In early March, 2021, the media all over the World reported a curious incident: on February 24, a feral cat sneaked aboard Tarco Airlines Boeing 737 while it was parked in a hangar of Khartoum airport, Sudan. The intruder waited for the aircraft to take off for Doha, Qatar, and approximately an hour into the flight attacked the pilot, effectively hijacking the plane and forcing it to land.
There are some discrepancies in the story, main of them being that there were no Tarco Airlines flights from Khartoum to Doha on that day. We may never know if the story was true, but let’s use the occasion to celebrate the often neglected part of aviation: the one with animals in it. And also, discourage some bad behaviour, showing that animals don’t have to conduct hijackings to become famous.
In fact, animals – that is, living creatures other than humans – were a part of aviation before our own species decided to take to the skies. And this statement does not even include flying with their own wings, first conducted approximately half a billion years ago by early insects. The first flight on man-made aircraft carried a trio of farm animals into the sky; a bunch of flies flew to the space – and returned – one-and-a-half decades before a man did.
So, let’s count ten most impressive animals who, for one reason or another, in one way or another, became famous for their flying on man-made aircraft.
10. Zoe, the Australian Police Dog
Zoe in the unfinished Zoeplane (Image: Justice & Police Museum)
A white German shepherd, Zoe was one of the first police dogs in Australia, starting her service in the 30s. She quickly became famous and popular throughout the country, thanks to her charisma and intelligence. Being smart and easy to train, Zoe was the first dog to be commanded through a radio transmitter attached to her harness. She was also trained to do various stunts for the public, most notably, “driving” remotely-controlled vehicles on parades. One of those vehicles, and a fan-favorite, was a “Zoeplane”: a mockup of a plane spinning around on a long arm.
And yes, we understand that this is not a real aviation feat, as Zoeplane was not a real plane. But the fact of its existence, along with cute pictures, was just too good not to include.
9. Victor, the Smuggled Cat
Victor became world-famous in 2019, when he found himself at the center of a strange machination conducted by his owner. Mikhail Galin, an avid flyer, wanted to take a flight from Moscow to Vladivostok, and Victor had to go with him. But the cat weighed 10 kilograms (22 pounds), two kilograms more than the maximum weight of animals Aeroflot allows in the cabin.
Galin did not want Victor to go into the cargo hold, so he concocted a plan. A second cat, Phoebe, was procured – similar to Victor in its appearance, but somewhat slimmer. She was presented and measured by the airport staff, and allowed to fly. Right after the check-in, Galin sneakily switched Phoebe for Victor, and brought the overweight feline with him into the cabin.
Everything would have gone according to plan, but agitated by the success, the man started bragging about the scheme on his social media. Posts went viral; Aeroflot found them, and kicked Galin out of their frequent flyer program. Victor gained world-wide notoriety for the illegal flight though, and hopefully, did not have to bear any negative consequences from his owner’s blunder.
8. Callie the Dog-Copilot
Callie representing West Anglia Unit of Sky Watch Civil Air Patrol at the Perth Fly in, with Norman Sutherland, photo by Unit Observer Michael Miklos
A chocolate lab from the United Kingdom, Callie is a favorite at various shows – dog shows and airshows, mainly – across the country. Accompanying her owner in his Cessna 210, Callie was the UK’s first dog to be awarded her own crew card. She started flying in 2011 at the age of three months, and amassed over 600 hours in the first five years of her life.
7. Fruit Flies, the First Astronauts
V-2 testing in the US. Fruit flies not included in the photo (too small) (Image: US Navy)
While many do not consider spaceflight a part of aviation, we will include some space-faring animals in this list purely because they are cool.
And so, the seventh place goes to a bunch of unnamed fruit flies that were the first non-microscopic organisms to cross the Karman line (the official boundary of space) onboard a German V-2 rocket launched by the United States on February 2, 1947. The aim of the test was to measure an impact of radiation at high altitudes; it was a success – flies returned onboard a parachute-equipped capsule, safe and unharmed, not something that could be said about many larger animals that went to space later. Except for…
6. Tsygan and Dezik, the First Space Dogs
Dezik on the left, Tsygan on the right (Image: Pretenderrs / Wikipedia)
While Laika is, arguably, the most famous of Soviet space dogs, her demise is too grim for this list. And also, she was not the first one. Two of her compatriots, named Tsygan and Dezik, were launched on 22 July 1951, onboard a R-1 rocket. They successfully reached the altitude of 101 kilometers and glided down on a parachute, becoming the first mammals to return from space alive.
