Airborne Dogs: Fido Aloft

Published in Doggone Magazine

The next time your travel plans call for flying, instead of packing your dog into a pet carrier and trusting his fate to the moods of the airline baggage handlers, consider traveling by a small plane. For flights up to several hundred miles, it’s a realistic option. You might find it’s faster and more convenient. It’s certainly a lot more fun for your dog.

If your dog likes to go for rides in a car, he will love flying in a small airplane. In the twenty years I’ve been flying, I’ve had five dogs – all of whom leap into the plane as soon as the cargo door is open.
Most light aircraft are set up much like a car or mini-van. There’s plenty of room for your dog to stretch out on the seats or the floor. In some planes, the back seats flop down, leaving a nice, roomy deck area. And while you can’t exactly open the windows and let him hang his head out of an airplane, he can still get a good view of the world going by.

Start by checking with your local airport to see if they have a charter service. Most of the smaller ones do, so don’t feel you have to call the big operations at the big airports, although you should make several calls to scope out prices.

When you charter an airplane, you’re airborne within a few minutes are arriving at the airport. No matter where you are headed, the chances are that the general aviation airport is a lot closer than the major commercial airport, so when you land, you’re where you want to be. Compare that to the trek from your house to the airport parking lot, then all the time spent waiting to board, take off, collect your dog when you land and, finally, getting to where you are going. Even if your small plane flight requires a stop to refuel, it can’t take much longer.

It’s a smart idea to take your dog up for a test flight. Get him into the plane and let him sniff around and get comfortable. The sensations of taxiing, taking off, banking, and other airplane maneuvers can confuse your dog. Most dogs curl up and go to sleep once they’re aloft, but it’s better to find out if your pet is one with a fear of flying before the trip starts.

There’s no need for special restraints in a light airplane, unless the forecast calls for turbulence. Then it’s a good idea to invest in a harness like those sold for automobiles. Even strapped in, people can get jostled in rough air. It’s safer and more comfortable for your dog if he’s strapped in, too.

Small airports can be busy places, with a lot of planes, fuel trucks and other traffic moving around on the parking ramp. Always keep your dog on a leash at an airport. It’s safer for everyone. When you are far from the active areas, it’s probably ok to let your dog wander (airports have lots of fields filled with good smells), but check with the folks at the airport first.

If you really want to travel by your own schedule, consider learning to fly yourself. It takes anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on how much time you’re willing to commit. To earn your private pilot license, you’ll spend about $5,000.

A plane costs about the same as a new car. The price range and types of planes are equally varied. Many people join flying clubs which own several planes. The members share the costs and scheduling. You can also lease a plane, much like you lease a car, or go into partnership with one or two other people.

However you do it, your dog will be the most enthusiastic member of your airborne crew. (Although I haven’t figured out how to get mine to wear headphones…)
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