Ranchlands I

Three thousand feet, cruising relaxed and cool and Eze over the vast south Texas territory. Home of the Rattlesnake, Scrub Oak trees and Longhorns, the Horned Toad and Javelinia, Wiley Coyote and the Chaparral (Road Runner). Off to the left is Kingsville where my wife Claudene grew up mostly and where we met in college. To the south is NAS Kingsville, the garden spot of Navy Jet Training.

Yesterday we arrived from Fort Worth in the VariEze for a four day visit with her siblings. We both luxuriate in the two hour flight instead of a ten our drive. They are busy taking care of solemn family home stuff and she suggests that I head out to my old helicopter cattle herding haunts. What a great idea, Honey! I waste no time becoming scarce.

At one time, the King Ranch covered much of south Texas. My father went to college here back in the post-depression 1930s. I heard him talk about the folklore and fact of the vast ranches, including tales of hungry guys that would sneak out into the night on the ranch for a deer or a tender calf, and some of them not coming back.

Now that ranch is split up into four divisions. And there are a surprising number of other ranches scattered across the Rio Grande Valley. Many historic personages and events remain cloistered and protected here by the formidable expanse of the uninviting terrain, the thick- sometimes impenetrable underbrush, and other unspoken sentries. Even today there are periodic reports from a ranch of remains of an unfortunate trespasser that bit off more than he could shoe.

In the late ‘70s I did helicopter cattle work on a number of these ranches.

Today the sun and I will arc over this other-world ranchland skimming over the vast thick nothingness for about the same span of time.
I will soon float over a long forgotten ramshackle stage coach stop. Though it is now a weathered, leaning derelict, it once could have meant life or death for travelers here. For the last hundred years or so it has been disturbed only by the likes of rabbits and rattlesnakes.

For the lone outpost, my overhead blink-of-an-eye intrusion will be ignored with splintered indifference, much the same as it has dealt with onslaughts and insults from thunderstorms and hurricanes and dust devils and disrespectful passing coyotes.

A long splinter from that last chance outpost will reach up and snag a bag of stored memories, tumbling moments and days from a twenty year distant life into the light again.
Like that morning when I sat under that Mesquite tree right over there at a makeshift cattle camp, a hundred yards off from the stage coach station…

We wait for the sun, listening to the more recently weathered ranch manager tell of the local heroes and outlaws that were drawn this way. I wonder about the ghosts of cowpokes on previous cattle drives stopped at this same worn camp footprint. How many other workers sat right here in the early morning fog on this Mesquite stump- or leaning on the tree that it once was- watching the calf carcass turn on the spit while eating an ash-spiced rolled up beef and bean tortilla. Just out of focus, the ghostly image of the spunky calf that just hours ago was cavorting through the pasture keeps drifting friskily through the clearing.

I fly on, reminded again that this ranchland has a rich but secluded history. Living through college in the middle of it unveiled nothing of its mystery. From a few hundred hours flying inside the fence, hopefully I can capture some of what I bumped into before it gets away again.

Secret map
We were never told by the ranches why we were gathering cattle. Sometimes they were rounded up to ship to market. Sometimes it might be by order of the Dept of Agriculture, or for inoculations. The ranches are rightly protective of their secluded ways and don’t readily tolerate outsiders. My job description was basically to shut up and fly. You certainly don’t say anything about one ranch to another.

When working on the different divisions of the King Ranch, we would normally trailer the helos in to the headquarters complex and lift off from an adjacent pasture. That way we had a day’s fuel on the truck and some basic tools and such.
The main headquarters ranch houses are impressive. They entertain dignitaries there from around the world. Mounted on the walls, besides deer and wild hogs and stretched rattlesnake skins on mounts the size of surfboards, there is a usually a grand, well worn map of their territory.
I clandestinely memorized as much of the detail as I could and then sauntered whistling innocently out to the helicopter to transfer the little known perimeters to my sectional map. That prized hand-marked sectional map is now framed and mounted in my home. It outlines all the ranches that I worked, but for this outsider the King Ranch was the real coup.

Back in that day, one of the things the ranch was famous for was the leather goods and such that were produced for the ranch hands at their saddle shop. Anything with the “Running W” brand emblazoned on the side was highly prized. After we had moved away to the great state of North Texas they opened a King Ranch Saddle Shop in downtown Kingsville. While visiting down there we toured the very popular shop. I picked up a catalog. On the back cover was a map of the King Ranch.

Thirteen hour days
The normal cattle-working day started at 4 am with our convoy of two or three pickup trucks and Bell 47 Bubble choppers on trailers heading out to whatever ranch for a first glow of sunrise liftoff. The three-passenger helos have Lycoming recips with a twist throttle like a motorcycle. No auto fuel control. So during all the jukin and jiving you get to keep manually torquing the power up and down to keep the engine and rotor RPMs matched at 100%. Nothin’ to it. Assuming you survive the first two or three minutes. After a few hours, you check the dual tach occasionally but mostly make your throttle inputs by the engine pitch and transmission tone.

Thirteen hour days were not uncommon, landing every three hours for a fresh beef flour taquito and a trip out behind a tree. Hopefully a helper would hand crank fuel into the churning helo for another three hour run. Or you get to crank the fuel yourself and your hurried taquito might have a little extra octane zing.

In pitch dark after a long day, you use the truck headlights to wriggle the helo back down into the spindly trailer skid troughs. For those that fail to negotiate successfully with the trailer, a caught skid will give a ride that makes Billy Bob’s mechanical bull look tame. Billy Bob’s Texas. World’s largest honky-tonk. That’s another story.

What could go wrong?
When I first talked with my boss he mentioned that we would fly all day at thirty feet. A power loss while hovering between 30 and 50 feet will ikely ruin your day.
In training you practice for a power loss in a low hover with the autorotation from ten feet. You cut the throttle and jab the pedal and just hold what you have a second and pull full pitch hoping to make a cushioned landing.
Above fifty feet, you push over to get some forward speed so you can flare into a glide on running landing. You don’t practice in between thirty and fifty feet. We fly in that band all day so he suggested that we be on our toes.

Another side benefit is “settling with power”. The cattle work puts you right in the middle of the ideal demonstration conditions. During hot months I was in and out of it numerous times.
Here you are hovering or flying slow enough that the air circles overhead and pushes you down. When the downward rotor wash comes back over the top it forms something like a huge horizontal donut vortex of air around the rotor disc. The flow coming back down on the rotors is related to your power. Hovering in hot weather takes almost full power. Low winds is the worst because the air flow stays over you. You are immersed in the cycle long enough for it to get going good.
So you’re caught in the cycle, staggering downward in the hover, pulling more and more power, pushing yourself down. It’s hard to appreciate until it happens to you and you can’t get out, If you get in good in a confined area you’re gonna crunch.

The trick is to keep kind of a sashaying swirling dance going where you are constantly swinging sideways and back and forth and around, leaving the threatening overhead vortex behind or to the side. You fly down into the trees and low hot areas if you must, but keep momentum to loft on out over the trees again. Nothin to it.

Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze

Next week- Ranchlands II, T-2 Playing Through

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