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Flying High: The Fat Tire Cowboys

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irt and dried grass swirl in the air as a spring breeze rolls down the runway. The sun is slowly setting in a clear, blue West Texas sky. The low, steady drone of an engine can be heard, first faintly, then much louder. Over a grassy area running between a line of hangars and the Slaton Municipal Airport taxi way, a Cessna 185 Skywagon roars into view. The small, high wing aircraft boasting large tires first flies effortlessly down the makeshift landing strip, 10 feet off of the ground. It then circles back, lands, and comes to rest in the field.

As the airplane door opens, golden light reflects off of the clean, white door. A pair of brown, leather boots step out of the sparkling machine and onto the ground by the large, black tires affixed to the airplane. A group of men, wearing boots and some—cowboy hats, approach the airplane.

An unsuspecting passerby would say the happy banter echoing off of the metal hangars were originating from the group of cowboys standing around the airplane with big tires in a field. For the most part, they would be correct. But they are no ordinary cowboys; they are the Fat Tire Cowboys.

We are not traditional airplane people,” La Rosa stressed. “We love it. We just go out and do it; we live it.”

The Fat Tire Cowboys are a group of Texans, primarily raised on the Llano Estacado, who share a background in agriculture and passion for aviation. What began with a simple YouTube post has blossomed into an international brand under the leadership of Bryan Rosa, from Tahoka, Texas. Rosa is better known as “La Rosa” to the other cowboys and their 28,000 followers across social media applications.

After La Rosa was shown fellow Fat Tire Cowboy Chad Bartee’s new bush plane, he knew he had to have one. Later that year, he bought and modified the same type of aircraft by replacing the standard 8-inch tires with a 31-inch pair, allowing the airplane to land in plowed fields, rock-filled river beds, and virtually any non-pavement runway.

La Rosa said the pair of pilots then took a trip to the Canyonlands National Park in Utah. There, he created a video showing the airplanes flying over striking landscapes. After posting the video and receiving overwhelming positive feedback and views, he created the Fat Tire Cowboys along with a logo and shirt.

“We were doing all of this crazy stuff anyways,” La Rosa said. “Might as well go ahead and post it for other people to see, too.”

The Fat Tire Cowboys’ passion for flying goes beyond a hobby. Although all of the cowboys have careers outside of aviation, the group can regularly be found planning their next adventure in their hangars any given day. La Rosa said flying is more than a form of transportation to the cowboys. The cowboys fly because they love every part of the journey from the moment they pull their airplanes out of the hangar – to the moment their fat tires touchdown.

“Aviation: the essence of it brings richness to your life – it’s unexplainable to most people,” La Rosa said. “It’s the beauty of it all; you have to have knowledge, and you have to master all of these facets of science and the aircraft and how it behaves.”

The spirit of traditional cowboys lives within the Fat Tire Cowboys. The same drive and intensity that is needed to protect a herd of animals or bring a crop to yield can be applied to aviation. Many of the cowboys’ adventurous spirits and passion for aviation can be traced back to their agricultural roots.

A career pilot of 33 years, Scott Lane recalls working on his family’s farm and ranch near Dimmit, Texas. While driving farm equipment at 12 years old, he remembers watching the crop dusters fly by as he sat on a tractor all day.

“I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Lane recalls as he points toward the sky. “So, I went and did it.”

For others, the journey to the sky was not as simple, but the benefit of having a past in agriculture is clear. 

We are not traditional airplane people.

Koby Reed, a fifth-generation cotton farmer from Seagraves, Texas, grew up watching his grandfather fly. He loved everything about the plane – the smell, the look – but he never made the time to learn. After he realized he was nearing the end of his 30s, he wasted no more time and got his license.

Learning to pilot the skies, Reed said, was easy after growing up on a farm. After years of working on farm equipment, he possessed a deep understanding of mechanical equipment that he has carried over into aviation. Most importantly, through farming, he learned to have a determined mindset.

“Growing up on a farm, you’ve got to be out there.” Reed said. “You’ve got to make it work at the end of the year, and somehow make the crop work. That was the drive instilled in me; you’ll never quit keep going.”

