Fly Buddies

A pilot's best friend

November 1, 2004

It's not easy to interview dogs, and not only because of the language barrier. The real problem is finding dogs with a passion for aviation. I asked AOPA members for help via AOPA Online's "Hangar Talk" chat room. One respondent thought AOPA Pilot had run out of article ideas — gone to the dogs, so to speak — but another was enthusiastic and said he eagerly awaited a "ruff" draft. The majority took the inquiry seriously and sniffed out the finest of America's canine aeronauts. While many listed below are of suspicious breed and unknown origin, all have a proven affinity for grass-roots aviation.

Going to the dogs

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Buddy the airport greeter dog

Denny Moore, owner of Roan Valley Aviation in Mountain City, Tennessee, had owned the FBO only two days in 2000 when he heard a pickup truck roar by, followed by yelps of pain from a dog. Someone had thrown a pup off the truck as it sped by. Moore took the dog in and expressed shock weeks later to visitors that anyone could treat an animal so poorly. One joked that Moore had merely gotten a visit from the "Tennessee Welcome Wagon."

It took two weeks of biscuits and gravy before the dog, now named Buddy, would let people near him. Just put the food down and step away from the biscuits. But now there's been a transformation. He is famous as the official airport greeter and his task has become his title.

Buddy is part Border collie and part Australian shepherd but aviation to the bone. He's trained to avoid propellers: When Moore says, "Airplane, airplane, airplane," Buddy hides behind Moore's desk. When the engine stops, Buddy knows he can go outside and do his ambassador thing. At Christmas he tolerantly wears antlers.

Buddy, born without a tail, is the source for a joke. On the bulletin board is a fake tail and a sign, like any written on the shirt scrap of a soloing student, indicating Buddy has soloed. He did. Off the back of that truck. For a brief few seconds.

Speedbump the smiler

Speedbump got his name in the way that you might think. Always an airport dog, he got on the highway one day and was hit by a car, breaking his leg. He was taken to the vet by a concerned pilot and later given a new home at First In Flight Aviation located at Franklin County Airport in Louisburg, North Carolina. He stays away from cars now — airplanes, too — and mostly hangs out in the FBO or sleeps in the parking lot, so watch where you park: They don't want to rename him Parking Block.

Speedbump grins when you say hello, but to some it looks like a snarl (has nothing to do with the accident), so you should know it isn't and to not be afraid. And if he smiles for a long time, with his face all curled up, it makes him sneeze. Vending machines are a special treat, and he favors the crackers. If he gives you a paw, that's a vending-machine request: Dig into your pocket and buy some crackers, please.

Queenie and the aerobatic Dawg

Queenie was a stray that showed up at Aitkin Municipal-Steve Kurtz Field in Aitkin, Minnesota, and had been abused. Dawg is her pup, and both are owned by Mike and Carolyn "Jake" Carlson of Aitkin Aviation. Carolyn has to let Dawg in the backseat during preflight of her Cessna 172 just to keep the pooch out of the way. Sometimes Dawg will lay in front of the nosewheel of an airplane so it can't go anywhere without her knowing it. If Carolyn's 172 goes up with people in the backseat, meaning there's no room for dogs, Dawg pouts. One day, after going home following a no-Dawg flight, Dawg sulked and wouldn't acknowledge Carolyn all night. Dawg likes slow flight, stalls, turbulence, and landings: Straight and level bores her. Queenie and Dawg are the airport's Homeland Security team and airport ambassadors. Dawg thinks everybody knows her name — after all, visitors get it right on the first try, as in, "Well, hello there, dog!"

Tetley and Sniffles the nonfliers

Not all dogs listed here love to fly — some tolerate it because it is the only way they can avoid being left behind. Tetley and Sniffles — both Border collies — are terrified of flying, so much so that they vibrate in flight. Tetley "sits bolt upright the whole flight looking utterly miserable and shaking like a leaf," owner Agatha Shilling says. Sniffles, slightly more adventurous, will stand with her paw on the armrest and look out the window. She may lie down for a moment or two but never really relaxes. While they may not like to fly, they like being left at the kennel even less, says Shilling. She and her husband, Mark, live in Apex, North Carolina, and fly out of Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Ginger the teleporter

Ginger, like Tetley and Sniffles, wasn't crazy about flying at first, but loves travel, says owner Ryan Ferguson of Apopka, Florida. During her first few flights, Ginger had to be held during takeoff. "This required my wife to slide the right seat aft far enough to allow me unrestricted access to the controls," Ferguson said. "Once we tried taking off with Ginger in the back of the airplane...she 'teleported' to the front seat as soon as the throttles came forward.

