In the early days of Heifer International, animals were delivered by ship with Sea Cowboys caring for and wrangling the animals. But in some landlocked countries like Bolivia, air travel was used. This is the story of how a couple of cowboys helped deliver heifers to families in Bolivia!
In 1969 Ralph Barnes, from Chatham, IL, a farmer and coordinator for Heifer International, called Austin Hulcher to see if he would take a load of cattle/heifers, to Miami, FL. Since the 1,400-mile trip would be non-stop, Austin called his good friend, Bud King, to help drive the truck. This trip meant loading up the heifers into a double decker trailer. The 47 heifers were chosen from prize winners at county fairs and the Illinois State Fair. Each of the heifers weighed between 600-800 pounds and were among prize winning stock. The cowboys were told the heifers would help to upgrade the stock in Bolivia, South America, where the cattle were pretty scrawny.
But all 47 heifers were loaded in the trailer and the cowboys—Austin and Bud—headed to Miami, FL in an 18 wheeler semi-truck with a trailer. In Tennessee, they made a stop to get the cattle out of the trailer to feed and water them.
When they left Illinois, the cowboys didn’t know for sure that they would be flying to Bolivia with the heifers. They had told Ralph that neither of them had passports. When they arrived in Miami with the 46 heifers, their passports were waiting for them. The air freight company did not want the responsibility of what the cattle might do in the air. The cowboys’ job was to keep the heifers calm.
The heifers were watered and fed, and then loaded on to a four engine Douglas DC4. This old aircraft was an antiquated plane for passengers and had been used as a freight hauler during WWII. The weight of the heifers had to be distributed evenly so the plane could take off. Ten heifers were loaded, then a gate put in place, then ten more heifers and a gate until all 46 heifers were on board.
There were four people on board the old DC4—the pilot, co-pilot and the two cowboys, Austin and Bud. The pilot and co-pilot sat in the cockpit, but there was only one jump seat for the cowboys to share for the entire trip!
The cowboys’ primary job was to keep the cattle calm for the duration of the trip! They had shots (tranquilizers) ready to give to any excited heifers. No one knew for sure how the heifers would behave on a trip like this.
The plane, loaded with heifers, took off from Miami in the evening and landed in Panama City, Panama around midnight to gas up the DC4.
Off again, they landed in Lima, Peru around 7am to fuel the plane. When they opened the door of the plane to get the heifers and the humans some fresh air, they were met by armed guards. This is when they learned that Peru had a fee for not only planes landing in Peru, but for planes flying over Peru. They would not be allowed to leave until this fee was paid—not only for their plane, but for a plane that the authorities said had flown over Peruvian airspace as well. They did not have this kind of money. The pilots, cowboys and heifers were held ransom for about four hours until the air freight company could wire the money for both planes. The ransom was paid and the old DC4 was on its way.
The final stretch of the journey would prove very challenging. They would be flying into the Santa Cruz airport in Bolivia. The challenge was to get over the La Cumbre Pass in the Andean Mountains at the Chilean/Peruvian border at over 15,000 feet and to time it when the cloud cover had lifted. The pilot wanted the plane to reach at least 16,000 feet. The old engines struggled to make this climb in altitude to clear the pass.
Oxygen was very thin at this altitude and this was not a pressurized cabin. The pilot and co-pilot shared the two oxygen masks with the cowboys. The heifers were on their own. No one really knew how they would react to the thin air. The cowboys were ready if the cattle became unruly, but this was not necessary as the cattle remained calm for the entire trip.
The old DC4 made it over the La Cumbre Pass and landed safely in Santa Cruz, Bolivia that afternoon.
The heifers had been through a lot on this journey. When the plane landed, a makeshift rustic chute was put up for them to come off the aircraft, but the heifers didn’t want to come off. It was about a nine-foot drop to the ground. What should have been a ten-minute process took over two hours. The cowboys had to lasso the heifers and pull them off.
Two Peace Corp representatives, one of whom was a veterinarian, met them at the airport and the heifers were herded into a small makeshift pen. In Bolivia people say “Allillanchu?” or “How are you?”
The Bolivian farmers chosen to receive a heifer came to pick their new source of life. This heifer represented a chance to better their own cattle stock for income and self-sufficiency. They would be expected to pass on a heifer to another family to help them upgrade their stock.
After safely delivering their precious cargo, the pilots and cowboys were able to look around and explore their surroundings. They noticed four very old planes off the runway. That’s where the aged planes had stopped and that’s where they stayed.
The pilots and cowboys stayed in an old crude hotel above a store for the night, and the next morning the crew flew back to Lima, Peru. The cowboys stayed for three days exploring this new area, visiting the small villages and seeing parades in the streets. Nearby was Machu Pichu, but it was an unknown attraction at that time and so they did not visit the now famous ruins.
While in Lima, they were offered the opportunity to see and purchase American gold coins--$10, $20 and $50 gold coins for double face value. At the time, it didn’t seem like a good idea.
The cowboys returned to Miami on a Braniff jet and drove the truck and trailer back to Illinois.
When asked about this adventures, the cowboys were very unassuming. It’s all in a days work.
Forty-six years later in 2015, the flying cowboys were recognized by Heifer International’s “Make A Difference” award in Champaign, IL.