Unfortunately, the flight was secret, so this achievement was not disclosed utill 1991. Also, Tsygan was slightly injured on landing, and had to end his space career; Dezik, on the other hand, became the first animal to reach space twice, embarking on a second flight just a week later. Unfortunately, it was not as successful, and kickstarted the development of the first emergency escape system.
5. Wopsie, the First transatlantic Cat
R.34 landing in Long Island. Wopsie is somewhere in there, obscured by the crowd (Image: US Library of Congress / Wikipedia)
On July 2, 1919, the R.34 airship took off from Britain, embarking on the first transatlantic journey for this kind of aircraft. Several hours after the take-off, way above the ocean, it turned out that the ship had two stowaways: William Ballantyne, a crew member intended to be left behind to save weight, and a small feral kitten.
Four days later the airship landed in Long Island, US, and the cat became the first feline to perform a transatlantic aerial crossing. Nicknamed Wopsie, the cat was turned into the airship’s mascot, serving with it until the aircraft crashed in 1921. Some sources claim, the cat survived and went on with her life.
4. Mademoiselle Fifi, the Cat of the King of Aviators
The famous flying cat and a human (Image: Wikipedia)
John Bevins Moisant is one of the most famous aviation pioneers, being the first to conduct a passenger flight over the English Channel, and the one to inspire Clyde Cessna to build airplanes.
On his journeys, Moisant was accompanied by Mademoiselle Fifi: a small cat which somehow took the whole flying thing surprisingly well.
3. Icarus II, the Pig on an Airplane
Short Biplane No. 2 in flight (Image: Flyingmachines.ru)
Aiming to prove the famous proverb about pigs being unable to fly wrong, John Moore-Brabazon – the first man to fly an airplane in Britain, and Britain’s Minister of Transport later in life – did something remarkable. On November 4, 1909, he attached a small basket to a Short Biplane No. 2, and put a piglet in it.
The first flight with a live cargo, and the first airplane flight with an animal onboard, the event went down in history not as a joke, but as a serious achievement in aviation. The only question remaining is, why was the pig called Icarus II? Is there a more sinister backstory to the flight, with the original Icarus that the history chose to forget?
2. Shadow, the First Pilot Dog
Can you train a dog to pilot an airplane? British TV channel Sky 1 had that question too. Turns out, you can.
In 2016, as a part of a TV program, three dogs were taken from a rescue shelter and subjected to several weeks of rigorous training in a flight simulator. A special rig was constructed, adapting a flight stick of a Cessna 182 to dog paws, and the history was made.
A Staffordshire Bull Terrier / Collie mix named Shadow was the first to be allowed in a real airplane. A couple of humans monitored the flight, controlled the altitude and dispensed treats if Shadow performed moves he was trained to do. It is doubtful the dog understood what he was doing though, reacting to light cues to steer the plane in a figure-8 loop. Nevertheless, his achievement is something all animals above – from Zoe to Icarus II – could envy.
Except for a trio that fly in to snatch the first place.
1. A Duck, a Rooster, and Montauciel the Sheep: the First Aviators
Montgolfier brothers launching one of their balloons (Image: Trialsanderrors / Wikipedia)
On September 19, 1783, a hot air balloon took off into the skies near Paris: arguably, the first aircraft to ever perform a successful flight with living creatures aboard.
It was constructed by Montgolfier brothers, who wanted to test if a living organism can survive a flight through the air. Obviously, birds could do that, so a duck was put into the basket to act as a control. The sheep, named Montauciel, had to approximate a human. A rooster was put there out of curiosity, or maybe to compensate the animal for the fact that his breed was robbed of the wonder of flight for such a long time.
The balloon successfully took off, flew for three kilometers, and softly landed. Animals were unharmed. King Louis XVI of France and Queen Marie Antoinette, who observed the flight, were impressed. The way for a human flight was paved.
This article was originally published on AeroTime News on March 6, 2021.