Time and technology have changed the landscape of the working cowboy, but the culture and foundation remain the same. As the Fat Tire Cowboys brand grows and their audience increases, they hold on to their roots and their cowboy attitude.

“Every flight is an education,” Lane said. “Aviation is something that you learn from every flight every day.”

The future for the cowboys looks bright, but no matter what, they are enjoying each day, one flight at a time.

“That’s the fun part about it,” La Rosa said. “We have no clue, but we are enjoying the ride.”

Beyond their shared love of aviation, the cowboys share a true sense of community.

After seven years of restoration on La Rosa’s late father’s Piper Cub, a particularly bad hail storm rolled into West Texas. The massive hail punched holes through the hangar’s skylights and into the carefully painted canvas that makes up the airplane’s wings.

Surrounded by shards of plastic skylight and fragments of the Piper Cub, La Rosa stood in his cold hangar. With years of painstaking work seemingly lost, it would be easy for him to walk away from the aircraft, but giving up was not an option.

Just as a cowboy shepherds his herd in all weather – the Fat Tire Cowboys rallied together to rebuild what had been lost. Before long, the hangar was again filled with the group’s usual banter as the cowboys swept up any evidence from the disaster and got back to work.

Today, the Piper Cub again flies through the sky.

Growing a Love for the Lifestyle

A couple of cowboys were riding the canyons off the caprock in West Texas before daylight to bring in cows and calves for a full day’s work of branding. As the cowboys sat on top of a hill looking out over the canyon, the sun slowly crept above the horizon. Warm oranges and golds filled the early morning sky.

One cowboy hollered over at the rest, “Isn’t this just beautiful?” When it started to sink in what he was referring to, he said, “You know, there’s not very many people in the world that are doing what we’re doing this morning.”

At that moment, those cowboys realized how fortunate they were to live and love life on the ranch.

The Great American Cowboy

The cowboy way of life can be tough due to the unpredictability of weather patterns, market prices and external parties involved in running a successful ranching operation. The dawn-to-dusk nature of the ranching lifestyle takes a toll on those whose livelihoods depend on it.

Bedford Jones, owner and operator of the Jones Ranch near Spur, Texas, understands the impact and responsibilities associated with this specific lifestyle.

“There’s always a challenge,” he said. “I think adversity is something we put up with, endure, and try to overcome. This isn’t just what we do—it’s our identity. It’s who we are. We’re here 24/7, and that’s not bad, but it sure can be tough on a family.”

The Jones Ranch is a thriving horse and cow-calf operation ranch in the West Texas counties of Borden, Crosby, Dickens and Yoakum, covering over 32,000 acres of rangeland and several thousand acres of wheat pasture. Bedford and his wife, Michele, live on their ranch with their four children, Henry, Ruth, Jettie and Susannah.

Not for the Faint-Hearted

Bedford, 45, said he found his way back home to begin ranching alongside his family after graduating with a master’s degree in 1999. Though he was never pressured or forced to come back home, he said he always felt returning to the ranch was his life’s calling.

“With a family operation, I grew up helping because that’s what we did,” Bedford said. “I always felt like that was my obligation. That was my responsibility to help. And I loved it. This is always what I thought I would do.”

Bedford said his love and passion for his family’s operation and the amount of time and effort invested into their ranches is what keeps them operating today despite the hardships encountered throughout the years.

The persistence of drought over the last two decades has forced ranchers to use all of the creative techniques they can muster to survive. For some, it has meant knowing as much about land management and grass as they know about the bloodlines of their herds. For others, it is knowing the right moment to sell cows and calves.

We’re so blessed, but it’s very slow coming.

Michele, Bedford’s wife of 17 years, grew up showing cattle, but did not come from a ranching background. She said the adjustment of becoming a ranch wife was extremely difficult. The family aspect of the operation proved difficult, too, she said, because things were not just about her anymore. However, nothing could have prepared her for the heartbreaking decision that had to be made when it came to selling some of their cattle.

“We’re so blessed,” Michele said, “but it’s very slow coming.”