"Now that she's familiar, during the climbout she settles down and curls up in a ball somewhere in the back of the airplane, sometimes in the baggage compartment. She usually gets a good nap by the time we reach our destination. When she sees the airplane on the ramp she bolts for it, wanting to take up station on the front seat as soon as possible to monitor her human's preflight of the aircraft," Ferguson noted.

Rufus the omnipotent

Not all the dogs listed here are living, but a legendary dog is worth remembering. Flight instructor Bill Moore recalls that Rufus was an FBO dog for many years at Hickory Regional Airport in Hickory, North Carolina. "He would hang out at the counter while I was up doing instruction," Moore said. "The strangest thing, though, was he seemed to know when I was about to return and would get up and go to the door. And, by the way, he couldn't hear me on the unicom radio because it was a different frequency than common traffic advisory frequency." Rufus died two years ago at the age of 15.

Jasek the retriever

A puppy in training to be a guide dog currently lives at Wicked Good Aviation in Wiscasset, Maine, where the dog serves general aviation. The Labrador retriever is on loan from a guide dog organization that uses volunteers to raise candidate puppies. Jasek's job while at Wiscasset Airport is to become socialized and learn obedience — and work. He walks the runway three times a day with FBO manager Ann Walko to look for debris. He loves the debris part, being a retriever. He likes to sit in a Beechcraft King Air on the ground whenever possible, and he greets visitors. There appears to be a slight conflict with his career choice of being a guide dog that ignores people and a dog in training that apparently loves people. Jasek is named for a blind woman who became a benefactor for guide dog training.

SueBee the badged

A Newfoundland, SueBee's specialty is clearing birds off the runway for Shoreline Aviation at Marshfield Airport in Massachusetts. She is a self-trained wildlife hazard management technician, airport manager Ann Pollard jokes. SueBee wears an airport security badge to work. Her other duties include patrolling the airport fence, riding in golf carts, and looking out the window when she flies in a Cessna 140. SueBee works seven days a week and is joined five days a week by a golden retriever named Tashmoo, owned by Pollard's sister.

Radar the pro bird herder

Airport managers at Southwest Florida International Airport near Fort Myers have known for years that one dog is all it takes to make thousands of birds feel unwelcome. In the late 1990s the airport used a trained Border collie named Jet to chase birds from the runway — the first dog in the nation to be used in a wildlife management program at a commercial airport. But Jet developed a heart problem and retired, so a new collie, Radar, has taken over the task, not to mention the airport. Radar graduated from Flyaway Farm and Kennels in Southport, North Carolina, a company that has trained dogs for the U.S. Air Force to keep birds and deer away from runways. Radar lives to chase birds, and received training in herding sheep at Flyaway before graduating to birds. She responds to voice, whistle, and hand signals, so there is little concern that she will chase a jet down the runway. Unlike SueBee — the self-taught bird chaser — Radar and handler Rebecca Stansifer-Haggie have been awarded "Master K-9 and Handler Wildlife Control Certification" by the Wildlife Unity organization.

The certification qualifies her as a service dog, meaning she was allowed to ride in the cabin of a recent Hooters Air flight on her way to a retraining class. As the aircraft taxied out, Stansifer-Haggie said, Radar realized where she was on the airport and began searching from the cabin window for birds. Like Radar O'Reilly in the hit movie and television series M.A.S.H. who got his name from knowing when helicopters were approaching, Radar the dog knows when the birds are coming before anyone else does.

Max the bum

Max, like his owner, is an airport bum and hangs out at Bay Land Aviation at Salisbury-Ocean City Wicomico Regional Airport in Maryland, waiting while owner Kenny Lennox works on his three airplanes. At least the owner is working. Max has his own chair, bowl, toys, treat stash, and likes and dislikes. If you win Max's approval you'll be pestered to play ball, but if he is not keen about you, you'll be barked at. When the airplanes are all repaired, Max goes for a hop, most often in a Cessna 140 and Zodiac 601.

Darrin the mortician

A dog, a.k.a. Darrin, lives next-door to the Camdenton Memorial Airport in Camdenton, Missouri, and no one knows her real name, but when she comes on the airport, she responds to "Darrin." She checks everything on the airport, including the perimeter, two or three times a day, objects to other dogs entering her airport, and checks out strangers and unfamiliar aircraft. That's not to say she runs toward a turning prop — in fact, she goes to the edge of the ramp when an airplane starts up in order to stay out of the way, and no one taught her to do that. Sometimes aircraft will hit a small bird on takeoff, and Darrin will check the runway, find the bird, take it to the edge of the runway, and bury it. Airport Manager Tom Davidson is thinking about entering Darrin in ground school as a reward for her hard work.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Al Marsh

Alton K. Marsh | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.