Cows in the Landing Zone

Yes, cows.

One of Flying M Air’s clients is a local business that has a remote ranch along the Hassayampa River. I occasionally take their VIPs out to the ranch, turning a 45-minute (each way) car ride on washboarded dirt roads into a 6-minute scenic helicopter flight.

The landing zone is near a few of the ranch buildings, on a patch of sparse grass near a road. My approach route takes me along the road past large pens holding horses, cows, and calves.

On all of my previous flights, the cows were in the pens. But today, they were out and about. As I approached my landing zone, I was rather surprised to see a 2-month-old calf standing on the road, obviously mooing its little brains out. The recipient of this mooing was on the other side of the landing zone: a cow that might have been its mother.

Of course, I noted all this as I was coming in for a landing with three passengers on board. I’ve landed there so many times that I don’t normally do any kind of reconnoissance anymore. I know the landing zone very well and, if things aren’t as expected, I know the quick escape route I can use if I need to abort.

I didn’t need to abort. I set down where I usually do while my passengers debated whether they could walk past the cow about 100 feet away. The cow had horns — as all the cows at that ranch do — and they thought it might be a bull. Many people who don’t check an animal’s privates think horns are the indication of animal gender. I saw udders and I knew it was a cow.

While I descended to the ground, my rotor wash blew up a bunch of dried cow patties and dust. It all flew into the air and I wondered about the possibility of one of those smaller cow patties flying up into the tail rotor when it was time to take off.

I throttled down to cool-down RPM (68% on an R44) and let my passengers disembark, reminding them again of the tail rotor. I always park facing where my passengers need to go, so there’s no reason for them to walk behind the helicopter. As I cooled the helicopter down, I watched a cowboy greet them. They walked away to take a tour of the ranch. Routine stuff.

What wasn’t routine was the cows. They were all over the place. Cows and calves in every direction. There had to be at least twenty of them.

I shut down, watching the cows and wondering whether they were tall enough to interfere with the tail rotor. Those horns were pretty high up. They were watching me. All of them. Just standing around, with their cow faces looking my way. It was very weird.

I stopped the blades with the rotor brake and got out to survey my position on the landing zone. There was certainly a lot more cow patties than the last time I’d landed there. I’d landed in a patch of short, dry grass, surrounded by dirt. There was a shallow ditch off the front end of the right skid. No big rocks near the skids. Just a bunch of dried cow patties in all sizes. So dry that I could kick them away from the tail rotor area without getting cow poop on my shoes. But not dry enough that I to touch them with my hands.

I looked at the cows and their calves. They were still watching me. The closest one was about 100 feet away. One of them was mooing insistently.

I took out my Hobbs book and caught up with some paperwork. I knew my passengers would be at least 30 minutes. I’d forgotten my iPod at home and figured I’d use the time to catch up with some of the log stuff the FAA required for my Part 135 certificate.

When I looked up, a few of the cows were closer.

This was not good. I put away the book and got out. I made a big show of cleaning the cockpit bubble. The cows watched.

I finished and decided it was time to chase the cows away. I’d told my passengers that I’d start the engine when I saw them coming, but I wasn’t prepared to start the engine when a cow might walk into the tail rotor. I had to get them away.

Unfortunately, persistent “shooing” sounds with waving hands didn’t do the job.

I started walking toward the closest cow. Other cows and calves nearby immediately moved away. One of them stopped periodically to moo at me. But soon most of them were a bit farther off.

Except one. She was an older cow with horns that had the tips sawn off. I got the idea that she was a troublemaker who used her horns one too many times to bully another cow or maybe a horse or cowboy. She seemed fascinated with either me or (more likely) the red helicopter I’d arrived in. When I walked toward her, she walked away. When I stopped, she stopped and looked at me.

It was getting chilly; the wind was picking up. I climbed back into the helicopter and closed the doors on my side.

That’s when the ranch guy showed up. He was driving a blue New Holland tractor with a front-end loader on it. The tractor was pulling a matching blue water tank. He drove noisily down the road and carefully backed the tank into a spot near a horse corral. Two dogs were walking alongside his rig; I realized that two more were riding on the tank trailer. He stopped and a guy rode up on an ATV. I turned my attention to the cows. I think they were getting closer again. The guy with the ATV rode off. The ranch guy disconnected the water trailer and pulled the tractor away. He parked a short distance from me and called to the dogs.

There were four dogs and they all looked to be mutts. Three of them had some border collie or Australian shepherd or heeler in them. The other one looked like it might have some hound in it. But when the ranch guy hollered whatever it is he hollered, the dogs took off toward the closest group of cows.

The next ten minutes was an incredible show. The dogs, listening to a few simple commands from the ranch guy, proceeded to round up groups of 3 to 6 cows and move them toward the horse corrals 50 yards away from my helicopter. The cows didn’t want to be moved. The older ones turned their horns toward the dogs and even kicked at them, but the dogs were always faster and managed to stay safe. They barked and the cows mooed and the calves ran around in a panic. But eventually the pack was moved to the fence near the horse corral. Then the dogs got a short rest before the ranch guy would set them on another group of cows. I watched in amazement until all the cows except one had been moved to the side of the horse corral.

The whole time, the ranch guy just sat in the blue tractor, watching the dogs. Every once in a while, he’d yell out a command that I couldn’t quite hear. When the dogs were finished, they came back to the tractor and just lay down in the dirt. They stayed there for about five minutes. Then the ranch guy issued another command I couldn’t quite catch and motioned to the one cow that was still nearby. The dogs took off after it.

The cow ran into the bushes. The dogs ran after it. “Bring ’em back!” the ranch guy yelled. I saw the cow run back and forth through the bushes. The dogs split up and worked it as a team. Soon, the cow was running back across the clearing. It ran past the front of the helicopter toward the other cows. Finally it was among them. The dogs relaxed.

The ranch guy started the tractor and headed off back up the road. The dogs followed him. He rounded a bend in the road and moved out of sight.

The cows stood in a group near the horse corral. A few of them mooed angrily. One or two scratched their front hooves in the dirt like a bull at a bullfight in the movies.

A few minutes later, three of the dogs returned. They stared at the cows for a few minutes, then lay down in the dirt 50 feet away, watching them.

The cows didn’t move, although the mooing ones never really shut up.

My passengers returned a while later. I didn’t have to worry much about the cows and the tail rotor. The dogs had them under control.

This is one of the few times I didn’t have a camera with me. If I did, I’d have used the movie feature to get video of the dogs in action.

My total flight time was 0.3 hours, but I’ll get paid for 0.5 because of my half-hour minimum. I was on the ground waiting for nearly 50 minutes.

But that’s okay. I had a really good show.

What do you think?