Flying her R44 at 5-10kt, the skids within 5ft off the treetops, Maria Langer uses a helicopter to dry cherries.
Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen
7 July 2021
When I was seven years old and on vacation in Maine, we saw a helicopter parked beside the road, with a sign saying ‘Rides $5’. I went up with my dad and thought: ‘If I ever learn to fly, I’ll fly a helicopter!’. Many years later, that’s what I did.
I’m the owner/operator of Flying M Air. Based in Wenatchee, Washington, we offer charters, tours, aerial photo, survey and agricultural services. From late May to early August, I have three to five pilots working with me, flying R44s to dry cherries. We fly at 5-10kt, the skids within 5ft off the treetops. The downwash from the rotor blades moves the branches, which shakes the water off. You’re flying back and forth between the trees until you’ve covered the orchard. This can be tedious – when it’s not windy, I listen to music.
“You have to be able to hover to perfection”
Since we only fly after it’s rained, this isn’t an hour-building job. We’re on standby, keeping the heli pre-flighted and fuelled, and always watching the weather forecast. When we get called out, we’re airborne within minutes. Using a heli to dry cherries might seem excessive, but we easily dry 30 acres/hour. With 10-12 tons of cherries per acre, it’s a cost-effective way of protecting the fruit. The R44 moves the most air for the least money.
If I’m honest, the best thing about my job is probably the money, as it allows me to own and operate a helicopter. However, I genuinely like the agricultural sector and get satisfaction from doing a great job. To do this work, you have to be able to hover to perfection. Situational awareness is also essential, not just being aware of obstacles, like wires, but also of the dimensions of your rotor disk and tail. Flying low and slow in confined areas means cherry drying isn’t without risk. Every year there are accidents. I always tell my pilots ‘It’s just cherries. Yes, we’ll do the best job possible, but we won’t put our lives at risk.’
I obtained my CPL-H in 2001 and bought an R22 for tours and photo work. After that, I bought an R44 and got the Part 135 Certificate. Some of my past flying experience includes herding horses and chasing race cars in the desert. I’ve also flown Long Rangers at the Grand Canyon.
In 2008, with an hour of training from an experienced pilot, I started cherry drying. After exploring the orchards on foot, the flying part of training new pilots doesn’t take long.
We fly about 20 minutes in their own helicopter, doing a couple of rows together while I say ‘Slower, slower! Lower, lower!’ until they’ve got it right.
A gorgeous quiet trip from Wenatchee to Hillsboro, Oregon, in 2012, with perfect views over the Cascade Mountains. It was early morning, the sun casting long shadows over the fog-filled valleys as I flew right past Mount St Helens. This was also the first flight for Penny, my little black dog. She’s passed away now, but she loved flying and would jump around the helicopter until I’d lift her in.
Airfields and helicopters don’t really mix. Even in the middle of cherry season, with at least 30 helicopters in the area, not one of them is parked at the airport. That said, I like Sedona Airport because it’s in a pretty place and has a good restaurant.
I used to. Currently, my R44 is coming close to overhaul so I save my flying time for the cherries.
Something I was told after my checkride: fly the aircraft. New pilots sometimes feel like the heli is a monster they have to control. It’s not – it’s waiting for your commands. Also, admit your mistakes, learn from them and if a more experienced pilot gives you advice, listen. It might save your life one day.
Check out Maria in action on YouTube channel: FlyingMAir.
Owner/operator of helicopter charter company Flying M Air LLC Maria Langer offers Part 135 charter flights, rides and tours, aerial photo and survey services, and ag services.
|Started current job||2008|
|Now flying||Robinson R44 Raven II|
|Favourite aircraft||Robinson R44 Raven II. “Flying my own helicopter is like driving my car. I know exactly how it’ll react and what it’ll do.”|
|Hours at job start||Approx. 2,500|
|Hours now||Approx. 4,000|