EAA Staffers Fly Great Horned Owl in Pilots N Paws Mission

On Friday, March 26, EAA staffer David Leiting and I participated in our first Pilots N Paws mission! But it wasn’t just any ol’ mission …

Typically requests received through Pilots N Paws are to transfer injured, sick, or more often than not, homeless dogs and cats throughout the United States. You can imagine our surprise when we came across the request to transport a great horned owl!

This owl had been found by a local veterinarian, Dr. Gates, in the western Maryland region on the side of a freeway suffering from multiple injuries likely caused by colliding with a moving vehicle.

Upon examination, it appeared as though the owl was suffering from head trauma with eye injuries. Dr. Gates quickly reached out to a local rehabilitation center, Owl Moon Raptor Center, to see if they could provide secondary care.

Suzanne Shoemaker, founder of Owl Moon, gladly accepted the request to care for the owl on a short-term basis.

“He had a major concussion, and he definitely was very depressed [lethargic] from the head concussion,” she said. “The eye injuries were obvious at the time, there was blood in the eyes and so I remember, in his case, knowing right away that the one eye was badly damaged. The other eye, he had some retinal detachment there that ended up in some scarring too.”

Suzanne and her small team of volunteers continued the treatment from the clinic with antibiotic/anti-inflammatory eye drops.

It wasn’t long before Suzanna and her team became attached to their new feathered friend and named the owl after the veterinarian who found him; Gates.

Suzanne took Gates into her care in December 2019. Due to the pandemic, Gates stayed longer than expected at Owl Moon before they could find him a forever home.

Nancy, a field rescue and transportation volunteer with Owl Moon, eventually struck some luck when Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center in Lanesboro, Minnesota, responded to her post looking for a permanent home for Gates.

With Eagle Bluff on board, Nancy got to work figuring out the transportation.

Pilots N Paws

 When David and I came across the request via Pilots N Paws to fly Gates from Maryland to Minnesota, we knew instantly that there was no way we could pass up this opportunity! With a few other pilots already responding to the transport request thread, we threw our hat in the ring and offered to fly the final leg of the mission!

Pilots N Paws is a volunteer-based organization, where any volunteer can request a transport, or sign up for a mission. Missions are displayed on a map of the United States, so you can see exactly where the request is. From there, pilots and transporters work together to figure out the logistics of the mission via a public discussion thread, or via private message.

While any volunteer can offer their services, it is most always on a first-come, first-served basis. So, you can imagine us constantly clicking refresh on the browser to see if our offer was accepted!

Often times, on longer mission such as this, pilots will work together to split up the mission into several legs. That was the case in our situation.

Being David’s and my first time participating in a PNP mission, it was interesting to get the firsthand experience of working and planning with other volunteers, whom we had never met before. That’s the beauty of Pilots N Paws; complete and total strangers coming together to combine their love for aviation and animals to make these missions possible!

The Mission

In order to make this transport possible, without any one pilot having to fly 10 hours or more, the mission was split into three legs flown by four pilots and their family members.

Leg no. 1 KFDK – KCPK

The first leg was flown by long-time Pilots N Paws volunteer pilot Daniel Katz and his son.

Daniel has been volunteering his flying skills for the organization since 2009. Since starting with PNP, it has been Daniel’s goal to fly at least 5-6 missions each year.

While Daniel has had his fair share of special and meaningful missions, he said this one was even more meaningful.

“My son is really, really into birds,” Daniel said. “He wants to be an ornithologist when he grows up. He is 12 now, and it was a dream come true to be able to observe Gates on the way for an hour or so.”

On Friday morning, Daniel and his son woke up bright and early to pick up Gates and start the mission!

The father and son crew met Nancy in Frederick, Maryland, got Gates all settled in, and flew to KCPK to meet Brian, the second leg pilot.

Leg no. 2 KCPK – I23 – 10C

The trip for Daniel and his son went without a hitch and now it was time for the hand-off of the second leg.

The entire mission consisted of three legs. At one point in time, we were considering four legs, until a generous pilot offered to fly a considerably longer leg.

Brian Manke, EAA 1300429, his wife, and son were planning to fly from the east coast to Illinois to visit their ill grandmother, and the dates just so happened to work with the mission.

In addition to that, Brian was also able to log extra hours toward his cross-country requirements in getting his commercial certificate, which he had plans to take his checkride for March 29 (Brian later reported that he passed!) – so the mission more than made sense for Brian to volunteer his services.

“With working toward additional ratings, instead of going up and just flying around for no reason, why not give it some reason,” Brian said. “In my case, I was going to Illinois to see my grandma and I had plenty of room. The same thing with the commercial, rather than going to spend four hours flying around with absolutely no purpose, I was like, I have got to find something to make it worthwhile. You know what I mean? Just to have a purpose.”

