Burt And The Cowboys

A typical Western Colorado Cowboy

A typical Western Colorado Cowboy. Notice the Winchester 30-30 Lever Action Carbine in the lariat loop. It is standard equipment for a working cowboy in the west to this day.

During the Fall of 1977 I was employed as a “party-chief” by a large civil engineering company headquartered in Denver. As I had already completed several years of experience, I was put in charge of carrying out a long aerial photo control survey the company had contracted for. The purpose of the survey was for a proposed cross country gas pipeline. The line was to originate in the gas fields several miles west and south of Meeker Colorado. From there it was to run eastward, eventually terminating in the town of Fraser, Colorado.

Management had placed an experienced *Instrument-man in my charge; thus making for a two man survey “crew.”

Before leaving Denver we equipped ourselves with two Wild Heerbrug T2 theodolites, one Geodimeter Model 76 yoke mount distance meter, and a veritable truckload of prisms, tripods, tribrachs, adapters, and so forth.

The job required the setting of large aerial photo targets, whilst simultaneously conducting a control traverse over them. In order to assure high accuracy we would tie into state plane coordinate monuments as often as we could along the way. The entire length of all the lines traversed was well over two hundred miles. It was a really big job and a grand adventure to boot.

The general technique I employed was to “leapfrog” traverse through every target point if at all possible. My Instrumentman would turn horizontal and vertical angle sets, remove the instrument from the tribrach, mount the distance meter in the just vacated tribrach, and then measure distances back and ahead at every other point. I would occupy the points in between, book the Instrumentman’s “field notes” by radio, then turn and record my own horizontal and vertical angle sets. We had our procedure so well perfected that we could be on and off a point in less than ten minutes in most cases.

We shuttled back and forth between points in a Bell 47D Helicopter. This model helicopter is pretty much the same model you might sometimes see on the old M*A*S*H television shows. As far as I know, the main difference between the ones you see on that show and the “D” series we flew in, is that our engine was equipped with a turbo. This is a necessary feature for a pilot trying to put one skid down to let a surveyor out onto a rocky ledge in the high mountains of Colorado. Especially with winds swirling from every direction.

Our pilot was Burt Metcalf, a man who owned and operated a flying service with headquarters in nearby Montrose Colorado. To say that Burt was a character among characters would be putting it mildly. In addition to providing charter services for surveying companies, or anyone else that needed to fly around in the mountains, he was occasionally called upon for a rescue operation, and to supplement his income during the winter season he used his extraordinary flying skill to shoot coyotes for bounty.

Bert Metcalf. An extraordinary pilot.

Burt Metcalf

At the time of the “official” onset of hostilities in Vietnam, Burt was employed by a major American airline. He was far beyond draft age and had a good steady high paying job. Most people would probably think he had it made.

Not Burt. He wanted adventure. He wanted to fly! Not only did he want to fly, he wanted to fly where adventure was, so he quit his job and voluntarily joined the US Army. Following graduation from helicopter flight school in Ft. Rucker Alabama, he was sent to Vietnam. I do not know much more than that about his service “in country” so to speak, but knowing Burt like I did, I am sure it was honorable, patriotic, and aggressive.

Continuing with the story – though our department manager had arranged for a person from our company to go out ahead of the traverse to gain permission to go onto privately owned land, that did not cure all the “trespass” issues that came up. Much of the land in the western part of Colorado is owned by the US Government. “Grazing Rights” are often leased to ranchers. Our understanding was that those lands were wide open to us and that we did not need any kind of permission to go upon them. In fact, we had a work permit from the Bureau of Land Management. The lease holding ranchers didn’t care. They didn’t want us flying over or landing on what they considered to be “their” land.

As our survey progressed eastward, a good deal of gossip about our “trespassing” began to circulate among the ranchers and other citizens that lived in or near the small towns we passed through. It seemed to us that we could almost feel hostility emanating from folks surrounding our breakfast or dinner table on the occasions we would take our meals in different cafés along the way.

