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Eden Prairie, MN 55347
Earlier that day weather forecasters issued frost and hard freeze warnings throughout much of central and southern Minnesota. So, Minnesota’s apple population was in jeopardy that night and my task was to eliminate that threat at least in this one orchard. I got my equipment ready and lifted off in the helicopter at around 7:30 PM while Chris headed south in his Jeep. With the sun setting I knew it was going to be a challenge, especially doing an off airport landing in an unfamiliar location at night. Using landmarks to make the transition easier, I flew directly to the Fillmore County Airport using GPS and then east following a highway paralleling the airport to the town of Preston. The orchard was about a half mile east of Preston with another highway just to its east. Once I had established my destination then came the hair-raising experience of doing a night recon only being able to see obstacles where the landing light shined. I continued circling until I found a safe approach path and I set down in a clearing to be greeted by some very happy farmers.
We drove around the orchard to get ideas of what I would be flying over. We went to certain spots to check the status of the thermometers. The temperature was hovering around 32?F and we knew it would be dropping soon. So, I started the helicopter up and worked my way over the orchard starting with the low lying area to the west. I flew roughly a couple of feet above the trees, cruising 10-15 knots. To ensure better coverage, I flew over every third row; the rotor wash and engine heat distributed evenly and allowed more ground to be covered with each pass. The goal was to cover the 90-acre orchard in 1 hour.
I had constant changes in elevation with rolling hills and tight turns following the contours of the orchard. The orchard had all kinds of obstacles and obstructions at its borders. To the south were tall trees, poles and a grave yard. In the middle were buildings. To the north there were more poles, buildings and tall trees on a rolling hill which separated the two orchards. The scary part was transitioning the helicopter from the southern field to the northern field. A densely wooded hill was in my path and climbing with slow forward speed and only being able to see trees where the feeble beam of the landing light shined made the first pass interesting. The hill seemed to climb forever.About 15 minutes into my flight I could hear a familiar voice on the radio. Chris had arrived and was coordinating with the farmers where the helicopter needed to be positioned. He gave me guidance on what I needed to accomplish, since I had never done this before. “Fly a little higher above the trees. That’s a bit too low,” Chris said over the radio. It was hard to tell just how high I was in the dark but quickly settled into the task.
Half way through the night I was getting low on fuel so I radioed Chris to rendezvous at the Fillmore airport. I took off from the orchard and set down near the fuel pump where Chris was waiting. The fuel tank was self-serve with no credit card terminal. He had coordinated with the FBO earlier that evening to get access to the pump. With the helicopter fueled and read to go, I flew back to the orchard and resumed making slow passes over the apple trees.I didn’t notice the results of what I was accomplishing until 5:30 AM. To my amazement, frost had formed on the grass surrounding the orchard but none on or below the apple trees. I kept flying past sunrise which was the strangest feeling. I had flown throughout the night, what a riot. I had never flown so much at one time in my life. Excitement for my first commercial flying job kept me wide-awake. All it took was a short break to freshen up and I was back at it again.
I recalled flying in the evening watching the sunset and now, still flying, I was watching the sun rise. At around 6:30 AM my night of flying had ended. I set down, looked back and saw the surround grass white with frost and the trees still glowing brown. Later that day I had heard some of Minnesota’s apple population had gone extinct that night. Helicopters not only save lives but apples too!
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