A recent video about a pilot who ferries “retired” racing greyhounds to their new homes prompted me to research reports to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System about animals on board aircraft.
I wondered if instances of carting canines on aircraft created report-worthy situations. Dogs are known to spook easily from sudden, loud noises. Had one ever gotten got out of its cage or broken loose from its restraints during turbulence or a panic attack? Had erratic movements by an oversized pooch in a small plane caused uncommanded pitching moments?
I pored over the 200-plus reports I found in response to my query. Only three of them directly addressed these questions.
The first report might inspire all of us to be even more diligent in our preflight inspections.
“While flying… I felt something land on my right foot. Reaching down with my right hand, I was surprised to feel something cold and damp, which moved. I looked down and saw a large bullfrog hop off my foot and behind the rudder pedals, where it sat looking at me,” wrote a commuter airlines first officer in his NASA report.
The crew landed the plane without incident, except that they lost sight of the stowaway frog. The first officer wrote that a deplaning passenger mentioned the presence of a frog in the cabin. Upon further inspection, the flight crew found eight large bullfrogs hiding under passenger seats.
Kudos to the first officer who didn’t freak out when he reached down and felt something “cold and damp, which moved” on his foot. I’ve handled frogs and snakes, and in my experience, they feel the same….
An Aviation Safety Reporting System representative contacted the pilot. He revealed that nobody ever came to claim the bullfrogs. That led to two possible conclusions. Either the errant bullfrogs weren’t valuable enough to claim, or the owner of the bullfrogs was more afraid of the consequences of transporting unaccounted for frogs than of the money that might be lost abandoning them.
A third possibility occurred to me. Perhaps a human hadn’t carried those amphibians on board at all. Most of the 200-plus animal-related NASA reports were filed by people who had encountered deer, foxes, prairie dogs, wild dogs, alligators, birds, and even insects that interfered with their aircraft’s ability to taxi, takeoff, fly, or land. In other words, all the run-of-the-mill fauna typically found in the typical airport environment were mentioned.
The presence of those frogs and the absence of a human claimant suggests pilots now need to be vigilant of ever smaller creatures that could sneak on board through accessible panels on planes tied down or hangared. The real danger of small, stowaway creatures is the risk they pose for interfering with flight controls.
The first officer was fortunate that the bullfrog who ducked behind his rudder pedals didn’t get in the way of successful braking and steering during the landing. I’m not referring just to the possibility of a body getting squished by rudder or brake play and impinging movement. An enterprising pilot could probably pry that unfortunate animal out of the way.
The bigger concern is that most GA aircraft have a clear run from the rudder pedals and the yoke to the primary flight controls they manipulate. It wouldn’t take much for a squirrely, curious, or frightened little varmint to skedaddle along one of those pathways, get stuck, and wind up obstructing that flight control’s movement.
Thanks to this NASA report, I now vow to expand the scope of my search for intelligent life possibly hidden during preflight inspection of rental aircraft.
The second report might cause us to rethink how we view “onerous” regulations.
A Cessna Citation VII charter pilot filed a NASA report following a dispute with the charter company’s upper management. The issue arose over the carriage of animals. The charter company allowed its clients to bring animals on board. It even supplied body harnesses for pets traveling in the cabin. The harnesses were rated for animals between 35 and 50 pounds. The dog in question was a Great Dane, weighing in at close to 120 pounds and standing over 34″ tall.
The pilot contacted his company about this unusual situation.
“The first assistant chief pilot I spoke with agreed with me in my assumption that we could not take the animal on the charter without violating the charter company’s Flight Operations Manual (FOM) regarding the carriage of animals and cargo,” he wrote.
However, the client did not agree with the assessment and threw a fit. The assistant chief pilot suggested that a viable workaround would be to confine the dog to the lavatory area with the door closed. The owner became even more incensed and demanded to speak to the assistant chief pilot’s boss. At that time, it was the assistant director of operations.
That person ordered the pilot to take the dog. The pilot refused to do so until the assistant director of operations faxed him a letter stating that the owner’s collar and leash were legal restraining devices according to the charter company’s FOM and according to applicable rules under the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
“I loaded the animal in what may possibly have been contrary to the CFR,” wrote the pilot. “The animal may not have been secured enough through its leash to prevent it from moving on its own. With the size of the animal, it may not have been possible to keep the animal from blocking at least one emergency exit of the aircraft at any given time. The leash and collar may not have been strong enough to contain the animal in an accident or aborted takeoff situation.”
Most of us don’t fly Cessna Citations, but many of us might be — or have been — faced with a similar situation: Volunteering to transport dogs or other animals that turned out to be larger than expected, or taking buddies on an outdoor excursion who show up with oversized, overweight camping gear, or promising to fly coworkers who then arrive with one more person than you can legally fit. How do you politely refuse?
FAA regulations don’t provide much guidance for GA pilots. There is, of course, CFR 91.3: “Responsibility and authority of the pilot in command.” It offers the all-encompassing premise upon which to base a “no.”
CFR 91.11, “Prohibition on interference with crewmembers,” states: “No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.” This logically could apply to animals as well.
Another reference point is CFR 91.13, “Careless or reckless operation.” Carrying an animal that you can’t control in the case of turbulence or the animal’s fear might constitute carelessness or recklessness.
While intended for Part 91 turboprop/turbine operations, CFR 91.525 offers the most explicit argument against carrying large animals without proper restraints. Specifically, Section 3: “No pilot in command may permit cargo to be carried in any airplane unless it is carried in accordance with each of the following:
- It is properly secured by a safety belt or other tiedown having enough strength to eliminate the possibility of shifting under all normally anticipated flight and ground conditions.
- It is packaged or covered to avoid possible injury to passengers.
- It does not impose any load on seats or on the floor structure that exceeds the load limitation for those components.
- It is not located in a position that restricts the access to or use of any required emergency or regular exit, or the use of the aisle between the crew and the passenger compartment.
Why does this matter? Because of the consequences of ignoring the risks.
The third NASA report graphically illustrates this point. A Beechcraft BE20 King Air pilot filed it after an aircraft upset in flight while transporting passengers and their pet dogs.
“About 10 minutes after passing the last thunderstorm cell,” he wrote, “we hit a small, violent, ice-laden cell.”
The flight crew hadn’t seen the cell on their radar. Everybody on board was thrown abruptly up and then down as extreme turbulence from the cell plummeted the aircraft down 1,000′ and then rocketed it up 1,000′ almost instantaneously.
Why does this matter? Because of the consequences of ignoring the risks.”
After recovering and notifying air traffic control of the reason for their altitude excursion, the pilot sent his co-pilot aft to check on and assist the passengers. The passengers had kept their seatbelts on, so were largely unhurt. The same couldn’t be said for their pets.
“The larger dog had broken its spine and was killed by violent roof/floor impact,” he wrote.
The smaller dog also sustained serious injuries
In his conclusion, the pilot put it bluntly: “Animals should be restrained or kenneled, unless the owner is willing to lose them.”
Our canine and other companions deserve our protection. As pilots, we routinely consider the safety of the aircraft and the passengers. We must also include the safety of the animals. The worst thing we could do is maim or kill them from poor judgment born of good intentions.