Rancher Virgil Mercer Takes To The Air To Get Them Doggies Rollin'.
By Leo Banks
A LIFETIME OF working cattle on 50 square miles of rugged land 45 miles north of Tucson has taught Virgil Mercer more than most men will ever know about the traditions of ranching.
But these days when the 70-year-old Mercer rises at sunup and heads out to work his herd, tradition is the last thing on his mind.
He angles past his horse corral and climbs into his "aerial pony," the ultralight aircraft he uses to perform most of the everyday ranch work he once did on horseback.
Strapping on a pilot's helmet and goggles, Mercer fires up the 52-horsepower engine and lifts off from one of four dirt runways that crisscross an old alfalfa field behind the ranch.
"I'm a traditionalist, sure," says Mercer, whose family has worked the Campstool Ranch for three generations. "But I'm also a survivalist. We had to find a way to keep the family ranch going. What I do in two hours in the ultralight would take at least three days on horseback."
In his early morning tour, Mercer soars over rugged canyons and hillsides looking for dead or injured cows, evidence of vandalism, dried up ponds or any other sign of trouble.
The ultralight flies so slowly and so low that Mercer can spot details on the ground, down to watching cottontails scampering beneath his wings. "I can see a water break two feet wide, that's how close to the ground I am," he says.
At roundup time, Mercer teams with his oldest son, Gary, who flies a helicopter. They are a tandem in the sky, communicating by two-way radio, swooping down over cattle to move them this way and that. To help the doggies along, Mercer sounds a horn that emits an ear-piercing wail from his plane.
A few years ago, roundup at the Campstool took 14 days, 10 cowboys and at least 30 horses. Today, with Mercer in the ultralight and Gary in the chopper, they do the same job in three days. The technique works so well that they're sometimes hired for roundups at neighboring ranches.
Money drove the Mercers into the air. Like all ranchers, they saw expenses spiraling and profit margins shrinking and looked for ways to cut costs.
At one time, they kept watch over the land from a Cessna 180, but that type of plane operates at high speeds and high altitudes, so its value for ranch work was limited. After that, they moved to pickup trucks, motorcycles, the helicopter, and in 1987, an ultralight.
"The system we have now took a while to evolve, but the money we save compared with using horses is impossible to calculate," said Gary, who flew choppers in Vietnam. "But the key to doing it by air is having pilots who understand cows."
With the elder Mercer at the stick, the ultralight gets a heavy daily workout. It's not a job for the weak of spirit. The plane and pilot combined weigh less than 400 pounds, so the awkward contraption of aluminum poles and Dacron-covered wings is an easy target for even the mildest gust of wind.
The plane Mercer uses has no windshield. In winter he wears up to four layers of clothing, a ski mask, gloves. Still, he nearly got frostbite on one hand from the chill whip of desert winds.
"In my flight suit I look like the Pillsbury Doughboy," Mercer said. "But you can still get hypothermia up there."
Even so, it's safer than riding a horse. He estimates that he's broken 12 bones, gotten his face crushed and had several stays in the hospital from bouts with temperamental horses.
In four years of flying the ultralight, he hasn't suffered an injury, even though he once crash-landed on a ridge. Son Virgil Jr.'s luck has held up even better.
"I've crashed the plane four times and all I got was one scratched knee," said Virgil Jr., a copper miner. "Heck, that proves it's safe."
Both said that if the engine quits, the plane, initially designed as a glider, comes down slowly and can be landed at 20 m.p.h.
And a crash landing isn't likely to deter Mercer. In the Pacific during World War II, a mortar blast knocked out one of his eyes. When he got home, people kept telling him what he couldn't do because of the injury.
"I did everything they said I couldn't, including fly with one eye," he says. "I'm the eye in the sky, literally."
One of the pluses of Mercer's work is the view. From his open-air perch, he has traded winks with red-tailed hawks, buzzed curious black bears and watched mountain lions stalk
"Oh, it's so beautiful," he says, "the way the land curves, the streams."
More than that, Mercer figures using the ultralight instead of horses will add 10 years of productive work to his life. The time it saves has allowed him to take long vacations overseas, something he couldn't consider previously.
One thing about flying the ultralight worries him, however.
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