Ranchlands IV, The Boss

I’m flying wingman for my boss. He’s solid, good all around. His only miss-step that I’ve heard about has been to settle into some low scrub oaks trying to flush out a stubborn cow. The tail rotor caught a branch and zinged away and he flailed down into a clearing with one bent skid. He’s good.

Thundering south down Hwy 281 he makes a quick break in his pristine Bell 47 and circles and lands in the open front yard of a sprawling ranch home. He gets out and points for me to land and wait. He walks to a man and woman getting into a gold Cadillac. They greet warmly and talk a moment in the shade of a huge oak tree. The silver haired man is wearing a crisp Stetson, a red bandana tied around his neck, a blue denim shirt with the top four buttons open, sleeves rolled halfway up the forearms, skin tight starched laundered blue jeans, highly polished knee high boots, and a distinctive belt and buckle. Besides the ranch he also owns a bank, but has never set foot in it.

I remember his getup because it was the same every time I saw him out on the ranch, only grubbier, whether standing tall on a ridgeline bluff pointing my boss to a pasture, or on horseback galloping and twirling, working the cattle as well as any of the caballeros. But today, as my boss explains on the CB radio, he is in his fresh spiffed up Sunday-go-to-meeting dress because they are going to a funeral.

We spool up and head on out for our today’s job, a ten-thousand acre pasture for a recalcitrant ranch manager that refuses to use those gol-danged heliocopters. Up until now.

The pasture has to be completely cleared of cattle. Again we don’t know why. Later we find out that they are 80 days into the 90 day limit that the Dept of Agriculture had given them to clear the ten-thousand acre pasture. Their caballeros have traversed the heavily thicketed pasture on horseback numerous times, and had brought out about 800 cattle to date. But there were still more. It is brutal on horseback.

Brutal. I remember on another ranch, we had made several passes trying to flush cattle out of an isolated thicket of dense low trees. I can’t see them. The ranch hand motions for me to land beside the thicket. He points at the legs of the cattle visible through the tree trunks. He un-straps and gets out and ties bandannas at his ankles around his pant legs and boots. He runs over and bustles through the thicket, scattering the cattle out the other side.

As he comes trotting back he is bleeding a bit on his face and arms from the thicket but it looks like his legs are coated with mud. He stops a distance away and brushes at his legs. They’re covered with ticks! Now I understand tying off his pant legs and boots. Besides spiders and snakes and Mesquite thorns and hooked cactus needles, it is brutal on the ground, even on horseback.

So, even after 80 days and numerous passes with the caballeros, when the Dept of Agriculture reps drive back out into this pasture they still see cattle scattering back into the almost impenetrable brush. Not good enough. So the reluctant manager had no choice but to call my boss.

Thundering in, we approach the middle of the pasture from the west. At about a quarter of a mile from the pasture, we split apart running opposide directions to the north and south working back and forth paralleling the west fence. When the boss is satisfied that the cattle have started a mass steady move east, we press the runs steadily closer to the pasture. Once they start moving we work to keep the herding instinct going, picking up any stragglers and diving over to head off the occasional desperate thrashing evader. I think the boss has infrared sensing, or just knows instinctively where cattle are holding up.

As we move across the fence into the pasture, we work to keep a steady pace and make pointed diversions to any suspect thicket. About two thirds of the way across, the caballeros trot in behind us on horseback.

At the end of the day, in five hours the two choppers brought out 800 more cattle. Five hours versus 80 days. At the pens the caballeros are whooping and hollering. They are counting the cattle that are in a pen for the first time. When the calves are penned the first time they “tip” their horns, cutting the point off. Surprisingly, in this herd there are hundreds of untipped sharp-horned cattle. The manager comments that most of them have likely never seen a man up close before.

Three Course Dinner
One afternoon we are greasing and checking the birds for the early start the next morning. After backing the helos into the hangar I’m getting ready to head home. The boss comes over and says to be sure to wear fresh clothes in the morning.
The next morning the eastern sky is glowing faintly as the boss and I pull off the highway into the ranch. My first time here. Two men wait for us at the main gate. Inside there are several “bump gates” designed so that when you push on them with your bumper they have just the right amount of inertia to swing slowly open and give you enough time to pull through before they start to swing closed again. They don’t do too well with helo trailers. So it’s nice to have the men along holding the gates open for us. It’s about a two mile drive in to the ranch house.

We park the helos in the middle of a large manicured front yard. The two men are father and son. The father is wearing one of our caps. The boss introduces us. Meeting them, and looking over at the large yellow stucco home, I am beginning to understand the fresh clothes. This is no ordinary ranch.

