This is the time of year that desert-dwellers have one eye to the sky and fingers and toes crossed hoping for RAIN. So far, this summer has been tough for ranchers. And firefighters. And for all those folks sweating it out in the Northwest. Is cloud seeding an answer? Maybe. Maybe not. See what you think.
Wishing a happy, safe and, if you’re lucky, cool 4th of July.
I was sitting in my office in late July enduring one of the harshest, ugliest droughts we had ever experienced on Lazy B. Not one drop of rain had fallen during the past nine months. Since the grass hadn’t greened up with protein, we had to haul feed to keep the cows from starving to death. I was wondering what I had done wrong to cause God to punish me. Out of frustration, I picked up the phone and called my sister, Sandra, who at the time was serving as the Majority Leader in the Arizona State Senate. Sandra answered the phone.
“Do you know how dry it is here on the ranch?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, “it’s that dry all over Arizona. Getting close to a crisis.”
“Well, why don’t you do something about it?” I said, only half joking. Sandra was one of the world’s best problem solvers.
She said, “What do you want me to do?”
Out of nowhere popped an idea. “How about starting a cloud seeding program to make it rain?”
“My goodness,” said Sandra. “Now that’s a thought. Let me see what I can do.”
I hung up feeling better at having dumped my load of angst onto her shoulders. I didn’t give our conversation another thought.
About a week later, Sandra called back. After checking around various places in Washington D.C., she was directed to the Office of Emergency Preparedness. She spoke to a General Lincoln, the head of the office, who was quite responsive to my suggestion. He asked if it were dry on the Indian reservations. Sandra said yes, very dry. He told her that if she could get the Indian tribal leaders to request federal assistance with cloud seeding, the federal coffers would open and at least money would rain down on Arizona. Sandra immediately called Peter McDonald, the chairman of the Navajo Nation and asked him if he would like to get some rain made. He said absolutely, yes. A contract was issued and Safford, Arizona, a town forty-five miles west of Lazy B, became cloud seeding central. I was overwhelmed with the response. It was incredible. You make a phone call, bitch a little bit to your sister, and boom! Life changes. Or so you think.
If the government could seed above the reservations, I was pretty certain they could seed above the rest of the state. I jumped into my Cessna and flew over to the Safford airport to check things out. Three airplanes were parked in a row. I could see the silver iodide flares mounted under the wings, pointing backward like small missiles. Silver iodide helps make rain by acting as a nucleating agent. When silver iodide molecules make their way into clouds, water molecules attach to them, and when heavy enough, they fall out of the clouds as rain.
It didn’t take long to locate the crews lounging in the hangar doing what pilots do, talking flying and drinking coffee. They were happy to greet a new face and only too happy to tell me that they were professional cloud seeders and were there on a government contract. “But you can’t make rain out of blue sky,” one said. They were hoping for moisture and clouds to invade the area within the next week.
I said, “When that happens, my ranch is due east. Can you make sure to fly over it and let loose your magic flares?”
Much to my surprise, they quickly turned me down. Their contract with the government called for them to fly only in Arizona and no closer than thirty miles to any of the state’s borders. That meant they would miss Lazy B entirely. I argued and begged for them to make an exception. It’s federal money, I pointed out, and reminded them that I was the one who had inspired their contract. They were kind and patient to this impatient cowboy, but firm in their position. I asked why some knucklehead bureaucrat in Washington had drawn up the contract that way. They suggested I call my senator and ask. I went home frustrated but determined.
The next day, I returned to refresh the argument. They again turned me down. I again was undeterred. By the third day, they had about enough of me.
One of the pilots said, “Why don’t you seed the clouds yourself? That’s your 182, right?”
“All you need to do is make a removable bracket and bolt it onto the landing gear,” he said. “We can tell you where to get the flares and how to use them.”
My mind exploded with possibility. I was so desperate for rain. “Spell it out and don’t miss a detail,” I said.
Per their suggestions, I ordered the flares from Olin Mathieson Chemical in St. Louis, Missouri and bought a car battery. I built a bracket in my shop, then bolted it onto my plane’s landing gear. The flares soon arrived. After I secured them in the bracket, I threaded the two lead wires from each flare through the door and into the cockpit where I had stored the car battery. In order to fire the flares, I would need to touch the wires to the battery’s terminals. I would do this while the plane circled at the base of a targeted cloud. The flare would burn for eight minutes and release its silver iodide crystals. The cloud’s updraft would suck up the silver iodide. The pilots had instructed me to seed cumulus clouds with a minimum updraft of five hundred feet per minute. The seeded clouds might rain, they might not. Seeding a cloud that was about to rain could double or triple the amount of rainfall.
By the time I was ready to seed, moisture had moved into Arizona and cumulus clouds were forming I soon discovered that flying at 12,500 feet at the base of a big cumulus cloud was not your everyday flying experience. It was turbulent to the extreme. Sometimes it felt like I was riding a bucking horse. I always strapped myself in with a shoulder harness, but I had to unstrap it to climb in the backseat to fire the flares. The plane would buck so much it would throw me all over the cockpit. I became frightened that I might hit my head and get knocked out.