Michele said she will never forget in 2011 when they were forced to sell part of their herd due to the drought and lack of water and grass. She was pregnant with Jettie, their second youngest child, as she tagged along with Bedford, Henry and Ruth to take their cows to Caviness Beef Packers.

“I just bawled the whole way,” Michele said, “because you don’t ever expect that you’re going to have to get rid of the majority of your livestock, but we did. We had to do that to survive.”

Bedford said West Texas is currently in a similar situation to 2011. He said the land is extremely dry again, and the absence of rain and vegetation leaves most ranchers questioning what is best for their practices.

“It’s one of those things,” Bedford said, shaking his head. “You just never know from one year to the next.”

Inspiring the Ranching Industry’s Future

Running a successful ranching operation takes a little bit of faith and a little bit of luck, but ultimately, ranchers are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Those families who root their hope and faith in the Lord tend to have a more positive and respectful outlook for this specific way of life.

Though the ranching profession and lifestyle have their fair share of ups and downs, Bedford and Michele love what they do and hope to inspire their four children to feel the same. They said it is their job as parents to make the kids’ daily tasks and chores around the ranch fun and enticing to keep them intrigued and to foster a love within their children for the ranching lifestyle.

“They all have an interest in this,” Bedford said. “They enjoy it. I’ll take the little girls to go feed, and they like it. Henry knows he has responsibilities. We have to be careful because we don’t want chores to become a burden on them, but they need to understand those responsibilities. The way we try to do it is to make it enjoyable for them. As a matter of fact, they all four do all the chores together. It’s a team atmosphere around here. We are Team Jones.”

Michele said one of her major prayers is for her kids to have a passion for the ranching lifestyle and to be close and understand each other enough to incorporate the team atmosphere throughout their lives. She said Bedford and his parents have worked very hard at putting together a whole lot from nothing, and it is her goal for her children to continue running the operation smoothly one day when she and Bedford transfer over ownership.

“We want them to understand how fortunate they are to be in the position they are,” Michele said. “They are all landowners, and it’s scary that anyone can own a piece of land nowadays without knowing how to take care of it.”

Bedford said it is a big responsibility for him and Michele to raise their children this way. He said his family has always felt it necessary to take care of their property and ensure the land is still usable and in good shape for the next generation. In doing this, there comes a great level of satisfaction being able to look back at what has been accomplished while cultivating the land, raising livestock, and raising beautiful children who love the Lord and have a passion for ranching.

“For me, there’s a lot of little things that make it enjoyable and rewarding,” Bedford said. “I think you have to appreciate those things or you wouldn’t do what we do.”

Life On The Rodeo Road

A s he backed into the roping box looking under the brim of his Resistol hat, Hunter Cure saw the dust of his competitor, and knew it was his moment to shine at the 2013 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 2013. He nodded his head and his steer sprinted out of the chute. Before he knew it, the run was over, and he had claimed his first world championship. For the Texas Tech alum, it was a dream come true.

Growing up with a family that owned and managed a grain elevator in the small north Texas town of Electra, hard work was something very familiar to Cure, a 2006 agricultural and applied economics graduate. However, he made his name in the rodeo arena.

Cure began rodeoing at age 13 and has not looked back since. Following in his older brother’s footsteps, he began steer wrestling using the steers and horses his family already had. Steer wrestling proved to be a pretty prosperous hobby that transformed into a career for Cure.

After a successful high school rodeo career, Cure found himself on a rodeo scholarship at Howard Junior College in Big Spring, Texas. His freshman year proved to be a learning curve, but he had a smooth transition into college. After gaining valuable opportunities, Cure realized there were still areas he was lacking knowledge and experience and decided it was a good time to transfer to Texas Tech to continue his college rodeo career.

Upon transferring to Tech, Hunter bought two acres of land, built a barn and practice pen, bought cattle, and set to work on another successful year of college rodeo. During his first year on the Texas Tech rodeo team, Cure did not miss more than a couple of short rounds throughout the year. He went on to win the southwest regional championship and the national inter-collegiate rodeo championship later in the summer. During his junior year, he was a member of the Texas Tech men’s rodeo team, that placed third in the nation at the 2006 college finals.

