Posted by: harrisonjones | December 9, 2012

Flying Organs

Have you ever seen a horse fly? Probably not, but if you land at the airport in Lexington, Ky., it would not be unusual to see race horses being walked up the loading ramp for transport in a specially designed cargo jet. You didn’t think a million dollar stud would be hauled to California in a truck did you? Cows fly too. A Convair 880 cargo jet once aborted a takeoff at Miami International, and was unsuccessful at remaining within the airport boundary. The airplane broke up as it crossed a freeway, and most of the fatalities were the cargo of cows being transported to South America.

 Since I flew for a scheduled airline, oats and hay were not usually on the in-flight menu, but now that I think about it…there were a few mystery meals in the international operation. We were also equipped with lavatories, and pooper scoopers were not required. However, the cargo holds were utilized for profit even before they started charging for checked bags. Normally the weight data sheet simply lists the weight and location of the cargo without a clue as to what it consists of. The crew’s only consideration is how much runway is required for departure (not including the adjoining freeway) and where to set the stabilizer for takeoff.

 Occasionally a clue is offered as to what might be in the cargo hold. For instance if you notice the Brinks or Wells Fargo truck backed up to the airplane, you know that the Federal Reserve is a customer today. Ever wonder how much a few million in twenty dollar bills weighs? Also, there are certain cargo items that the captain must be informed of and agree to transport by signing a hazardous materials form. These items include infectious disease materials shipped by the CDC, radio-isotopes for medical purposes, and anything that is packed in dry ice. Didn’t know you were flying with the AIDS virus did you? If the captain agrees to transport these items, there are no special procedures as far as flying the airplane is concerned. However, if it becomes necessary to declare an emergency and the equipment is called out, it’s important to inform the fire chief that hazardous materials are on board. I’ve always wondered if such a declaration would result in watching the fire trucks beat a hasty retreat.

 Less hazardous, but none the less panic causing, items are balloons. Birthday balloons, anniversary balloons, wedding balloons, sometimes as big as a pillow. Sharp flight attendants are adept at letting the air out of passenger’s balloons, literally and figuratively. The problem, of course, is as the atmospheric pressure decreases in the climb, the internal pressure in the balloon causes it to swell until it pops and causes some unsuspecting passenger to soil themselves. As I mentioned before, we are not equipped with pooper scoopers.

 Oh, I almost forgot, I was going to talk about flying organs. Occasionally a special cargo is presented by courier and must be transported in the cockpit. The small box contains a human organ for transplant. The idea of having an extra set of eyes in the cockpit takes on a whole new meaning. It also opens your own eyes and gives you a different outlook on life. Flights carrying human organs are authorized to use the call sign, “Lifeguard.” This alerts ATC to expedite as much as possible. I took off from Atlanta late one night and was cleared direct to San Francisco. Pretty cool. The Federal Reserve does not get priority handling, which causes me to believe that some things are priceless.         


  1. After Airline, but before retirement at age 67 I flew a C-550. We did Lifeguard flights for two Medical Centers (out of SFO) and traveled the western states after the accident happened. Our teams had their small dry ice containers and we were successful more times than not. It was really a ego boost to taxi past all those 747’s waiting for departure. Yep, its almost as good as being in Air Force One. Capt. Jones, I enjoy your blogs. Google Bob Leonard, Pilot and read some of my stories. Cheers, Bob Leonard

    • Thanks for visiting the blog, Captain Leonard, and thanks for using your skills to save lives. I’m sure those who received the expedited human organs would love to shake your hand. As you and I look back at thousands of flights, some are far more memorable and meaningful than others. The lifeguard flights certainly fall into that category. All my best to you and yours.

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