Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

There’s A New Bear In Town

Man’s best friend can be man’s best copilot

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?"

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