Cowboy Cadillac

Airplanes at work on the prairie

August 1, 2009

It takes more than an hour to drive from Glasgow (population 3,253) in northeastern Montana to the Nelson ranch (population six) next to the Canadian border. Paved highways get you close but come with a caution: Antelope frequently cross the roads. Real cowboys live on gravel roads at best, or on paths through prairie land and tilled fields at worst. When our auto GPS ran out of names a text message simply said, “Driving on Road.”

Rocks blast the undercarriage like bullets as the wheels leave a marker trail of dust to drift across the rolling prairie. There’s no sneaking up on ranchers.

Travis and Cindi Nelson, both raised on ranches, consider themselves residents of Opheim (Ope’ ime), Montana, a town of 75 buildings 20 minutes south of their home. The town’s well-kept grass airport is home to Nelson’s 1964 Cessna 172—the family’s go-to-town airplane. The 1958 Aeronca Champ—a work airplane Nelson calls his Cowboy Cadillac because it’s used like a flying pickup truck—stays 15 miles north on the ranch. Its hangar sits next to two grass runways separated from the house by rows of trees planted to block snow and wind from the main house. Horses eat quietly in a pen across the driveway and include Midnight, the pony that serves Taylor, 5; rambunctious Rylee, 3; and red-hat-loving Trevor, 2. Midnight is the best horse in the “whole world,” Taylor and Rylee agree.

A friend lives on the ranch in the summer to help Nelson and his father raise 460 beef cow-and-calf pairs and plant 3,500 acres of hard red wheat using tractors guided by GPS receivers. Once the fields have been “mapped,” the driver has merely to turn the tractor around when it reaches the end of a row.

The 100-year-old Nelson ranch includes 12 to 15 square miles of parcels Nelson rents or owns—some of it isolated from the main ranch. Nelson is a fourth-generation rancher.

You probably have eaten bread or ordered a Choice or Prime grade steak that came from ranchers in northeastern Montana like Nelson or his friend and neighbor 30 miles away, John Saubak. Nelson raises Red Angus beef that are “grass fed” in rancher parlance. Like Nelson, Saubak has two aircraft, a 1940 Taylorcraft BC-65 and a 1953 180-horsepower Cessna 170B. He inherited the Taylorcraft from his father, who mounted it on skis during a terrible winter in 1949 and 1950 and delivered groceries and mail. Saubak has worked on the ranch since returning wounded from Vietnam where he was a helicopter crew chief. His grandparents homesteaded the ranch in 1917.

Nelson’s Champ goes for morning checks on water tanks, cows in trouble during calving season, and crops, while the IFR-approved 172 with its Garmin GNS 430 gets the family to Glasgow, Billings, or Great Falls, Montana, as needed.

“It would take me a day to do what I can do in one hour with an airplane,” Nelson said. It can land on a meadow or a curving road when Nelson needs to close a fence or help a cow in distress.

Only 3 percent of ranchers in the Glasgow area have aircraft, according to airport officials. Airplanes were much more common 30 to 40 years ago—especially for those living on ranches of 50,000 acres or more in rough terrain—but for those who have them, aircraft are essential. Improvement in roads led to the reduced use of aircraft, but distances are still great.

The greatest benefit comes from using the aircraft as ranch tools. Nelson made one of his routine flights recently for AOPA Pilot showing what he does on a typical 30- to 45-minute route 100 feet or less above the ranch.

“If we see a lame cow off by itself we’ll come back with a saddle horse,” Nelson said. It’s important to act quickly with predators lurking about. When ranches failed in Canada the government converted them to wildlife areas, and the coyotes flourished.

“I have landed on a main route [a wide gravel road] to talk with other ranchers about selling calves,” Nelson said.

By looking over the spring wheat, he can easily see areas where the planter wasn’t working. By checking pipes used to fill water tanks, he can tell if they are frozen. On the May 21 date of our flight, the ground was still too cold to allow the pipes to thaw.

At the end of June the bulls leave their pen and join the cows to start the calving process once again, and an aerial check assures that the bulls are in the right area.

“It’s well worth it to know what’s going on. It gives you peace of mind to know everything is OK. I’d have to go to just one place each day if I drove it,” Nelson said. Commenting on the small percentage of ranchers who fly, Nelson noted that some ranchers just farm and have no cattle. Ranchers once flew to Canada to buy farm implement parts, but border crossings became more cumbersome after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“Where my wife grew up, it [an airpane] was almost like a car,” he said.

A flight across the land he owns and rents is also a flight back into history. There’s a coal mine abandoned in the early 1900s, a stand of trees known as Dead Man’s Coulee where Native Americans and homesteaders fought, and the narrow ruts of 100-year-old wagon trails. A self-propelled combine from—well, decades ago—sits in the same spot where it came to rest after its drive chain broke, sending it roaring down one hill and up another where the driver turned it in a tight circle and brought it to rest. The drive chain is still broken.

Nelson flew along the Canadian border fence with its 120-foot-wide no-man’s land donated mostly from United States soil. Then it was off to Peerless, Montana, to a much-favored supper club for lunch. As in most rural areas of the country, the evening meal is called supper, not dinner. Dinner is the noon meal.

Cindi Nelson is expert at the preparation of Prime-grade beef barbeque, as she demonstrated for us. The family’s beef supply comes from two types of cows; those that learn to tunnel under the fence and might teach the young how to escape, and those that fail to bear calves.

Not all of Nelson’s flights serve the needs of cows and wheat. He is chairman of the local airport commission and uses his 172 to attend meetings.

Cindi, a certified public accountant and tax analyst for a company in Glasgow, sends papers to her company by 172 when Travis heads that way. She works at home four days a week and spends one day in the office.

“I was working really hard one day and I said, ‘It’s too bad we can’t go down to the café in Richland and get a cheeseburger.’ So he flew down and got us a cheeseburger and french fries,” Cindi said. She likes to fly as a passenger, especially in good weather, and is content to let her husband be the pilot of the family.

Then there’s the matter of ice cream for the children.

“There’s a small window for getting ice cream for the children home before it melts,” Nelson said. The children have their favorite water slide and hotel in a distant town and know what it’s like to go inside a cloud. “It’s fluffy,” Taylor has discovered. Trevor is usually the most eager to go with his father on brief flights, sitting on a pillow so he can see out.

For those in remote areas the advantages of having a small airplane or two are obvious. Time is money when it comes to planting and harvesting or assuring the safety of calves and beef cows. A quick connection to ice cream for the children is a bonus.

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.