I flew eight minutes under a cloud candidate, and when the flare stopped burning, I scouted out another for another cloud. The bracket held six flares so I could seed six clouds. Quite often a thunderstorm would start within minutes of seeding a cloud. On a number of occasions, when I descended from the base of a cloud to the ranch, which took about sixteen minutes, two inches of water already would be covering the runway, all from the rain I had just initiated. I would be laughing and screaming and cheering as I hydroplaned to a stop. I tried seeding all types of clouds and pretty quickly learned which clouds were ripe and which weren’t ready. If I seeded one that wasn’t ready, in about four minutes it would disappear. Poof, gone. I started feeling godlike.
One time, I approached a very large cloud with a very dark bottom. As I flew under it, I hit a huge updraft. My gauge indicated it was a 3,000-foot-a-minute updraft. Within seconds, I was sucked up into the middle of the cloud, a place I really didn’t want to be. Total fog. Rain. No sense of direction. It might have been cold, but I was sweating so much, I wouldn’t have known. I had no idea where I was going. I tried to keep my cool, pointed the nose down, and started to power dive. The airspeed indicator quickly jumped to the red line. If I exceeded that line, I was in danger of shaking off a wing, especially in turbulence, and believe me, I was in heavy-duty turbulence. I kept thinking, kiss your ass goodbye, cowboy. Fortunately, the power dive brought me out of the bottom of that cloud. I never bothered to tell my wife or family about my near miss.
Twice, I invited people to accompany me. One was my foreman Cole, who flew with me quite a little, and the other was a friend. Both of them had the exact same reaction when we landed. “That was an exhilarating ride, Al. But if you need somebody to go with you next time, please don’t call me.”
Every morning, I worked on the ranch and watched the clouds develop. I planned my day so that I was available for seeding in the afternoon when the clouds typically rained. My work became vastly easier because green grass began sprouting everywhere. The cows had smiles on their faces. They were putting on weight and all of our reservoirs were full of water. In fact, rain was greening the entire area, not just Lazy B. At the end of the season, our records showed a fifty percent greater-than-normal rainfall. I will always believe that my seeding caused at least some of that increase, if not all.
I went into the fall with a great feeling of success and happiness and ordered another case of flares for the next summer. Cumulus clouds only appeared during the monsoon season, not during winter. I was afraid to tell anyone about my venture because I didn’t know how many rules and laws I was breaking by being a wildcat seeder. Plus, I figured people would be funny with their reactions. Some people might say I washed out their reservoir; others might say I stole the rain that would have come to their ranch. I didn’t want to face such accusations. So I kept my success to myself.
The following summer, I was ready to seed well before summer rains that usually began around the first of July and extended through September. I seeded all summer with spectacular success. The danger was no different. Flying at 12,500 feet gave me a headache every time. For whatever reason, I never brought oxygen or a helmet, even though I was still getting bounced around in the cockpit. After landing, I would have to lie down for two hours. By the first of October, rainfall on the ranch was seventy percent above normal. What an amazing summer it was. I felt as if I had created a new dimension to Arizona ranching and assumed that was a good thing.
Then one day at the beginning of October, clouds appeared sooner than usual. I watched with glee as they seemed to grow and multiply before my eyes. It was getting to look like the best day I’d ever seen for possible rains. I drove up early to the hangar and had just opened the pickup door to get out and go to the plane when a voice spoke to me. “Don’t fly today,” it said.
I looked around, trying to determine where the voice came from. I didn’t think anyone was within two miles of my hangar.
The voice repeated: “Don’t fly today.”
I was dumbfounded. In all my life, I had never heard a voice without a body speak to me. It repeated itself again. Was I hearing the voice through my ears or hearing it through my mind? I couldn’t determine. It repeated the same words at least six more times.
I started arguing with it out loud. “But this looks like the best day ever to seed,” I said.
“Don’t fly today,” it said.
I began to feel quite troubled. Should I pay attention to this or not? I rationalized with myself. We’ve had a fabulous summer already. The tanks are full. The grass is green. The cows are fat. We’re approaching fall with the ranch in the best shape it has ever been. Maybe I don’t really need to seed. I shut the pickup door and drove back to the headquarters.
That afternoon, it rained so hard that the Gila River flooded, and the flood was so severe that it washed part of the town of Duncan away, including the elementary school. Three people drowned and the area suffered multi-million-dollar damage. I had a very strong reaction to all of those events. My main reaction was thank you, God, for looking after me and persuading me not to fly. I’ll always believe that if I’d flown, the flood might have been worse, and more people might have died. I would have carried that guilt to my grave.
I never seeded again. It became clear that I had been playing God, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’m not particularly religious, but some force had my back and had been kind to me.
When I sold the ranch, I still had half a case of flares. I didn’t tell the buyers what they were for. I have no idea if they remain there, but I’m pretty certain they’ll never be used. And that’s just fine by me.