Sled Dogs in Flight

 By Joe Pendergrass

 The date is Tuesday, March 8, 2008 and I'm still in McGrath when all the race action is in Unalakleet. We've got lots of dogs here, about 80. This checkpoint will be closed by Tuesday if not before. The determining factor will be when we are able to ship the dropped dogs back to Anchorage. 

As one of the Iditarod Pilots, I flew all day yesterday, to Takotna twice, then to Nulato, Galena, Kaltag, Galena, Kaltag, Ruby and then back to McGrath. It was 7.1 hours of flight time. My last trip was to pick up 10 dogs in Ruby and take them to McGrath. It turned out to be a very eventful trip.

I have two cables attached to the floor board and several rings to secure each dog inside the plane. Each dog has an 18 inch cable with a snap hook on each end that is used to tie them down.

We took off normally and everything was fine, when suddenly one dog got loose in the plane. The ring that I hooked it to had come loose and the dog began running from the front of the plane to the back on top of the other dogs. He went back and forth several times before starting to scratch at the windows. I grabbed his cable lead once and tried to tie him to the seat belt but he got away. He went to the back and somehow got the cord to one of my headsets wrapped around him and I was afraid he would tear the phone jacks out of the wall. We were flying at 3000 feet and no one else was in sight, so I unhooked my seat belt and climbed over the seat real quick and unplugged the headset. I climbed back into the pilot’s seat as the plane went into a climbing left turn. After getting the plane under control, I refastened my seat belt and shoulder straps. The loose dog then climbed over my cargo net and got into my extended baggage compartment all the way to the back. His weight, about 50lbs, put an extra load on the tail of the airplane and I had to push harder on the yoke to compensate. That was okay though because he seemed to be content to stay there and just curled up and went to sleep. When I thought everything had returned to normal, my door popped open as the dogs were leaning real hard against it. I couldn't pull it closed with the dogs pressing against it. After finally being able to pull the nearest dog away from the door, I opened the window and, with both hands, slammed the door shut. Just about the time I thought nothing else could go wrong, I smelled it…………and was hoping that it was just a dog with lots of gas. I opened the air vents to get some fresh air but it didn't help much. This was a one hour and six minute flight and of course, I couldn't address the smell until we finally arrived in McGrath.

As I taxied up to the dog drop area, I motioned for Jan to come here. She came over and I opened the window and explained that one of the dogs was loose. So she and two others stood at the door as I released one dog at a time. After removing nine dogs, I climbed into the back and disconnected the cargo net to get the last dog out of the extended baggage.

Upon a closer inspection, it was evident that the smell was not merely gas. It was explosive diarrhea and was all over my engine cover, was hanging on the back panel, the side walls and even in the hinges of the baggage door.  One of the dog handlers came over with some spray cleaner and a roll of paper towels to mop out the airplane. Jennifer is a Veterinarian who is working as a dog handler pending the process of becoming licensed in Alaska. She cleaned up the entire mess inside the plane and is now my newest hero!  I wiped down the engine cover the best I could but it was impossible to get out of the Velcro fasteners.

I took the cover to the Laundromat and put it into the commercial washer. Went to eat dinner and came back expecting to find the cover ready for the dryer. The spin cycle apparently didn't work so the cover was totally saturated with water and looked like a water balloon when we pulled it out of the washer. We lugged it to the shower and found one "out of order" and hung it there to drip dry.

I plugged in the airplane’s engine heater to keep some heat on it. Unfortunately, one of the plugs was faulty and there was no heat getting to the engine. With no engine cover over night, and no electric, the engine was cold soaked this morning and took me three hours to get it started. The cover had dripped enough over night that I could put it in the dryer and it is now back in service. 

So............... how is that for an adventure! It's all true; I couldn't make this stuff up.

Joe Pendergrass, Pilot
Iditarod Air Force