“Dogs love trucks.” I will forever remember the Japanese man in those great Nissan commercials from the ’90s. He wasn’t wrong. My dog, Seven, certainly did go crazy for trucks. She rode in the bed of every pickup I owned: the Ford F250, the F150. She even made the jump to a diesel Ram. Over the past 14 years, that dog has gone everywhere with me in every kind of vehicle: motorcycles, cars, ATVs (jumped off one on her maiden voyage), boats (which she loved to poop on), excavators, mowers and airplanes.
Ah, airplanes. A magical vehicle, taking Seven and me to destinations markedly different from our point of departure. In the many trips we made by truck to racetracks in the southern states, she would feel the gradual change in temps at each rest stop on the interstate. But getting off a commercial flight in Costa Rica having departed JFK in the coldest month New York has to offer must have been bewildering to her. Maybe magical too.
When Seven first started flying with me, she hopped right on the wing with her tail wagging, expertly maneuvering through the 180-degree turn into the back seat of the Piper Cherokee I trained in. She’d look out the window during climb, then fall asleep for cruise and wake up on cue for descent. When I bought my airplane, she made it her own, same as she had with the pickup. She wanted so badly to stick her head out the window but never did quite understand why this wasn’t possible. I wanted to build an AirCam just so she could experience an open-air cockpit.
By airplane, Seven and I went to some amazing places together. We flew to my friend Jay’s lake house in Georgia, where she pooped on the ski boat but settled in nicely after said deposit was made on the bow. We flew to Telluride, Colorado, where I snowboarded while she played in the snow with my friend Rosie’s dog, Indy. We flew to Montauk, New York, where she frantically dug holes on the beach with my friend Glen, searching for buried tennis balls. In flight, she entertained and calmed nervous passengers who were unsure about flying in a small airplane.
Seven never made a mess in the airplane. It seemed like she knew it as our magical truck, not to be desecrated. Preparing for trips, she watched me carefully as I loaded her food, water bowls, and (most important) an assortment of balls and Chuckit launchers. As she came to love the airplane, she began to migrate from the back seat to the cargo area behind it. She would make the move midflight, throwing off my CG a bit, but happily finding a suitably flat area to stretch out in.
We had years of adventure together. When there wasn’t a human to share a new experience with me, there she was, ready and willing—and eternally excited to see what would be waiting when she jumped off the wing at whichever new town we landed. Everywhere we went, Seven melted hearts. FBOs unfriendly to dogs made sudden exceptions. Ubers let her jump right in the back seat. Hotels that don’t allow pets—well, I would sneak her in the back door once I checked in. She loved Sedona, Arizona, the most because the airport’s restaurant on the field had an honest-to-god dog menu with food prepared by the same cook that made my dinner. In return for that loyal companionship, Seven trusted me to get her wherever we were going safely. I held up my end of that tacit agreement—for a time.
The Night Things Changed
Departing Caldwell, New Jersey, one night a few years back, we encountered turbulence so great that one bump forced her to vertically leave the rear seat, hitting the ceiling hard enough to displace an overhead panel before being dumped back into the seat with no less force. She looked at me, whimpering, as if to say: “This is not a flying truck. I do not love this any longer.”
From that day on, she had no desire to jump onto the wing. Any trips by air required her to be picked up and gently placed on the wing, at which point she dutifully boarded, clearly unhappy about it and likely thinking this was her last flight. For a solid year, I flew with my right hand behind me, stroking her soft head to stop the shaking that occurred every time she settled into that rear seat. Treats helped. I always had a few pieces of something in my pocket to coax her in and then calm her down. Her anxiety lessened but never went away. She stayed vigilant to the dangers of flight in a way her owner did not. She was on board that fateful spring morning when I stalled our Beech Bonanza departing Telluride and slid down the runway so far that we burned the aluminum skins down to the spars, totaling the airplane.
I’ll never forget the moment when I let her out after we came to a smoking, grinding halt. She always jumped out of the airplane with purpose, happy that we were back on terra firma. But this was different. She leapt off the wing onto the tarmac and stood stock-still, waiting for me to come to her. I held her there on the runway while she shook uncontrollably.
She looked at me as if to say: “Hey, I’ve been cool with this flying thing for a while now. I know it makes you happy and all, but this is it for me. I’m done.”
We took a long break after that as my new Bonanza was prepped and readied. Once done, I had no intention of leaving Seven at home. My girlfriend, Kim, was in the picture at this point, and the two of them became close. Kim spoke dog, and Seven associated her with love and safety. With Kim, Seven would came along, albeit reluctantly, the shaking beginning as soon as the hangar door opened. If Seven saw anyone else in a nearby hangar, she would sprint to them and act as though she were pleading for an instant adoption or safe passage off the airport via a ground vehicle. It was like canine political asylum, with Seven claiming her life was in danger with her owners in the next hangar. Kim would dutifully follow and reclaim her, lovingly loading her in the back seat of the airplane and comforting her for the remainder of the flight. I hated seeing Seven so afraid. It reminded me of my extraordinary failure as a pilot.
Seven came with us to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July. We spent the week looking at “magic flying trucks” and marveling at airshows. Afterward, we flew to my good friend Mike’s home airport in Rice Lake where he picked us up in his Cessna 182 amphib. We parked the Bonanza in his hangar and climbed up into the highest cabin that Seven or I, for that matter, had ever been in. Kim was already in the back seat. I gently passed Seven up to her. She settled into Kim’s lap as Mike started up the engine, taking off in clear air toward the setting sun and his home on a nearby lake. Though I did not know it at the time, it was to be Seven’s last flight. She passed away a few days later. But that night, as the Cessna rose into the sky, I looked back at her from the right front seat. Seven was falling asleep in Kim’s lap, not shaking even the slightest bit.