How do horses, dolphins and stud bulls fly?


Horses on Air Horse One/Photo: Harriet Baskas

For my ‘At the Airport’ column on USA TODAY this month, I traveled to Lexington, Kentucky’s Blue Grass Airport and to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to learn how horses and other animals fly.

In Lexington, it was all about horses and Air Horse One, the leased 727-200 aircraft the H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Company uses to fly valuable race horses and show horses around the country at ticket prices that top out at just shy of $5,000 for a one-way trip.

Fed Ex, UPS and large commercial airlines ship horses and other animals as cargo, but Tex Sutton – as the company is commonly known – began ferrying Kentucky Derby winners and other prized horses by air in 1969 and remains the one U.S based horse transportation company that uses a dedicated aircraft to do so.

Courtesy Blue Grass Airport

Courtesy Blue Grass Airport

At During my visit to Blue Grass Airport, Mike Payne, Tex Sutton’s operations manager explained that horses flying on the airline make their way between transport trailers and the airplane on custom-built ramps with high walls so that their feet never touch the ground and so there’s little chance of having a horse get loose at the airport.

Once on board, horses are loaded into specially built stalls that can be arranged two or three across inside the airplane. While the owners of some “celebrity” horses may charter the entire plane, Air Horse One can carry 18 to 20 horses per flight.

Thoroughbreds that have ‘pets,’ such as goats, that help calm them in stalls on the ground can bring their buddies along on the plane – like carry-on luggage – for no extra charge. The same goes for grooms, who travel as animal couriers and get regular seats in the back of the plane.

To accommodate their special cargo, the pilots of Air Horse One make wide turns and extra gentle ascents and descents to try to keep the horses from getting spooked or losing their balance.

“You don’t want to give them too many positive or negative G’s because their feet can slip out from under them and they can fall down,” said Payne, “Or they’ll get that floating sensation and start scrambling to find the floor.”

Like air ambulances and Air Force One, at airports around the country Air Horse One often gets preference when it comes time to take off.

And while Air Horse One predominantly hauls horses the airline recently transported someone’s 40-pound pet miniature cow and, separately, five dolphins.

“Everyone involved with those dolphins was very hush-hush,” said Payne, “They had a police escort and no one would say anything or answer questions, which made you think they were probably military dolphins.”

Courtesy KLM

Courtesy KLM

While Tex Sutton has been hauling horses by air since 1969, all manner of animals have been traveling as cargo on airplanes for much longer.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was already transporting bees and baby chicks in 1923, but in 1924 the carrier became the first commercial airline to transport a large live animal when it flew Nico, a valuable young stud bull, from Rotterdam to Paris.

Courtesy KLM

Courtesy KLM

In 1948, when The Hague was celebrating a major milestone, the Swiss capital of Bern sent two baby bears – via KLM – as a present.

And, a KLM blog post celebrating the carrier’s history describes, the post-World War II growth of KLM’s animal transport business came to include donkeys, tigers, elephants, horses, a giraffe, dolphins and “countless dogs and cats.”

Courtesy KLM

Courtesy KLM

Today, KLM has an “Animal Hotel” at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport that is billed as one of the world’s largest and most modern such facilities in the world.

And while I didn’t see any rhinos or lions during my tour of the animal hotel earlier I did see (and hear) towers of containers filled with one-day old chicks and trailers filled with thoroughbred horses patiently waiting to board their flights.

A monkey, a missed meal and guns

Some of the guns found at airport checkpoints Aug 5-11

I’m on fill-in duty this week on the Today in the Sky blog over at USA TODAY and having fun working up a variety of both serious and off-beat stories relating to airports and airlines.

Monday’s line-up:

An update on the “monkey on a plane” story that was all over the news last week;

A story about British Airways replacing a second meal service with tiny chocolate bars and other small snacks on some longhaul flights between London and the east coast;

And a look at the new record set by TSA for most firearms found at airport checkpoints in one week.

Wild animals at airports

I’ve been collecting photos to go with a slideshow that will go alongside an article about airports and national parks  and wild animals keep popping up.

This one was snapped just outside the terminal doors at Yellowstone Airport (WYS) in West Yellowstone, Montana, by airport manager Jeff Kadlec one night as he was trying to leave work.

Yellowstone Bison

And this one of a moose outside the baggage claim doors at Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) in Jackson, Wyoming was taken by airport employee Philip Bollman.

Baggage Moose_Bozeman

The full story about airports near National Parks – and the slideshow that also includes Mountain Cougar and goats in airports – will be my next At the Airport column on USA TODAY.  I’ll let you know when it posts.





Travel Tidbits: burros & bitcoins

I’ve had the honor of filling in for the vacationing Ben Mutzabaugh at USA TODAY’s Today in the Sky section the past few days.

Here are just two of the 18 stories I posted in his space over five days.

Animals on Duty at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport

OHARE -baby burro

This baby burro – named “Butch” in honor of O’Hare Airport’s namesake, U.S. Navy Medal of Honor recipient Edward “Butch” O’Hare – is part of a herd of rescued animals that include sheep, goats, more burros, llama and alpacas eating their way through hard-to-access, unwanted vegetation on airport land this summer. The crew got a visit from the new airport commissioner.

LOT Polish Airlines_ Image_ akopec_b787

LOT Polish Airlines has joined the small but growing list of airlines and travel companies that allow customers to pay for their tickets with bitcoins. Soon this won’t even be news.

Falcons fly in style on many airlines

Falcom Master

The ancient sport of falconry is so popular in the Middle East that many commercial airlines in that region allow passengers to bring trained hunting raptors into the main cabin, where the birds travel on a handler’s heavy cuff or tied to an adjacent seat.

“If falconers tried that in the states, people would get all worked up about it,” Scott McNeff, vice-president of the North American Falconers Association, “But in the Middle East its part of their culture. Everyone understands that and is around it all the time.”

Etihad Airways, Emiratesand Qatar Airways post falcon policies on their websites, as does Royal Jordanian Airlines, which allows up to 15 properly hooded falcons to travel in wide-bodied economy cabins at a per-bird charge of three times the normal excess baggage rate.

Fans of falconry with private aircraft will soon have a more convenient way to transport their birds.

With input from falcon specialists, the Executive Jet Solutions division of Hamburg-based Lufthansa Technik designed the “Falcon Master,” an easy-to-assemble and disassemble kit that connects to standard aircraft seat tracks and provides both a stable bird perch and stainless steel surfaces that can help “maximize sanitary protection of walls, seats and carpets against dirt produced by the birds,” according to a company statement.

A prototype of the product for private jet interiors is currently on display in Dubai, said Ziad al Hasmi from Lufthansa Technik, “and theoretically, it could also be installed in commercial aircraft in the future.”

Falcon Master - courtesy Lufthansa Technik

The price? Depending on the market response and final design, the Falcon Master could sell for about 50,000 EUR, or about $61,760, and be available in the second half of 2015.

“The target market is private and VIP Jet owners especially from the Mid East, who own these precious birds and use them for hunting,” said Lufthansa Technik spokesperson Peter Isendahl of Lufthansa Technik AG.

U.S. airlines don’t allow falcons in the cabins, so Scott McNeff and his fellow falconers usually drive their birds to events and meetings in other regions. “I’d be content to sit on a plane with my bird on my fist,” said McNeff. “But it would be really nice to have perch on a plane where you can put the bird down, go to sleep and not worry.”

(My story on falcons on airplanes first appreared on