Remembering Air Support (2015-2020)

Air Support Air Support Photo by

Dane Braun was not sure exactly what he was getting himself into when he decided to purchase a 9-month-old son of former World Champion contender Air Time four-plus years ago.
Braun was hopeful he would be getting one hell of a bucking son of a gun that could become the foundation for his family bucking bull business with his sons, Cole and Blake. And it would not take long before he started seeing 501 Air Support displaying some of his father’s genetic prowess.
However, what the Brauns and their partner, Bryce Cooper, also began to realize over the years was that Air Support actually had a softer side when he wasn’t busy destroying the best bull riders in the world.

Air Support, who rose to the No. 1 ranking in the world this season, could be out in the pasture at home in Texas and when the gate to his pen was open, the young bull would joyfully head on in to grab a bite of feed or a drink of water.
“I always called him the gentle giant,” Braun recalled on Tuesday morning. “He was always so big, and he just had a great demeanor. He wasn’t like his daddy. He was completely different from Air Time. He was laid back and such an easy keeper. He was very easy to handle and raise.”
Cooper has helped raise, handle and haul Air Support since he was 9 months old, and he agreed that the never-before-ridden, budding superstar had a less than ferocious personality than what people may have realized.
If Cooper was the one doing the feeding, it did not take long for Air Support to quickly stand in his pen with an affectionate stare toward his handler, who of course was arriving with a tasty breakfast to begin the day.
“That bull kind of knew when I was there and when I wasn’t there,” Cooper said. “If I wasn’t there, and it was my son, Air Support would just lay there. When I got there, he is always standing up and looking at me. That is the biggest part; it is like if you had a dog for that long, you start getting a special bond with them. I don’t think people realize how calm his demeanor is. You could walk into his pen.”
Braun Bucking Bulls announced on Tuesday morning that Air Support – the No. 1 bull in the world – passed away suddenly on Monday night in Gustine, Texas, at Mid-Texas Veterinary Associates. According to Dr. Lisa Willis, Air Support died of a brain embolism.
The leading contender for the 2020 World Championship had been receiving treatment in Gustine after the 5-year-old bull was brought in for a check-up in early June. Willis discovered that Air Support was anemic, and the star bull was quickly put on a treatment plan. Over the weekend, however, Air Support developed a high fever and his condition unexpectedly worsened on Monday.  
Air Support was 5-0 this season and leading the YETI World Champion Bull Race with a 45.75-point average bull score.
Braun and Cooper admitted they were stunned to receive the phone call Monday evening that Air Support had passed away.
“I am still just devastated,” Braun said. “He was like a family member to us. I still can’t believe it. It is like I am asleep and in a dream and he is gone. He was a very special bull for us.”
Cooper added, “We for damn sure didn’t see this coming. We are little guys. We don’t go buying the best bulls that are out there. We don’t raise 1,000 bulls a year. It is hard for me to come across one. If I have a good short round, I am pretty pleased, and to have something like Air Support, I dreamed about it. I didn’t know if it would ever happen. That is what we are shooting for. They are not under every tree. They are hard to come by. That bull was so special.
“It is going to be pretty tough to walk down to his pen, and not see him in there anymore.”
The Brauns decided to name 501 Air Support, who was born on March 22, 2015, as a tribute to his father, Air Time, and a nod to battle.
“We wanted Air in it after his daddy, and we wanted something strong and something with a meaning if he was at battle,” Braun said. “So we decided when the battle gets really tough at war, you call for Air Support. We knew he was tough from day one, but he had a cool head about him. If he got into a battle, he always found a way to win in easy and tough times.”
The first person that needed to he helped, coincidentally, was not a bull rider, but rather Cooper himself.
Cooper was dazed and confused as he began to pick himself off the arena floor three years ago.  
The stock contractor remembers opening the gate, and seeing a 2-year-old Air Support exploding out of the chutes with a dummy on his back for the first time in the young bull’s career.
Things got quickly hazy when Air Support made immediate contact with Cooper, and his fierce kick sent the stock contractor crashing to the ground.
Air Support had kicked Cooper so hard that he knocked his handler out cold, giving Cooper a concussion.
“When I come through, I said, ‘This son of a gun has got it. He has a chance,’” Cooper recalled with a laugh.
Braun had to drive Cooper home that night, but he too was tickled by what he saw.
“(Cooper) didn’t know where he was,” Braun said, laughing as well. “Man, I will tell you what. He was a strong sucker. That is when it all started.”
As a 3-year-old, Air Support began to compete at ABBI Classic events, and he would buck off Fernando Henrique Novais in 3.87 seconds for a 44-point bull score at the 2018 Velocity Tour Finals.
However, it was last year as a 4-year-old when Air Support began to have moments that were reminiscent of his bloodlines. He would buck off eventual Rookie of the Year Dalton Kasel in 4.56 seconds for a 46.5-point bull score in Allen, Texas, at a Touring Pro Division event. He would then earn the first buckoff of his premier series career two weeks later in Houston, Texas, with 2.31 seconds of work against Michael Lane.
Air Support next showed another flash of his potential in Springfield, Missouri, with a 44.75-point bull score vs. Matt Triplett (5.25 seconds). He then ended his Classic season with a 4.53-second buckoff of Lucas Divino at the 2019 PBR World Finals.
Air Support would finish 2019 3-0 on the Unleash the Beast, but he was destined for greatness in 2020.
PBR Director of Livestock Cody Lambert had his hands on the bucking chutes inside the Lazy E Arena on May 10 when Air Support sent Mauricio Moreira flying across the arena floor in 3.23 seconds in what would be the final out of his career.
Air Support had just been marked 46 points, giving him his third 46-plus bull score in his last four outs, but it was less the out itself that Lambert remembers than the vibration that rang through his hands.
The 5-year-old bull had kicked so hard that he nailed the back of the bucking chutes, and Lambert could feel the power from the opposite side of the bucking chutes.
“I’m 40 feet away, and I’ve got my hands on the chutes, and it rattled those chutes on that side,” Lambert recalled. “When he bucked, he kicked with so much force, and his front end was way up off the ground when he did. When they break over and they kick like that, it drives their front end down, and that’s what the riders call the drop. That’s what makes bulls strong. And he was incredibly strong, fast and athletic.”
Moreira was shocked to hear of Air Support’s passing.
“What a great, hard bull,” Moreira said. “He was so strong in jumping. I wanted to have one more chance to ride him. I wanted to try to ride such a big, undefeated bull.”
Cooper pulled out of the Lazy E Arena with the utmost confidence that he had the bull to beat in the 2020 race. He and Braun had tried to contain their excitement throughout the season, but they knew there was something special brewing.
“We never got overindulged in that,” Braun said. “I didn’t. My family didn’t. We wanted to be very humble about Air Support. Even the family would not post certain things about Air Support because we were trying to be humble about it. We really felt he had a shot of being the Bull of the Year.”
Air Support debuted in Oklahoma City in style, making quick work of Colten Jesse (1.69 seconds) in an out that likely could have been scored more than 44.5 points.
“I wanted to say, ‘Hell yeah, he is a contender,’ but hell, this is the first one.’” Cooper said. “I thought we had something here, but I wasn’t for sure.”

