Home on the Range
Broadcast engineer Tom Silliman spends his days maintaining transmission antennas high above the United States’ tallest buildings. But his real passion keeps him more grounded.
After a week in the air, you can’t get much more down and dirty than being a cowboy. Come Saturdays, Silliman is on his Indiana ranch, herding, branding, and roping cattle.
“It’s a nasty business being a cowhand—you’re covered in cow manure every day,” he says, laughing. “My business partner and I basically buy cows so we can play with them and then sell them.”
Cattle ranching involves acclimating cattle to being handled—roping, medicating, corralling, guiding to better grazing areas—in order to raise a healthy herd of beef to bring to market. “It’s different from what you see in the movies—cowboys shouting and whooping and driving the cattle to near-stampedes,” he says. “We keep the cows very quiet. We don’t want them to run, because it takes off weight.”
Silliman, an IEEE Fellow, trains the cattle a half dozen at a time, getting them used to ropes thrown around their heads and hoofs, and treating them for worms and ticks. “We move a large herd of cattle several miles over an open range, rounding them into circles to calm them down,” he says.
It takes almost three days to round up, castrate, brand, and medicate a herd of four dozen cattle.
Silliman’s day job is chief executive officer of Electronics Research, in Chandler, Ind., which builds commercial broadcast antennas and towers for radio, TV, and cellphone transmission.
A friend got him involved in working with cattle three years ago when Silliman took a class on horsemanship to learn how to handle the animals with horses. They bought seven horses, 54 cattle, and 93 hectares of property in Lynnville—which they’re turning into a ranch. Now in their second year of cattle ranching, they buy the animals in February at a svelte 160 kilograms each, train and feed them through August, and then sell them at roughly 365 kilograms.
“After all that, we only make about US $5000 in profit,” he says. “It’s an expensive hobby. The more you get into it, the more you realize you must be out of your mind.”
Stunts in the Sky
As a child, Cecilia Aragon was a shy, play-it-safe, nerdy science geek—hardly the foundation for a world-champion aerobatic flyer. But she had big dreams. Despite a chronic fear of flying, “on every birthday, I’d close my eyes, blow out the candles, and make a wish that I could fly,” says Aragon, an IEEE member.
In 1985 Aragon was working as a three-dimensional-graphics programmer at Digital Equipment Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif., when a co-worker who was an amateur pilot invited her to go flying with him. She enjoyed it so much that she decided to tackle her demons once and for all. As soon as they landed, she stunned her friend by signing up for flying lessons.
Within a year she had conquered her fear and then some, working her way up to flight instructor, specializing in helping students overcome their fears. To learn how to control a plane in case of an emergency, she took a class in aerobatics—essentially airborne acrobatics involving spins, loops, and upside-down flying—and loved it. After learning to fly a Cessna 150, she would eventually handle up to 50 other types of aircraft, including a number of aerobatic planes. “Aerobatics is what finally connected me to that childhood dream,” she says.
A year later she entered and won her first competition, and by 1990 she had traded engineering for a full-time career as an air-show pilot and owner of her own flying school. She thought the school would allow her time to fly. Instead it saddled her with paperwork.
In 1994, tiring of 100-hour work weeks and missing engineering’s intellectual challenges, she sold the school and parlayed her flight experience into a job working on airflow hazard visualization software at the NASA Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, Calif. In 2004, after earning a Ph.D. in computer science/information and scientific visualization from UC Berkeley, she went to work for the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Now she’s developing visualization software that translates complex scientific data into understandable visuals.
Today Aragon flies in a Super Decathlon plane and teaches every other weekend. “Aerobatics is a three-dimensional dance,” she says. “When I fly, I don’t notice the boundary between myself and the airplane. It becomes a part of me the way ballet shoes become part of the ballerina.”
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