With my legs dangling out of the side of the helicopter, I scanned the ground below me for any sign of feral hogs. I was entering the second hour of my aerial hog hunt and had yet to hit anything. We had seen more than forty pigs, but it turns out that my single trip to the gun range and one practice run shooting from the air had not adequately prepared me for my first-ever hunting trip, which entailed gunning down a sprinting pig from a moving helicopter.
As we flew over a small reservoir on a 25,000-acre spread of land, we spotted a sounder of hogs—two sows and their piglets—lounging in the shallow water, seeking respite from the 103-degree heat. The pilot, Dustin Johnson, maneuvered his Robinson-22 helicopter over the group, flushing the pigs out of the water and onto a nearby wheat field. Terrified by the sound of our blades and the rat-tat-tat of my gun, they ran at a fast clip in single file, with striped young piglets bringing up the rear. It was dusk, and this was my final chance to score a kill. I stared down the barrel of my AR-15, gripping the trigger.
Aerial hog hunting is having a moment in Texas thanks in part to Stephenville Rep. Sid Miller’s “pork chopper” bill, which passed the state legislature this spring, and in part to the booming hog population. Miller’s bill makes it legal, as of September 1, for sport hunters to rent the gunner seat on a helicopter to shoot hogs or coyotes. (Under current law, landowners can contract a helicopter company to control the feral hog population on their land.). He filed the same bill during the 2009 legislative session, which died in the Senate, but not before being ridiculed by the press and the public.
The feral hog menace is no joke: Texas has more than 2.6 million feral hogs—that’s enough to replace every man, woman and child within Houston’s city limits—and left unchecked, that population can double every five years. One legislative estimate put hog damage—from broken fence posts, lost livestock, ruined crops—at $400 million per year. They’re also increasingly encroaching on urban areas: in the Dallas suburb of Irving, 239 hogs have been trapped since last October. “I think when people got home and heard from their constituents, they found out this is a serious problem, not a Sarah Palin moose-hunting joke,” Miller said.
Hunting from a helicopter is “probably one of the most effective ways to take out a large number of feral hogs,” said Scott Vaca, Assistant Chief of Wildlife Enforcement at Texas Parks and Wildlife. “They get educated to traps very quickly. With aerial gunning, you can get to places that maybe you can't drive to, but you can fly there and find them and flush them out of cover.” Since 2004, aerial gunners have killed some 79,000 hogs. But wildlife officials estimate that, just to hold the population steady, sixty percent to seventy percent of the state’s hogs must be killed every year. Under the old law, only the pros could aerial hog hunt, and they charged landowners up to $600 an hour for the service. Now, people looking for a novel hunting experience will pay for the luxury of shooting from the air, which will shift the cost from burdened landowners to enthusiastic sport hunters.
I didn’t want to just get in a helicopter and start shooting. Before taking to the skies, I attended the Vertex Helicopter Aerial Hunter Safety Class, where I spent a long June morning in a classroom in a hangar at the edge of Houston’s Hobby Airport. As portable air conditioners whirred, I was schooled on the scope of the hog problem, the rules for aerial hunting, and how to shoot an AR-15 from a moving helicopter. (Handy tip: Don’t drop the magazine mid-flight; it can fall out and knock out the chopper’s tail rotor.)
I furiously took notes as Vertex President Mike Morgan flipped through a PowerPoint presentation about the safety concerns presented when unloading a semi-automatic rifle from a helicopter. Morgan, whose muscles filled out the Vertex employee uniform of a tan flight suit, is an Army-trained helicopter pilot who flew scouting missions during Operation Desert Storm. “We’re here basically to exterminate these 400-pound rats,” he boomed.
Tough façade aside, safety and professionalism are foremost in Morgan’s mind. A slew of helicopter hunting videos have cropped up on the Internet, and he screened several during the class as cautionary tales. In one, a man aimed a loaded AK-47 at the cameraman. Another showed a man pointing his weapon up into the rotor system. In a third, a national ABC news spot that aired in May, an Abilene-based helicopter pilot flew his chopper under a set of wires. That’s one of the most dangerous things a pilot can do, Morgan said. “Over 95 percent of wire strike accidents are fatal.” If people get to the skies and start acting like cowboys, accidents will happen, a major concern for the fledgling industry. “A lot of people think it’s a legalized sport now,” Morgan said. “It’s not a sport; it’s an extermination program.”
After four hours in the classroom, we flew out to Anahuac for an afternoon of aerial target practice. For the first twenty minutes of the hour-long flight to Anahuac, I clutched the helicopter’s doorframe in fear. The doors had been removed—the better to shoot out of the chopper—and so the only thing separating me from the ground was my seatbelt, which I checked several times out of anxiety. Morgan calmed me over the headset and, by the time we reached Baytown, I felt confident enough to remove my hand from doorframe to send a tweet. (“This tweet comes to you from a helicopter. #thismodernlife.”)
Six weeks later, I found myself making the long drive from Austin to Knox City, a speck of a town in God’s Country, twenty miles as the chopper flies from our governor’s childhood home