Rescue Dogs and Airplanes

If one thing’s for sure, a good dog and a good airplane make for a good life.

Corbett checking in on his dad’s navigational skills up front. Courtesy: Dick Karl

Rocco is a recue dog. Rocco has had “issues.” 323 Charlie Mike was a Beechcraft/Raytheon Premier 1. It had “issues.” The more you think about it, the more buying a used airplane has in common with getting a rescue dog. Somebody, somewhere was making this dog or that airplane available for a reason. Maybe the cost was too much; maybe they upgraded to a better model; maybe they decided to get out altogether. No matter how diligent the pre-buy inspection, you’re getting a bird that’s been turned back in for rescue. Even renting an airplane is akin to a rescue exercise—who knows where that dog has been?

Here’s the tale (tail) of three dogs and three airplanes. All had a budget; you will see how they spent their allowance.

Ubu and the Cessna 340

Ubu was a rescue in the sense that one of my kids had a friend whose dog had gotten loose, and next thing you know, there were several Lab-shepherd puppies to offer up to unsuspecting teenagers and their families. Ubu learned to fly in a box in the hold of commercial airliners. On one memorable escapade, my wife, Cathy, and I were flying from sunny Tampa, Florida, to snowy Boston, Massachusetts, with Ubu down below.

“Somebody, somewhere was making this dog or that airplane available for a reason.”

Four hours into the flight, the Delta captain announced a diversion to Bangor, Maine. After refueling, we took to the gray and cold skies again, headed back to Boston. (“The airport should open soon,” we were reassured.) Three hours of holding later, we landed in Providence, Rhode Island. I met the captain on the jet bridge and pleaded with him to release the dog, even though we weren’t at our destination. He relented. When the crate came out on the luggage carousel, you could hear a loud tail thump, thump, thump. Ubu had spotted us. It was a snowy drive in that rental car, but we were reunited.

Man and dog both upgraded when we sold the Cessna P210 and bought the 340. Ubu was happy to leave behind the airlines and switch to air-stair entry and unrestricted cabin—and sometimes cockpit—access. The dog was nobody’s fool, and neither was the 340. Ubu’s Labrador genes were evident in his exuberance, which matched the airplane’s speed and altitude. When we landed, Ubu invariably demonstrated his approval with a characteristic male-dog “happy meter,” if you know what I mean. Then, when the door was opened and the stairs extended, Ubu would survey his domain. There was one lineman at home base that Ubu didn’t like. If he spotted that poor man, he’d lunge out of the airplane and head right for the poor guys private parts.

As the dog aged and became infirm , I could not bring myself to put him down. He still ate voraciously and his eyes still glowed. I wrote a piece in the local newspaper about the dilemma entitled, “When is it time to help Ubu along?” A friend read the piece and told me she could find a new dog when we were ready. That’s how we met Corbett.

Corbett and the Cheyenne

Corbett was a yellow Labrador retriever whose only issues were unbridled exuberance and a cancer that took him too soon. His size and energy proved too much for his original owner, so we got this wild thing at one year old, just after we had upgraded to a Piper Cheyenne I turboprop. I approached our first flight with this crazy 80-pound dog with trepidation. A visiting friend, a senior Southwest Airlines captain, volunteered to be copilot on a short test flight. The plan was for Cathy to sit in the back with Corbett, while Tony and I sat in the cockpit barricaded in with large FedEx boxes. Tony informed the ground controller that we wanted to do a dog test flight around the pattern, and off we went. When switched from tower to departure to arrival back to tower, the last controller said, “I don’t hear any barking—I guess you guys are OK.”

Were we ever. In many ways, that dog and that airplane were the best fit any man has ever known. The airplane was sturdy, fast, burned jet-A, looked great, and gave us 17 years of very happy flying. Corbett was an equal contributor to our lives, filling our days with ball-chasing, swimming and flying. He’d come up to the cockpit once in a while and check on the captain’s navigation and energy-management skills. He was born to fly. When we landed and lowered the air stairs, the linemen would see a dog and cover themselves with defensive hands. They had remembered Ubu.

Corbett died too young of lung cancer. He spent his allowance on medical treatment. I tried to console myself by buying a fast jet and searching for a new dog. By then, I had learned about flying while employed by a great Part 135 carrier stocked amply with generous captains. They taught me a lot and made flying a jet a real possibility. 

Rocco rides in style in the back of the author's former ride, a Premier I. [Courtesy: Dick Karl]

Rocco and the Premier

I got my head turned by a 2000 Beechcraft/Raytheon Premier 1. Despite the extensive pre-buy and acceptance test flight, my advisors and I missed the fact that the airplane had a persistent and likely not-fixable flaw in the speed-brake logic. On the delivery flight home with an instructor, we got a “speed-brake fail” and “roll fail” light. Fittingly, around this time, we tried to replace Corbett with a dog we found on a Lucky Lab Rescue site. Because I had always wanted a dog named Rocco, we picked one out on the Internet with that name. Both the airplane and the dog tested our patience.

Rocco had been found at a kill shelter in Kentucky and then shipped to a veterinary school in Indiana, where he was used for practice—as in practice drawing blood, practice anesthetizing. I was oblivious as to how this history might alter a happy dog’s view of life. In retrospect, we had zero information about his personality. Like the airplane’s spoilers, we slowly learned about Rocco’s dog aggression. There were some nights when Cathy went with an injured dog to the vet while I took the injured human to the emergency room. These episodes matched the expense and frustration we had with the speed brakes. If Corbett’s allowance was spent on treatment for his heart and lungs, Rocco’s was spent on vet bills for victims and multiple training schools.

In the end, the Premier was put out of its misery with a bird strike, and we learned to keep Rocco in crates or fenced-in areas. I felt bad about the airplane—who wants to preside over the destruction of any aircraft? We felt obligated to Rocco, though. We knew if we turned him back in, he’d be euthanized. We just couldn’t do it, so he now rides in style in our Cessna CJ1, acting like he’s always owned a jet. Who knows? Maybe his previous owners had a Gulfstream.

Dick Karl
Dick KarlAuthor
Dick Karl is a cancer surgeon who appreciates the beauty and science involved in both surgery and flying. Dick’s monthly Gear Up celebrates the human side of flying. He writes about his enthusiasm for both the machines and the people who fly and maintain them.

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