Ranchlands II, T-2 Playing Through

Is it hunting season?
The VariEze is topped off and I’m heading for South Padre Island. I plan to rent a car and cross over to the island and have some lunch. I had been told that the entire shoreline from the Rio Grande River up to Corpus Christi is now developed and crowded. From the totally desolate country I saw during the cattle herding days in the late ‘70s, that seems like a real stretch to me. I have a couple of days so I am going to tour south Texas and check on some of my old helo whompin’ grounds.

Climbing out of Kleberg County Airport the sky is crystal blue and clear. Off to the right is the Armstrong Ranch (site of a recent quail hunting incident). Several years ago, on my first trip down here in the Eze I was refueling and asked some locals if it was true that the ranch had an EZ like mine. They didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. A lot of times these folks know a lot more than they let on. I mentioned that I might cruise through there and see if I could spot an EZ on or near their private runway. Then they did have something to say - “You don’t want to do that.” Plain enough.

Flying out over the dense scrub oaks and passing over one isolated house, through the trees I see camoed hunters loading rifles and ice chests into the back of their pickups. Is it hunting season?

As I cruise the Eze along enjoying the scenery and hoping to spot some wildlife, I think more and more about how many bored hunters there must be sitting in the blinds out here, or on their front porches, hankerin for something to take a pot shot at. I remember our Florida Navy flight school briefing rooms where there were numerous T-34 and T-28 skin panels mounted on the walls with bullet holes in them.

But I’m defiant and determined to exercise my rights- for a moment. And then I decide that the last thing I want to do, especially around here, is go back and confront someone big and drunk about taking a shot at me. The view is actually much better from higher up here.

T-2 Playing Through
Cruising Eze down Hwy 77 deeper into the ranchlands of south Texas, it’s getting warmer than when I departed Kleberg County Airport a while ago. Thousands of folks travel these highways with no clue of the history and significance of the ranchlands just over the thickets. I certainly didn’t when passing through as a youngster and in college. Even after working cattle on some of the ranches I’m certain I still don’t.

Under the canard to the south is the pasture where back in 1977 we landed the chopper one day and the caballero cowboy got out and threw a book of matches into the shoulder high grass and came running back to the helo with the fire chasing him. We landed and lit a dozen fires and then lifted up and watched the flames flow into a wall of rushing fire as the favorable breeze pushed it across to the gulf shoreline. I asked around as to why they did that and learned that it helped next year’s grass.

To the east over there is the huge pasture where we gathered one thousand Santa Gertrudis bulls.

Yes, one thousand big red bulls. Many of them weighed over a thousand pounds. We pushed them along for the best parts of two days. The last few dragging along behind were literally dragging parts along behind, five or ten feet behind – injuries suffered in fights, I would suppose.

The caballeros on horseback artfully guide the first bulls into the pens. As we make a hovering approach to the cow lot my ‘pardner’ moves in and takes sole position to finish off the penning the herd. Only room for one helo to maneuver in there anyway. I slide off to the left circling over the neglected ruins of century-old cow pens. It looks like Sagebrush Shorty will be occupied back at the pens for a while so I get out of the way and push over through the tall flowing grass and loft up and away to three thousand feet.

Hello. Quite a spectacle from up here. We normally live in the dusty blustery dirt and burble of thirty feet and seldom come up for air, relying on the sound of the rotors and transmission and engine more than the gauges. So it is very refreshing to get up and cruise around a little.

I’m waddling around pretty good here trying to go forward instead of sideways, and without the ever-present scrub brush tree line reference across the middle of the bubble. It takes a minute to adjust to a sky full of nothing. Nice to be going straight and level for more than ten seconds. And using the balance string out front on the front of the bubble again. Oh look, there are those cute little airspeed and altitude needles again. And they still work.

The full horizon panorama is spectacular. It is surprising how far you can see from three thousand feet. Stringing down the coast, Padre Island looks just like it does on the map, only prettier. Off to the south, the Rio Grand dumps and swirls chocolate into the blue/green gulf. There are little mud islands out in the flow, probably transient, slipping and sliding here and there. I know South Padre resort is right there and wonder how much it has changed since my college days here. Maybe it’s safe to go back by now.
To the north, Corpus Christi glistens in the sun. I think I can make out the T Heads and that north bridge. Cool. To the east all is sparkling blue water. To the west is … nothing. Scrub brush. For a long way. All the way to Laredo and beyond.

I take a last look around and know to get back down to business before being called for goofing off. This civilian flying world has few idle moments. Circling down into my element the airspeed and altitude gauges diminish into insignificance again, replaced with the difference of the wind buffet on my cheeks and the responsive, reassuring pitch and tone of the transmission.

The last few lumbering red bulls rumble into the red dirt pens. The pen is stout, made of railroad posts. The cowboys swing on the gates closing behind them. I hover at three hundred feet, waiting, watching to see which way my partner will climb out so I can dodge and we don’t try to dance too close.

At two o’clock level an orange and white blur morphs into a Navy T-2 Buckeye trainer gliding silently below. Through my chin bubble I look down on helmets with glittery orange and white tape, and black kneeboards clamping Brownsville sectional maps with fine print expiration dates of September 26th. OK, maybe the 28th.

Helmets. Reflective orange and white tape. No dark visors look up in surprise. They didn’t see me. Guess they’re busy. I pedal turn and watch them motor away, level, undisturbed. Then I cautiously lurch back around to make sure they don’t have a buddy tagging along. While this is my ranchland, it is their training area. I remember times in the T-28 and in that romping Marine helo that the sky surely belonged only to us.

Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze

Next week- Ranchlands III, What’cha eatin’ there, son?

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