Yes, I’m guilty. The rumors are true. I am one of those silly, sentimental pet lovers who regard dogs as a couple of steps above most humans. I’ve owned and raised a succession of Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes, German shepherds and dobermans for the last 40 years, and as a group, they’re some of the most wondrous creatures on the planet. I’m ecstatic when they’re born, and I cry when they die.
More to the point in my case, some dogs even enjoy flying (they’re obviously highly intelligent animals). I bought my current black German shepherd, Terry, when he was two months old from a breeder in Apple Valley, Calif., and flew him home to Long Beach in a friend’s borrowed Cessna 340. Since then, he’s been up with me a dozen or so times in everything from my Mooney and Bonanzas to a Duke and a 421. He gets as excited about flying as he does about riding in a car, but sadly, he’s now a little big to fit into the Mooney, my usual ride. My little, white, female German shepherd, Cirrus, doesn’t share her brother’s enthusiasm for airplanes, probably just as well since I could never fit the two of them into the Mooney’s backseat.
It seems dogs and flying have always gone hand in hand with me. Thirty-five years ago, I was a member of a local flying club that traveled all over the Southwest on weekends in a consistently disorganized gaggle, many times with a variety of animals along for the ride. Our 50 members must have owned at least 30 animals with paws on each corner, and many of those dogs had enough hours to qualify for the private pilot test.
In those days, I owned a German shepherd and a big, beautiful, black-and-white Siberian husky named Kenai. That early shepherd was a little skittish and didn’t enjoy airplanes too much, but Kenai was so happy in an airplane, he would have signed up for aerobatics if I had let him.
At the time, I owned an old wood-wing Bellanca Cruisemaster taildragger and flew it at least once a month on breakfast/lunch flights, often with other club members. Whenever I opened the hangar with Kenai at my side, he’d immediately run around the wing, jump up onto the wing walk, and bark at me until I opened the cabin door and let him leap in back. Kenai absolutely loved to fly.
At 100 pounds, equal parts hair, curly tail, huge paws, wet tongue and unlimited love, Kenai took up the whole backseat, shed his coat over everything and sometimes scratched my leather seats—I loved him anyway. He was so big, he couldn’t really lay down comfortably, so he’d assume his own position—half-sit/half-down, with his head right at window level, leaving noseprints on the Plexiglas—and alertly guard against cats, possums or raccoons that might be threatening to invade the airport.
Typical of Siberians, Kenai loved all humans and most other dogs, and the club members and their pets loved him in return. One Bonanza owner had a cocker spaniel that regarded Kenai as the best of playmates, and over the years, my big Siberian and the little cocker chased each other around dozens of airports throughout the Southwest. Whenever I was flying formation with the Bonanza, and Kenai could see his buddy, the cocker, in the model 33’s side window, he’d begin to howl and move toward the Bellanca’s door. I didn’t let him out.
Kenai had a habit of sometimes grading my landings. Like most Siberians, he talked a lot, with the typically sing-song “rawl-rawl-ooh-ooh” language so common to Arctic breeds, but he didn’t bark that much. If I made a bumpy landing, however, Kenai would sometimes let out a sharp “rawl-ooh” from the backseat, just to let me know he didn’t approve. Everyone’s a critic.
Though I was rated for instrument flight, the old Bellanca wasn’t, and its venturi-driven gyros didn’t take kindly to airspeeds much below 85 knots. The L.A. Basin sometimes experienced unexpected fog, and before I learned better, I was forced to come down through the glop several times.
In one instance, returning from a story in Arizona with Kenai half-sleeping in the backseat, I was concentrating on shooting a near-minimums ILS into Long Beach when the venturi-powered artificial horizon rolled over and died.
I hurriedly switched to needle, ball and airspeed and tried to remember everything I could about partial panel. I was just inside the outer marker and beginning to sweat a little when I felt a large Husky tongue licking my right ear. I couldn’t help laughing, and that cut the tension in half. The rest of the approach and landing went okay (at least, we survived it—“rawl-ooh”), and though the event hardly qualified as an “animal miracle,” Kenai got a rib eye for dinner that night.
Among my fellow pilots, one of the most notable traveling pets was not a dog. Rene and Wilma Guerin owned a Skylane and traveled regularly with their pet skunk, and before you ask, yes, it was a “destunk” skunk. The animal was a beautiful and friendly little weasel, dressed in shiny black fur with a bright white stripe.
Flying someplace with the Guerins was always fun, and we always made them land last so we could watch. When they let the skunk out of their 182 onto the ramp at Palm Springs or Santa Barbara or Van Nuys, you should have seen the lineboys scatter.
In one instance, the Guerins and six other couples flew a club trip to Yuma, Ariz., for the Silver Spurs Rodeo. We all checked into the same motel the night before the rodeo and went to a late dinner. While we were gone, someone broke into five of our rooms and stole a few minor things, fortunately nothing too valuable. The Guerins’ room was one of the victims, but they’d left their skunk on guard. The door had been jimmied, but absolutely nothing in the room was disturbed. Funniest thing.
Sadly, the Guerins’ skunk, Kenai and the little cocker spaniel are all long gone—the latter two are probably still joyously chasing each other around that huge dog park in the sky. It’s one of God’s crueler jokes that despite our animals’ gift of unconditional love, they’re almost never allowed to outlive us.
Terry and Cirrus, my two current German shepherds, are still with me, both senior critters now, and I’m doing everything possible to keep them happy and healthy forever. It’s a joy rather than a responsibility, and I’ll do it as long as…
Forgive me, I have to go throw a ball for a dog.
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot.® He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].