Air Support started to really gain some notoriety by bucking off Cole Melancon in 4.9 seconds at the 2020 Global Cup USA for a career-high 46.5 points.
“It’s sad to hear that a great bull like Air Support passed away,” Melancon said Tuesday. “He definitely had all the potential to be Bucking Bull of the Year. I had the opportunity to get on him, and he was a tough one to get by. I was (hoping) for another opportunity at him.”
Following Melancon, Air Support then demolished his final three victims all in under 4 seconds – Claudio Montanha Jr. (3.74 seconds), Ezekiel Mitchell (3.10 seconds) and Moreira.
“We tried to stay humble about it, but after that second event, I called Bryce and I said, ‘Bryce, I really think Air Support has a shot at this,’” Braun said. “And when he went to the third one and he high-marked there, we got on the phone and we were like, ‘Man, this is unbelievable.’
 “I didn’t really think he anybody could catch him. As long as he kept doing what he did, I felt like he was definitely the best bull out there.”
Mitchell said the news of Air Support’s passing was “heartbreaking.”
“He was the kind of bull that I thought would fit my style well, but after getting on him, I had not taken in the power that bull brought to the table,” Mitchell said.
Cooper knew Air Support was going to be the real deal once he saw him take down Mitchell in Little Rock and then take over the world No. 1 ranking in Guthrie.
“I was like, ‘Son of a gun, this is becoming pretty fun,” Cooper said. “Hell, this is cool. The whole time we were chasing, and then after Guthrie we weren’t chasing. I was like, ‘We are there. Now we just maintain.’
“Nobody knows they have one until it happens. You dream about it, and then it hits you and you are like, ‘Wow.’”

