I'm one of those strange nutcases who has been flying with dogs for nearly as long as I've been flying, about 45 years. Like many other pilots I know, I've consistently reserved backseat space for a series of four-footed friends.
In the 1970s, I flew with a malamute and a German shepherd, though never at the same time. They were so big that either would cover the entire backseat of my old tailwheel Bellanca Cruisemaster.
In 1980 when I bought my first Mooney, there was a doberman and later, a Siberian husky, that alternated in the rear seats. In 1996, when both of those buddies had chased their last rabbits across the sky, there were two more German shepherds, one male and one female, again transported one at a time.
Terry, the male, died four years ago, and Cirrus, the female, left us on October 1, just short of age 15, practically an old-age record for a GSD. Cirrus managed to survive so long because of the efforts of an extraordinary veterinarian, Dr. Peggy Herrera, who more than coincidentally also happens to be a pilot. (Oh yeah, she's also my wife. Hey, you gotta save money on veterinary services somehow.)
So now comes another male Siberian husky, this one solid white and named Kenai Bear after an especially beautiful section of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula, diagonally across the Cook Inlet from Anchorage. I spent my high school years in Anchorage and my first two years of college at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, so I've developed an inherent love for Arctic breeds, especially the lovable teddy bear-like Huskies that proliferate in the 49th state. My latest Siberian resembles a cross between a diminutive polar bear and a white wolf.
Anyone who grows up in Alaska is bound to be familiar with Siberian huskies. Every February, the city of Anchorage sponsors a kind of Far North version of the Mardi Gras known as the Fur Rendezvous. There are dog sled races down the streets of Anchorage, ski marathons and other winter events. The dog teams launch from 4th Avenue in the center of downtown, and it's always fun to watch those enthusiastic huskies, malamutes and mutts straining at their leads, ready to run.
Dogs learn to fly early in Alaska, as mushers sometimes must transport full teams into the bush country where sleds are waiting. Imagine what fun it must be to be for bush pilots transporting six to eight howling huskies for an hour or two in a Cessna 185. That calls for hazard pay all by itself.
No such problems in Southern California, but in winter, the snow is only 80 miles east in the mountains of Big Bear, elevation 6,750 feet. There are a half-dozen ski resorts offering 20- to 30-degree F temperatures, in contrast to 80 degrees at the beach. Throw in some of the best flying weather in the world, and it's a great place to fly with your dogs.
I drove Kenai to the airport today to check out the Mooney, though we didn't fly it. He made a careful inventory of the airplane with five minutes of investigative sniffing, then came back to me with that characteristic happy husky smile as if to say, "Okay, Dad, when are we gonna go flying?"
I'm certain he'll make a wonderful addition to the flight crew, Peggy in the left seat, me in the right and Kenai howling enthusiasm from the back. Like most Siberians (the canine variety), he's naturally inquisitive, doesn't seem to scare easily and seems to thrive on new experiences.
I've seen this before—dogs that are more excited about flying than most people. They greet the opportunity to get their paws off the ground as just another adventure. I even had one that used to grade my landings with a loud "woof" for anything less than a greaser. Everyone's a critic.
In fact, I'll probably be seeing many more aviating dogs in the near future. I talked to the folks at Pilots N Paws during the recent AOPA Summit in Fort Worth, Texas, and I'm now on their list as a volunteer to help them relocate dogs and cats around the country.
I wrote about Pilots N Paws back in 2008, so I won't reiterate the story here, but it's certainly one of the most worthwhile charities for animal lovers who fly their own aircraft. Pilots volunteer their services and operating expenses of their airplanes to transport animals from where they are to where they need to be, sometimes to new adoptive owners, but more often from high-kill shelters, usually located in high-volume urban locations to low- or no-kill shelters, often in the suburbs.
By using a series of volunteer aircraft and pilots, over 3,000 at last count, each flying relatively short legs of 300 to 600 miles, the service can move animals across the United States. It's a great opportunity for what used to be a pilot's Sunday hamburger flight to have meaning and actually serve a worthwhile purpose rather than simply burning fuel for fun.
You don't need to own a Seneca, 36 Bonanza or other six-seat machine with copious cargo space to participate in the program, either. Some of the dogs or cats you might be asked to transport may be no larger than a raccoon. Even if you fly a Cessna 150, Ercoupe or J-3 Cub, you could help save an animal that might otherwise be euthanized. If you're interested, the website is www.pilotsnpaws.org.
As mentioned above, dogs can be great buddies during flights for business or pleasure. My friend, John Kounis, editor of Pilot Getaways magazine, is one of the many who makes practically every flight with four paws in back. He flies his Cessna 185 all over North America in search of travel stories for his vacation-oriented aviation magazine. I've flown air-to-air in a variety of airplanes on John's Cessna a dozen or so times, and I've nearly always spotted John's yellow labrador retriever, Woody, in the airplane, even when a door was removed and John's brother, George, was shooting photos of me orbiting over Death Valley, Sedona, Ariz., or Monument Valley, Utah. Flying with a special restraint harness, Woody was happy to be with his humans and seemed to love to fly. (Woody died recently, and a new yellow lab, Radar, is now the Kounis family's resident air-to-air photographer's helper dog.)
As soon as Kenai Bear becomes more accustomed to his new environment (and the tough Orvis rear-seat cover arrives to protect the leather on the Mooney's aft seats), I'll be launching with him aboard to help grade my landings. I'm hoping for consistent five bark ratings.