Dennis Cassinelli: Operation Haylift: The mission that prevented economic disaster

When the record-shattering blizzards of 1948-49 threatened the lives of thousands of livestock, Operation Haylift flew into action. The winter storms of 1948-49 were the heaviest in the West since 1889, and thousands of residents and more than 1 million cows and sheep were stranded in remote regions of Nevada and other states. The mission was to drop bales of hay from planes to the thousands of hungry livestock on ranches around Ely and Elko. U.S. government officials and Nevada ranchers organized Operation Haylift to prevent mass starvation among the animals struggling in the frigid high desert.

Hundreds of tons of hay and other feed were loaded into C-82 Flying Boxcars from airports in Fallon and Minden. Once filled, the giant transport planes were flown to operational headquarters based in Ely. Since most of the stranded livestock was in eastern Nevada, particularly Elko, White Pine, Nye, and Lincoln counties, Ely was the best staging area. On Jan. 24, 1949, the first of 28 C-82 Flying Boxcars carrying bales of hay landed at the Ely airport. Since much of the livestock was in rough terrain and isolated canyons, an airlift was the only option. On the first day, 16 of the Flying Boxcar aircraft flew 18 trips and dropped nearly 75 tons of hay to the animals.

Once the operation started, it ran like clockwork. Day after day, pilots flew routes from McClellan Airfield outside Sacramento to pick up the hay and then off to eastern Nevada to make their deliveries. The skies around Ely and Elko droned with low-cruising transport planes. Pilots often flew their aircraft as far as 200 miles from Ely before spotting marooned cattle or sheep.

To help pilots reach isolated herds, a local rancher familiar with the area usually rode along to guide the navigators. Men called “pushers” were secured by a safety harness and stationed near the large open bay at the tail of the plane. As the aircraft slowed and swooped low over the animals, the pushers shoved the bales out of the door. The payload usually hit within 50 to 75 feet of the stranded livestock. Most of the bales burst upon impact and the hungry livestock were often eating by the time the plane made a second pass.

Operation Haylift was executed in a professional manner and everyone concerned worked well together as the rescue effort kicked into high gear. Some roads in Nevada had become impassable due to the drifting snow, so National Guard units from Nevada and California were deployed to help provide food provisions to isolated families.

In Ely, the rescue was a community effort. While loading hay in sub-zero cold, one Ely resident told a journalist, “You can’t just let those animals die without trying to do something about it.” The Ely National Bank funded the hay deliveries for ranchers, whether or not they could pay. Gordon Lathrop, vice president of the bank, told the press, “The ranchers will pay us back when they can, if not this year, perhaps next year. I know them all.”

Arctic air and frequent snow showers dominated the weather throughout January. Nevadans hoping for a break in the crippling cold wave were disappointed when the biggest storm of the winter slammed the region on Feb. 6. Snowfall was light, but 70 mph winds picked snow up off the ground to create blinding blizzard conditions. During the next two days, drifts blocked virtually every road in Northern Nevada. One National Guard unit was trapped in their vehicles by drifting snow as temperatures plummeted to nearly 30 degrees below zero. All aviation operations were suspended because of impossible flying conditions.

A week later, another powerful windstorm swept through the state. In the ranch country near Elko, drifts towered up to 20 feet high. The swirling storm trapped an eastbound train three miles west of Wells. The snow was so deep passengers on the luxury streamliner City of San Francisco were forced to wait for a Southern Pacific rotary snowplow to clear the tracks.

Finally, on Feb. 17, the wind shifted to the west, which ushered in mild maritime air from the Pacific Ocean. Daytime temperatures soared into the 60s and the snow began to melt. When highway crews broke into the Starr Valley area, east of Elko, it was the first time the road had been passable in three weeks.

The epic winter of 1948-49 is still the coldest ever recorded in the Silver State and snowfall was nearly double normal. Ely ranchers estimated 300,000 head of livestock, mostly sheep, had been fed from the air. The airlift was considered a success, but the operation couldn’t save all the animals. In late April, stockmen confirmed 35 percent of the cattle and 25 percent of the sheep in Eastern Nevada had succumbed to the deadly weather. The loss was substantial, but there was no doubt among Nevada ranchers Operation Haylift had prevented an economic disaster.

Pilots and crews on the Flying Boxcars had flown 270,000 miles and dropped 2,000 tons of baled hay in their efforts to save Nevada’s livestock. Despite the adverse weather conditions, no one was killed or injured.

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted at or on his blog at All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage. These will no longer be available from Amazon.


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