Like Daniel, this also was not Brian’s first rodeo – he had been volunteering for three years, and to date, has flown about 17 missions.

Meanwhile, David and I were waiting at Galt Airport in Illinois to meet Brian and load Gates into the back of EAA’s staff flying club Cessna 172 to complete the mission. While waiting, we were able to track Brian on SkyVector by looking up his tail number.

One of the biggest challenges to the entire mission was the element of time. Neither David or I are able to fly at night, so that meant that we had a strict schedule to follow — although, sometimes, the weather doesn’t always make that very easy.

In this case, Brian had been experiencing 55 knot headwinds on the way to Galt, putting the mission a bit behind schedule.

“At one point we saw a 70-knot crosswind component too,” Brian said. “It’s really bad when you look out the window and you’re like, ‘Oh, we’re going straight across the ground, and the plane is like turning sideways.’.”

In fact, the exact words I recall hearing from Brian’s wife, Jennifer, was “It was like we were flying in reverse!”

Despite the wind, Brian, his family, and Gates made it on the ground safely and the weather looked good for David and I to continue on to Minnesota.

Leg no. 3 10C – KONA

Off we go!

With 20 minutes on the ground to unload Gates and his crate then reload back into our 172, we were off to meet Molly Kelly with Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center where Gates would finally call home.

First things first, talk about a kid in a candy shop — I could not stop bouncing up and down with excitement at the fact that we had an owl in the back of our 172 flying with us! I did all I could do (and all David could do) to keep my eyes on the horizon with such a cute passenger riding along.

Luckily for us, there wasn’t a whole lot we could see in Gates’ crate, as the majority of the holes had been covered by black construction paper for his comfort. (My solution was to attach a GoPro to the crate where we could see in slightly, and monitor him from my phone which we would periodically check in-flight to make sure he was ok).

In large part, the flight was uneventful. The weather was cooperative and David and I enjoyed a nice flight flying over the rolling hills just outside of Madison to the Mississippi River.

Upon landing, we met with Molly, said our goodbyes to Gates, refueled and off we went to make it home by end of civil twilight. Given more time, we would have toured the facility that Gates now calls home — but that will have to wait until another trip, which David and I will most certainly make.

The Tuesday after Gates’ arrival to Eagle Bluff, Molly informed me that Gates had a check-up with the local veterinarian and nothing but good news was had for our new feathered-friend! While Gates will unfortunately remain permanently blind in one eye, it is very unlikely that he will have to have that eye removed.

“So, the damage is right at his nerve, where the nerve endings connect, and so he shouldn’t need the eye removed,” Molly said. “Our other owl is blind, and she ended up having the eye removed because the cataracts were painful. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case for him, at least not anytime soon. So, that’s really exciting.”

Molly said that car collisions with raptors are actually fairly common, and the best thing the public can do to prevent these accidents is to help reduce roadside littering.

“Car collisions are really common because of the litter on the side of the road,” Molly said. “And so, it’s not just chip bags, but when people pass out apple cores or banana peels, they attract rodents to the side of the road, because it’s a great free meal for that rodent, which is what those hawks and owls are hunting and a lot of times they’re focused on food. They may be protecting their food and have their wings out and so when a car comes by, especially if it’s evening, or just late at night, you don’t necessarily see that bird there and so then they get hit by cars.”

Gates will join Eagle Bluff as the newest resident to a family of several other raptors, many of which who have also survived suspected car collisions, including a red-tailed hawk, barred owl, turkey vulture, and American kestrel.

At Eagle Bluff, these birds serve the community by aiding in educational programs. Of the many programs, three of them are aimed to inform and educate the community about raptors.

“There’s Raptor Care, which is about how we care for our birds; Raptor Physics, which is about the physics of flight, and Raptor Force, which is about the relationship between humans and raptors,” Molly said. “Gates will hopefully be on glove during those programs. So, we bring the birds out and typically, they’re out on glove for 1 – 20 minutes. And we talk about the natural history of their species, and then also talk about the individual bird as well. So, it’s an opportunity for students to see the birds up close and ask questions about them, watch them eat on the glove, which is pretty cool.”

While Molly is unsure if Gates will keep his current name — ideally, they’d like to rename him something that relates to his species or background for educational purposes — it’s no question that he will be under wonderful care at his new home.

You can visit Gates and his feathered-friends at Eagle Bluff Educational Center located at 28097 Goodview Drive, Lanesboro, Minnesota, 55949, or help support these birds by participating in the Adopt-an-Animal Program, where your symbolic adoption will help provide food and vet care. Currently, Gates is in the process of being adopted by David and myself, where he will forever be part of the EAA family.

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