The life of an airborne cowboy is interesting, to say the least. Typically known as muster pilots, these individuals wrangle, herd and protect cattle from an elevation of 500 feet above the herd, comfortably seated in a helicopter. The cowboys swoop and maneuver in areas that extend up to three hundred thousand acres and see roughly 20,000 head of cattle grazing in efforts to fatten them to be exported to Asia.
The cowboys are responsible for rounding up 2,000 cattle in less than a week’s time and must fly exceedingly slow and at elevations low enough to be able to direct the herds. According to the pilots, it’s dangerous yet thrilling work. Several muster pilots lose their lives every year to cattle ranching endeavors gone awry.
This may be in part to the fact that in order to effectively maneuver the herd, they are expected to fly at roughly 30 miles per hour dodging trees and various other structures, which, at times, proves a difficulty. Especially if the helicopter suffers an engine failure. Pilots have been known to simply crash to the ground as there isn’t time for an escape or to maneuver into a safe landing.
The process is detailed as follows. The muster pilots meet the ground or chase crews several meters out. The ground crew generally move about on horseback or four wheelers. They all maintain radio contact and await instruction for the pilots throughout. At times, there may be several muster pilots who dip and dive and direct the animals home.
In order to qualify as a mustering pilot, credentials applicants must possess include the amount of flight time for standard helicopter pilot’s license in conjunction with approximately 100 plus hours of low flying time.
Some airborne cowboys have been employed to herd not only cattle but crocodiles and various other animals as well. They are expected at times to fly as low as 9 or 10 feet in order to return predators like the crocodile’s back to their habitats. In these efforts, away from extremely congested and overpopulated regions, the muster pilots are extremely effective. Majority of the individuals who pursue working as muster pilots have a wealth of experience in low flying helicopters and are knowledgeable regarding the territories they work in.
Helicopters are further used to maintain populations counts of various wildlife like deer, elk, sheep, even caribou. The pilots are responsible for protecting herds from predators as well as for finding and locating stragglers who may find themselves separated from herds. Pilots and researchers take advantage of innovations in thermal imaging to find and locate animals that have wandered away from the group at large, have been injured and may be hard to find because of forestry and tree canopies or to track predators after nightfall. Helicopters are additionally frequently utilized in tracking and tagging animals to maintain awareness of migratory practices.