Cowboy and Flyboy

Montana rancher Hank Esp learned to fly airplanes in the service and, at 88 years old, he still gets airborne almost every day and horseback any time it’s necessary.
Avatar:
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
Montana rancher Hank Esp learned to fly airplanes in the service and, at 88 years old, he still gets airborne almost every day and horseback any time it’s necessary.
photo by Carrie Ballantyne

Hank Esp is one of the last of his kind, and he knows it. Ranching outside of Hardin, Mont., on the Crow Indian Reservation, as a young man he spent months at a time sleeping on the ground with the wagon, went to Navy flight training school during World War II (the war ended before he saw action), rodeoed at Madison Square Garden, had an aerial spraying business, and built a ranch where he still lives and works.

About five miles west of where General George Custer made his last stand, Esp has risen nearly every morning for the past 50 years and hopped in his plane for a quick view of the ranch.

“We try to fly every morning and we usually get it done,” he says. “If I was to take off here horseback and look over the place, it would take me all day. I can get in that airplane and it takes 15 or 20 minutes. I can see everything I need to see. Then, if I need to go down there horseback, I know right where to go. I can check gates and all that kind of stuff.”

He’s the increasingly rare breed whose life has spanned the technological divide: from living without modern conveniences to flying an airplane. As a young man, he worked for the Antler outfit, which leased land from the Crow Indian Tribe outside of Lodge Grass, Mont.

“They had a huge piece of grass leased and they ran a wagon,” he says. “I remember one morning over on the Lone Tree Crossing out of Lodge Grass, it was kind of drizzly a little, trying to snow and winter was wanting to show up pretty bad, and every horse in the cavvy had a hump in their back. There were eight horses bucking at one time outside the rope corral as those guys got mounted. It was a pretty Western scene.”

After the war, he began building his future. His wife, Donna, taught at the local high school and he used his Navy training to build an aerial spraying business. They saved up and put together their own ranch and their own set of cows.

And despite myriad challenges ranching presents, it was never hard for Esp to press on through the tough times.

“You keep all those visions you have of improving the cattle and the land,” he explains. “You think: Next year, I’ll get this done and then that, so you’re just working on improving things all the time. That’s not always terribly easy. Humans make a lot of mistakes and I’m no exception. But we raised kids and sent them to school and we never had a hungry day. Every day is a good one. Any time you can ride good horses and fly good airplanes, you got everything you need.”