The father walks to one of our pristine helos and looks it over. He moves purposefully along the structure and wires and hoses in an orderly manner. I realize that he is going through an operating manual preflight inspection. He checks things in a very professional manner but his touch is lingering, almost caressing. The son leans over and explains that his dad was the number five senior pilot for one of the airlines and was retired a couple of months ago, and is not taking it well. The simple explanation is an understatement. The dad has been diligently studying the helo manual.

When we return from the three hour morning session the boss swings briskly into the yard and shuts down and the dad stays there in the cockpit a few minutes gripping the extra stick and collective that the boss had installed for today.
As we walk through the courtyard into the house for dinner we all have a comfortable swagger and the boss brags about how well the father is doing on the controls. This noon meal is dinner. The evening meal is called supper. I’m home.

The immaculate pale green dining room has thick walls and ceiling beams and open arch windows and potted trees and plants. The long dining table is set with white linen tablecloths. We are introduced to the wives and a cousin. We formally take our seats. Napkins are spread on our laps, and tea is served in crystal glasses.

Several white shirted servers set bowls of fruit for each of us. I watch and follow the boss for propriety. Next, a small plate with tasty guacamole, two tomato slices and a chip are placed before us. When everyone has set their forks down the servers appear and our plates and forks are silently removed. After a few minutes we are each provided new silverware and one delicately served enchilada. Dessert is chips with sugar and cinnamon. After refills of tea and some polite talk we all rise and the men head outside for another three hour slice of the American dream.

The boss’s story is interesting. When he tells a tale it usually has something to do with the challenges and endurance and stamina he has needed to stay in business. One of his first tidbits to me was that if I ever pranged one in, before the dust even settled and I had crawled up out of the wreckage and dusted my hat off, every other helicopter cowboy in the country would know about it, and would have already decided what stupid thing I had done to cause it. I remained happily anonymous.

During my first week there, he and I went out on his ranch several times and gave the whirly birds a good workout. I really enjoy seeing someone in their element. This was his, for sure.
On their appointed day the FAA showed up and put me through their paces, certifying me in the Bell-47 Bubble and the Bell-206 Jet Ranger. The check flight includes maneuvers that you don’t want to try too often. Most folks don’t practice them more than required because it’s usually more cost effective to deal with these challenges when you actually have it, rather than creating an emergency.

For example, ‘full autorotations’, where you completely kill the engine and fly down with the rotor freewheeling, can get you into a lot of trouble. It can be done OK, but with the engine off there is only one chance and no room for error. You pull pitch on the blades using their momentum to land successfully. Timing is everything. You can get pretty close in practice with the engine at idle.
There was an early period in military helo training where they lost more aircraft practicing engine off autorotations than were lost from actual engine failures. During my military training they didn’t practice full engine out autorotations, but rather put the collective control stick down until the last minute and just simulated it as best they could. I have an ‘autorotation’ story in the works for later.

Besides the Boss, I was the only pilot that could do cattle work and fly the Jet Ranger. It was used for VIP and oil field transport work. One day I hovered down the Gulf Coast with a TV news crew for several hours, filming schools of thousands of invading sharks a few feet off the shore. Another day I hovered with a photographer for a couple of hours down the college campus and courtyards and in between buildings of my alma mater, Texas A&I University. Now it is Texas A&M at Kingsville. Honk if I’m an Aggie. The Jet Ranger was fun, like piloting a Lexus. Nice.

My FAA Inspector that day was very experienced. After I completed the required maneuver, he would take control of the aircraft and demonstrate a better or more appropriate way of doing things, or elaborate on a particular eccentricity of that model helo. After he signed me off and left, the Boss told me about the day a couple of years earlier that the inspector had first checked him out in the Jet Ranger.
They were working out in the middle of one of the boss’s pastures. After the last maneuver, the Inspector asked if he could take the bird and make one last confidence building demo. Boss said if he had had any idea what the guy was going to do, he never would have given him the controls.

From the hover he leaned hard over and tore off toward the Boss’s home and hangar complex. They skimmed over the tree tops at redline and dropped to ground level roaring toward the landing pad between two of the hangars. At about five feet he thundered right between the two hangars, rolled the power to fuel cutoff, pulled the nose almost straight up, did a pedal turn pointing the nose almost straight down, and slid down and flared onto the pad between the hangars, hovered there silently a couple of seconds, and gently set the Jet Ranger down right in the center of the pad. Not the Boss’s favorite maneuver in his prized new ship. The inspector was able to get off down the road before Boss could get to his gun.

When I was working there in the ‘70s, there were four million cattle in the Rio Grande Valley. On a recent visit with my old boss, he said there are now four hundred thousand.

Next week- Ranchlands V, Happy Trails

Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze

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