flipping through photos of Christmas tree seasons past. The job is simple, repetitious and challenging. Like logging or shake flying or any other production sling work, Christmas tree flying takes precision, economy of action, quick judgment and endurance. Short days in November mean that the flight time seldom exceeds eight hours a day but those eight hours are busy. A typical hour long cycle in a small ship like the Jet Ranger, MD 500 or perhaps Hiller 12ET will produce about 110 or more turns in that hour. I have flown more than 140 turns into the trucks in an hour on close in flying but the average is usually on the plus side of 100. In an eight hour day thats about 900 loads back and forth to the trucks.
Flying begins at first light and goes till you can’t find the hooker(s) quickly enough in the fields or the lights on the truck are ruining your night vision or and this never happens,they have enough tress in the yard.
The customer wants his trees when he wants them and the pressure to deliver enough trees to keep 60 or more men gainfully employed sorting, wrapping,bailing, lifting,stacking and loading on trucks is significant.
To say that the flying is often done in poor weather is a given. Washington and Oregon late fall weather can be anything from Indian summer to zero-zero in ice fog and freezing rain. When your down for weather the customers reaction can range between frantic and psychotic. “I know you can’t fly now “,they will say as jump from their trucks landing six inches from your face. “But when do you think the weather will lift enough to get going again” ?
I don’t know of course and as I like to tell the customer, God has not seen fit to share that information with me today. I really hope that any message from the almighty would deal with more important topics but to the Christmas tree grower with his dwindling piles of trees, nothing could be more important.
It seems not to matter to the customer that you have a back up pilot ,a back up helicopter ,a mechanic on site, a maintenance van with parts, fuel truck(s) and a vast amount of experience from years of doing this work. The fact that in all the years of flying no significant delays to production have ever occurred is somehow forgotten in the all consuming panic that ensues when weather or other unforeseens has you grounded for more than an hour.
As the P.I.C.,you just grin and bear it. The work gets done, the customer starts to relax and a million trees get flown and shipped. Merry Christmas.