Matt Scharping’s phone went off at 6:20 on Tuesday morning, and it was Braun calling to break the news to him.
Scharping has never had one ounce of regret about selling the first Air Time son to Braun in 2015, and he was one of Air Support’s biggest fans. He remembered seeing a video of Air Support buck last year at the bull pool, and Scharping called it “one of the rankest trips” he had ever seen from a young bull. From then on, Scharping knew that at some point Air Support was going to develop into the real deal.
The Minnesota-based stock contractor often talked with Braun and Cooper over the years about some of Air Time’s tendencies and things he learned. He was hopeful they would be able to win that long-desired world title he had wanted for Air Time.
“I am heartbroken for them guys,” Scharping said Tuesday. “It is not about anything else. Those guys are great, great guys. That is heartbreaking to me for them. He went out on top being the No. 1 bull, but we don’t know how good he could have been. He could have won one world title or three world titles. He had just turned 5.
“When you have that one, that is beyond heartbreaking.”
Air Support was 8-0 on the premier series, and 13-0 overall, in his brief career, but Lambert believed a world title may indeed have been in the bovine’s future.
“It’s early in the year, and it’s a weird year, but if I was pressed to say what bull was in the lead, it was him,” Lambert said. “This is a lot like when Pearl Harbor died. He was in the lead, and you thought he was going to win it this year. Another thing why it reminds me of Pearl Harbor is because he was a big bull that didn’t buck like a big bull. He was a very big, strong bull, but he’s as fast as the smaller ones, and as athletic as any of them. He jumped as high, he kicked so hard.
“Air Support has shown that he was definitely the one in the lead. And everybody knew it. A lot of people tried to buy that bull, and could not get it done.”
One of the men that tried to purchase Air Support was reigning Stock Contractor of the Year Chad Berger. The Mandan, North Dakota, native understands the emotions Braun and Cooper are going through. While their operations are different in scope and size, Berger knows the pain of losing a great bucking bull from when Pearl Harbor died in 2018.
“I know exactly how they feel,” Berger said. “That was a great bull. I thought a lot of that bull. I tried to buy that sucker bad and they wanted to keep him, and I don’t blame them. I feel really sad for them. What a great bull. He was just starting to make a name for himself. I was asked before he even became No. 1 what bull I thought was the best bull in the world right now, and I told them it was him. My condolences go out to them people because I know what it’s like to lose such a great animal like that.”
H.D. Page of D&H Cattle Company had expected his bulls Chiseled, Hocus Pocus and three-time World Champion SweetPro’s Bruiser to have to battle it out with Air Support all year long.
“I’m really sorry for their loss,” Page said. “It’s a tough deal to lose one like him. I know how proud they were of that bull, and everyone knows those kind don’t come around often. I’ll miss watching him, as will all the PBR fans. He brought a level of intensity you don’t get to witness very often. He was truly a special animal athlete, and those guys loved and cared for that bull as good as anyone in the business.”
Braun had received multiple offers throughout the year, and he knows the family could have sold Air Support for a pretty penny. Yet that was never the objective.
The goal was always to win a world title, and it was going to be extra special knowing their journey to the top began with a 9-month old calf.
Sadly, they will never be able to see that goal through, but they can hold their heads high knowing they indeed had the bull to beat in 2020.
“I knew what he had in front of him, and I made my mind up,” Braun said. “I sat down and talked with the family. If he was going to win the world, he was going to win it under us. We got offered a lot of money for that bull, and we wouldn’t take it because he meant so much to the family. It was going to be a really good story. We really thought 501 had a great shot at winning that deal.
“It would have been a hell of a success story if we pulled it off and beat those guys. Man, we are devastated.”

By Justin Felisko |