During his senior year, Cure bought his Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association card. The rather large investment and transition from living in a dorm room to buying land and building facilities in Lubbock proved to be worth it when Cure won the national inter-collegiate rodeo steer wrestling title. He says that his time at Tech was a learning experience and gave him the option to succeed or not to.

“I felt like while it was a learning experience,” Cure said. “It put the ball in your court to do what you want you could either sink or swim for the most part.”

Transitioning from his college rodeo career to the professional world wasn’t easy. It came with many learning curves and took time for him to asses and work through his weaknesses. In 2007 and 2008, he was in the top 25 in the standings, but couldn’t quite break through the top 10 to qualify a the trip to Las Vegas for the Wrangler NFR. However, four years after buying his PRCA card, Cure made his first WNFR appearance, the ride every cowboy works towards.

Cure’s first trip to the finals was another learning experience. Not performing quite as well as he had hoped, Cure vowed that if he ever qualified again, he would be better prepared and have a winning game plan. It took four years of struggling and growing, but through the cowboy’s dedication and determination, Vegas was in sight. Cure returned to the finals in 2013 with a different horse and a different plan.

Going into the finals ranked no.7 in the world, Cure won two rounds and placed in five. He walked off the dirt in Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center after the tenth round of the WNFR with a gold buckle that read “World Champion.”

Soon after the glory of winning the world title, came tough luck. What Cure thought was just a sore back after a day of practice turned out to be a career-halting injury. A pinched nerve led to back surgery, which disabled Cure for the majority of the 2014 summer. Unsure of where his career would go, Cure considered if he was be out of the rodeo world for good.

“That was a huge letdown after feeling like I was on top of a mountain after winning the world in 2013,” Cure said.

However, 2015 proved to be a very successful year. Cure faced trials after recovering from surgery and getting back into the rodeo circuit, but the challenges paid off. He qualified for the NFR again, and brought home another gold buckle to Electra.

“That year was very justifying knowing that I was able to come back after surgery and win the world again,’ he said.

Though rodeo is a full-time job for Cure most of the year, he manages to find time to put his agricultural and applied economics degree from Texas Tech to use in multiple entrepreneurial facets. He started college pursuing a degree in engineering, but went back to his agricultural roots and changed his major to agricultural and applied economics. In May 2006, he graduated with his bachelor’s degree.

Cure and his mother work cooperatively together with cow-calf operations. His mother’s operation is strictly cow-calf with 175 head of Angus cows she breeds back to registered Angus bulls. Cure’s part in her operation is managing the cattle. He has a mix of Hereford cows and white Brahmer bulls he is currently trying to breed to break into the tiger stripe heifer market. Along with his cow-calf operation, Cure has a herd of Mexican steers he contracts out for steer wrestling at most of the major stock show rodeos in Texas.

The last of his entrepreneurial pursuits is a sideline business of appraising land and farm equipment for banks. Through this business, he has the opportunity to meet other producers around the state and see what works in their operations.

Whether Hunter has been on the road rodeoing or on the ranch all day managing cattle, one thing is the same everyday: coming home to a wife and kids. His wife Bristi is also a Texas Tech graduate and now works in the wind energy business. Together, they have two children, Halli, 4, and Hayes, 2. They keep Hunter and Bristi busy and on their toes.

“Kids have definitely changed our way of life, and it’s an ongoing circus act for the most part,” Bristi said.

The couple’s hectic rodeo and work travel often create challenges when coordinating family time. A support system of Hunter’s mom nearby and Bristi’s parents only two hours away they are able to make it work.

“We usually just do a handover in the middle of the night or early in the morning when he gets home, and I leave,” she said.

Cure says it is difficult to balance all of his irons in the fire, but that is just his way of life.

“It’s a juggling act, and I drop the ball every once in a while, but I try to keep them in the air as best I can. There’s no set pattern to it, just work.”

There’s no set pattern to it, just work. Hunter Cure

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