Turtles Fly Too Completes First U.S. West Coast Mission

 - August 31, 2020, 11:36 AM
Turtles Fly Too completed its first turtle rescue mission on the U.S. West coast, thanks to pilot volunteers—AIN editor-in-chief Matt Thurber and aviation marketing/communications veteran Jeff Miller—supported by a team of wildlife experts, FBOs, air traffic controllers, and two aquariums. (Photo: Matt Thurber/AIN)

A crew of two pilots—AIN editor-in-chief Matt Thurber and aviation marketing/communications veteran Jeff Miller—supported by a team of wildlife experts, FBOs, air traffic controllers, and two aquariums yesterday flew an endangered Olive Ridley sea turtle from Seattle Boeing Field to San Diego International Airport for turtle rescue charity Turtles Fly Too. This was the first U.S. West Coast mission for the turtle-rescue organization.

With Thurber flying right seat and monitoring the turtle, Miller piloted the flight of the turboprop single Jetprop DLX (a turbine-converted Piper Malibu Mirage), starting at his home base in Sun Valley, Idaho. Miller flew to Portland International Airport on Saturday afternoon; then the two pilots departed Sunday morning for Boeing Field.

Berni the turtle arrived in a Vancouver Aquarium van after being driven across the U.S.-Canada border, and then the complicated loading process began, aided by the crew at Signature Flight Support. First, a modified large dog crate had to be inserted into the rear seating area of the Jetprop. Then the aquarium experts lifted Berni from the van and placed him carefully into the crate and installed a plywood top, well-secured with bolts and plastic ties.

The flight crew was asked to try to keep Berni warm, as turtles prefer warm climates and Berni had been rescued due to cold shock in the northern waters, where Olive Ridleys normally don’t live. There wasn’t much else to do but get Berni to San Diego safely and quickly so he could be prepared to be reintroduced to the ocean.

The flight to San Diego was two legs, first from Seattle to Reno, Nevada, for a quick refueling by Atlantic Aviation. It took two hours for the flight to Reno, then another two hours to San Diego, and along the way, controllers would ask whether this was the “turtle flight,” likely because the flight plans were filed using the compassion flight callsign CMF1922.

San Diego Signature Flight Support was ready when the flight arrived, and the SeaWorld San Diego van was already there, ready with another special crate for Berni’s ride to the aquarium. The Sea World crew had brought a special padded jacket for Berni, which they put on before removing him from the airplane. Once removed, they put him in the crate and then drove him to SeaWorld, where he was weighed and measured, then put into a deep pool. Berni will spend months at SeaWorld getting acclimatized to the Southern California climate and then will be taken a few miles out into the ocean for release. 

In addition to Turtles Fly Too, supporters of this mission included Ocean Wise Conservation Association/Vancouver Aquarium, SeaWorld San Diego, SR3 (SeaLifer3), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Signature Flight Support, and Atlantic Aviation.

The charity first began its operations in the Northeast, where every year as summer turns to autumn and temperatures fall, hundreds of the endangered reptiles, swept north on the warm currents of the Gulf Stream, become stranded in the Cape Cod region. Left alone they would soon die in the cold weather, but volunteers collect the turtles from the beaches and take them to the New England Aquarium, where their condition is stabilized. Available space at the aquarium is soon overwhelmed, requiring them to be evacuated to marine animal care facilities in Southern states, where they complete their long rehabilitation process before being released. Over the past several years, general aviation has saved hundreds of the creatures, and the charity is once again asking pilots who fly south from the New England area to register for its transport flight database.