Burt’s wife, Barbra accompanied us throughout most all of the survey. She was as cool and unflappable a character as you are ever likely to meet. Her job was to drive the fuel truck to prearranged locations so that we could refuel without having to fly very far from the area we were working on any given day.

Her practice was to park fifty feet or so downwind of what looked to her like a good landing spot. That way Burt could swoop in over the top of the truck and land ahead of her with the front of the aircraft facing the required upwind direction. This way of doing it prevented her from having to jockey the truck around to get in fueling position. Once we landed, she would just pull straight forward and park on the right hand side of the aircraft, away from the exhaust which was located on the left side of the craft. That way we could refuel with the engine running and the rotor spooling. This technique enabled us to be on our way in just a few minutes. That’s not the safest thing in the World to do, but that’s how we did it.

My wife Carolyn and my daughter Vickie going for a short hop.

My wife Carolyn and my daughter Vickie going for a short hop.

As earlier mentioned, trouble was brewing among the rancher cowboys in the region. Things finally came to a head one day when they got together and formed up a sort of “posse.” I suppose they had an idea of confronting us.

On the particular day that what I am about to relate happened, Burt and I were headed to a fuel staging area that his wife had picked out.  As we approached the location we could see some pickup trucks parked on the upwind side of the landing spot. Several cowboys were either sitting on the tailgates of the trucks or they were lounging about close by.  Every single one of them had a rifle, and some of them had a pistol strapped on – just like in the movies. They were all decked out in appropriate western regalia, replete with cowboy hats, cowboy boots, wool lined vests, snap button shirts, and cowboy cut jeans. They were genuine working cowboys, some were even sporting **chaps and spurs. It was a sight to see as we closed in from above.

I don’t know if Burt’s wife had earlier told them where to park their trucks, but I have my suspicions, for I can almost swear I noticed a wry smile on Burt’s face as we passed over the fuel truck. The landing spot was directly in front of us, and the cowboys were right in line ahead of that.

It was a perfect setup. Burt couldn’t resist.

As we came to a hover just inches above our landing spot Burt hauled up on the collective and twisted the throttle to full power with his left hand while pulling back on the cyclic stick with his right hand. This exercise puts the main rotor blades into maximum thrust, and at the same time tilts the nose of the aircraft up so that the rotor wash is forced forward. In this case the wash was forced forward with wind speeds approaching a category five hurricane. If we were landing into a light breeze it was no match for the kind of angry tempest Burt had set into motion.

When the swirling maelstrom hit them, cowboy hats went everywhere. At least one of them blew high enough to be swirled over towards us and right down into the rapidly rotating main rotor blades, instantly turning it into small felt pieces; the pickup trucks were rocking back and forth and to and fro so much that the wheels looked like they might bounce off the ground, vests and chaps were flapping so hard they were almost torn off the men wearing them, a couple of blue heeler dogs that were in company tore off at a dead run in search of better climate, the rifles were thrown down so that the former holders could use one hand to cover their eyes and the other to try to keep their clothes on, Burt was smiling, and I was a little bit scared.

Burt relented after a little while and set the chopper down. I think I stuttered something like; “You think I ought to go over and talk to them?” I didn’t clearly hear Burt’s response so to this day I don’t know what he said. All I know is that he uttered something as he clambered out of the ship, all the while exhibiting a perfectly measured degree of contempt, and at the same time applying a subtle adjustment to the belt buckle for his holstered revolver.

The cowboys were a weather beaten whipped bunch by that time, and not a word had been said to them. I really don’t remember if any one of them came over to talk or not. If they did, they would have talked to Burt. He was armed and experienced. I wasn’t either one. The cowboys were armed but they probably weren’t experienced – not like Burt was.

Burton D. “Burt” Metcalf, 1930 – 2008








*To the uninitiated the word “Instrumentman” is used at different places throughout the country to refer to one who operates the surveying instrument – in this case, a Wild Heerbrugg T2 Theodolite capable of measuring angles to one second of angular arc.  In some locales he is often called an “I-man”

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