A Blind Dog Flies Home

A rewarding journey provided a little bit of everything.

Pilots N Paws Dog
Flying editor Pia Bergqvist recently had the chance to transport this blind poodle for Pilots N Paws.Pia Bergqvist

When I have time, I sometimes volunteer to fly dogs for an organization called Pilots N Paws. Recently the stars lined up for a terrific trip from Van Nuys, California, to Hayward. A blind poodle needed a ride to meet his new owner and, having been stuck training in a simulator for nearly three weeks, I needed to fly.

Michelle, the person who was scheduled to drop off the poodle at VNY, called on the morning of my departure, before I had checked the weather, to say it was very windy in the San Fernando Valley. When I called Leidos Flight Service, the briefer said the winds were gusty at 15 to 25 knots and warned of windshear near Van Nuys. I asked whether there had been any reports of windshear. There hadn’t, and the briefer said the conditions were expected to dissipate. I sent Michelle a message saying I was still planning to go.

After a very cold night by California standards, it was barely 40 degrees when I started loading up my Mooney in Camarillo for the short flight to VNY. I turned the key to crank up the engine, but the prop barely turned over and the Lycoming refused to start. It appeared the engine had gone into hibernation. I sent Michelle a message saying that I may have to cancel my flight after all.

I pulled out my POH just in case it offered a solution to my problem. A paragraph under Cold Weather stated that the engine may need additional fuel priming in cold conditions. After several additional tries the engine finally cranked over to a steady purr and off I went.

As I approached VNY over the hills west of the San Fernando Valley, turbulence started rocking the airplane. I saw a slight change in airspeed, but not more than 5 knots or so. The winds were pretty much straight down the runway at 17 gusting to 23. It was a good challenge, but I felt far from unsafe.

Michelle and the dog were waiting for me at the gate by the aircraft parking area at the Airtel Plaza Hotel. The poodle had a harness that I could clip the seat belt into, and I brought a nice dog bed for him to lie on in the back of the airplane. At first he gave me a slight growl, but I gave him a couple of treats and that made him relax.

En route to HWD, the wind gods were laughing at me. My Aspen Evolution PFD indicated that they sent me 45 knots right on the nose, and it was pretty bumpy over the Gorman pass. My passenger appeared slightly stressed, but fortunately, not excessively so. I was afraid it would be a very long flight, but the winds shifted and slowed on the other side of the hills, giving me better speed over the ground. The poodle couldn’t have been a better passenger. He stayed quiet but awake for the entire trip despite the fact that we flew at 8,500 feet for most of it.

There were patchy clouds en route, but I remained clear as I had restricted myself to VFR. However, on the way back I decided to file IFR. Despite being in very busy airspace, it was surprisingly quick to get released from HWD – I only held short for about five to six minutes. My clearance would take me on a slalom course across the western part of California. But, hey, I like flying, so I wasn’t too worried about it.

Pilots N Paws Flight
The view from inside the Mooney after it was flown out of the clouds.Pia Bergqvist

As I climbed to my assigned altitude of 9,000 feet, I got to fly in and out of clouds – my favorite kind of flying. I also got a revised clearance that provided a shortcut to CMA. Once I had leveled off, the scattered cloud layer happened to be right at my altitude. It was -9 degrees C, so icing was a concern. However, none was reported in the preflight brief.

Suddenly, ice crystals started obscuring my windshield. I looked out on my wing, and sure enough, a thin white line was covering the leading edge. It was paper-thin but very easy to make out on the black section of the wing.

I told ATC what was happening, and he asked if I wanted a higher or lower altitude. I asked for lower since I knew the bases were not far below. I stayed out of the clouds for most of the remainder of the flight and didn’t pick up any more ice. My route took me over the scenic wine country of Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria. The air was smooth, and the rolling hills fluorescent green from the recent rains.

Although my flight presented some challenges, I considered it a perfect flight. I helped a needy soul while experiencing a fun flight that offered a little bit of everything.