Meet Callie, the UK’s Most Famous Canine Co-Pilot

How one aviator’s “mid-life crisis” is enhancing his area’s animal rescue services.

Graham Mountford
Graham Mountford with his two chocolate Labradors, Callie (right) and Pippin.Graham Mountford

Fifteen years ago, Graham Mountford woke up one day and thought, “All I ever do is work.” Even when he wasn’t working he was still thinking about work, and so he realized that he needed a new hobby or interest to break up the monotony. As fate would have it, a friend had recently learned to fly a plane and wouldn’t stop talking about it, and so Mountford started dropping not-so-subtle hints to his wife that a trial flying lesson would be the ultimate Christmas gift.

She listened, and he's been flying his Cessna 210 ever since. "I came back with such a big grin on my face, you couldn't keep me away from it," Mountford told Flying.

But these days, Mountford merely plays second fiddle to his co-pilot, a six-year-old chocolate lab named Callie. In August, Callie was one of the main attractions at the Summer Fly-In at Perth Airport in Scotland. It's hard not to notice an adorable dog wearing a flight jacket and goggles, but Callie's gear is for more than show. She has amassed more than 600 hours and obtained her own crew card in 2014, and is even an honorary member of the Civil Air Patrol.

Graham Mountford
Callie doesn't just look the part of co-pilot, as she has amassed 600 flight hours.Graham Mountford

And it all started because Mountford had no one else to fly with on his trips to see family.

“I go to visit my family in the north of Scotland regularly, and they’ve got dogs,” he explained. “I thought if I’m going up to visit them, I want some company and the rest of the family isn’t that interested in flying, so I thought it would be really nice if I could take the dog with me. She would enjoy playing with my sister’s dogs, having a lot of fun running on the beach. We live a long way from the sea and the dog loves the beach, and if we had to go to the beach for a day and have a run, it wouldn’t be practical by roads. So, let’s see if the dog would like to fly!”

Callie’s training began when she was about three months old, with simple visits to the airport just so she could experience the sights, sounds and smells. After a few trips, Mountford put Callie in his plane so she could get a feel for it, and then, with a pocketful of treats, he taxied the plane to see how she felt about the motion. “She seemed to be pretty happy with that,” he said, “and the next time we just took off and flew and went to the beach.”

It didn’t take long for Mountford to realize that Callie’s love for flying could be beneficial for local charities, as children love having their pictures taken with the canine co-pilot, and people are generally suckers for a dog wearing a scarf. That’s how Callie ended up as an ambassador for the Civil Air Patrol, and ultimately a role model for other search and rescue dogs.

Graham Mountford
After reading about a dilemma the non-profit group British Divers Marine Life Rescue was facing with injured seals, Graham Mountford offered his Cessna 210 as a solution.Graham Mountford

“I do a bit of volunteering with a search and rescue charity and they have search dogs. We ended up taking eight of their search dogs for flights to get them used to going into small planes, so we put them through getting used to the sights and smells, getting familiar with the way it moves, and then we took them for flights, so that if they need to be sent somewhere to a disaster area to search for missing people, we can put them in the plane and fly them up there,” Mountford told us.

One charity very near and dear to Mountford is British Divers Marine Life Rescue, a volunteer organization that saves marine wildlife after major disasters. After reading about a travel predicament that was hurting the group's efforts, Mountford offered his plane to the cause.

“They kept getting injured seal pups up in the north of Scotland, and the one specialist hospital that could deal with them is in the south of the UK,” he recalled. “A lot of them weren’t surviving the 18-hour drive, so I saw this in a news article and I rang up the guy running the charity and said, if it would help I could probably do that journey in two and a quarter hours in the plane. He said, ‘That would be brilliant.’ They say they always arrive now in much better condition than if they’d been driven.”

The key to making a pilot of your pooch, Mountford explained, is patience.

Graham Mountford
It didn't take Callie very long to become accustomed to a life of flying.Graham Mountford

“Make it fun and keep it stress-free,” he offered. “Take your time. Don’t rush it. Let the animal get used to being around the noises and the people, used the sounds and smells, being on the ground when the engine starts so they’re used to the sound of the engine starting, so they don’t panic when they’re inside the plane. There are some breeds that are more stressed than others, so it may not fit for everybody. If the dog is good in a car, there’s a good chance it’ll be fine in the plane. If the dog gets stressed going on a journey in the car, it is likely to get stressed in the plane. Make sure they’re comfortable and that it’s a fun and nice experience for them the first few times. If they don’t want to go, don’t force them.”

Mountford is currently training his one-year-old dog, Pippin, to follow in Callie’s paw-prints. “She’s learning to fly,” he said, “but she’s not quite as practiced yet.”

Graham Mountford
Callie (right) helps prepare her protégé Pippin for a future of being the star of local air shows.Graham Mountford