breaking news

Police ID man killed in Riviera Beach; woman seriously injured

PBIA’s most pampered passengers? Flying on ‘Air Horse One’


It’s boarding time for the Boeing 727 parked on the tarmac at Palm Beach International Airport, and the flight crew is ready to show passengers to their stalls.

“Bring me the filly first and put the gelding in the middle!” yells Stephen Gravett, flight supervisor for H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding, one of the first companies to fly equine athletes to race tracks and show arenas, via 29 airports in the U.S. and Canada.

And these commuters fly in first-class style: Non-stop itineraries. In-flight snacks. Plenty of leg room.

No wonder the Sutton Forwarding flagship has been dubbed “Air Horse One.”

» Click here to see a photo gallery from the horse transport.

On this brisk, mid-February day at Gama Aviation, on the southwest side of PBIA, the flight manifest includes the names of thoroughbreds Keen Ice, Imperia and International Star; Angela Renee, Red Rifle and Pyrite Mountain; Street Babe, Bravodino and Freudie Anne, who recently won at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack by legging out one mile, 70 yards in 1:44.50.

All nine of these horses are headed to the starting gates at Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, La., and it’s costing their owners $3,500 for a one-way ticket. A cross-country flight from, say Atlantic City, N.J., to Las Vegas, Nev., goes for $5,000.

But that’s pocket change to the hands that hold these purse strings, Gravett says.

“When you’re spending two to three million dollars on a horse, $5,000? You don’t care. Plus, the horses are winning races, and they’re going to pay their way.”

At this time of year, PBIA is a frequent stop on the equine circuit. Already this week, Sutton has landed here, then departed from here, twice. “Most horses come south for the winter,” says Gravett, a third-generation horseman. “It’s much nicer here than in New York or Lexington, Ky.,” where Sutton is based.

And while Wellington is known internationally as home to the International Polo Club and Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, South Florida also is a hub of horse-racing.

Think Hialeah Park, Hallandale’s Gulf Stream Park, Mardi Gras Racetrack in Hallandale Beach and Pompano Park in Pompano Beach. Race horses also put in their laps at Palm Meadows Training Center in Boynton Beach and Palm Beach Downs Training Center in Delray Beach.

Sutton Forwarding prefers PBIA to Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport or Miami International Airport, Gravett says, because of its easy access. Maneuvering a 52-foot trailer through the Golden Glades interchange? Whoa! No.

After all, the aim of horse-transport companies is to keep their precious cargo calm, of course, of course.

And from the time these travelers are loaded into a van at a stable in one state, until they’re led into the barn in another, their feet never touch the ground. Custom-designed loading ramps with high walls allow the horses to walk directly onto the plane from the truck that brought them to the airport.

“It’s easier on the horse, and a lot safer,” Gravett says. “They don’t know the difference. They think they’re getting on another truck.”

Most of the horses fly with their grooms, and their personal, round bales of hay — about the size of a fitness ball — are hung in their stalls. Says Gravett, “We want to keep them quiet and happy as best we can.”

That’s part of the reason horse handler Shawn Schlenk is so openly affectionate with these 1,100-pound neigh-sayers, gently patting them on the neck, kissing one on the face, praising another with a “good boy” when the colt boards the plane. “If you’re nice to them, they’re nice to you,” he says. “If a horse is happy, everyone is happy.”

As each horse enters the aircraft (an ex-Eastern Air Lines plane put out to pasture), a stall is quickly constructed around him or her. Fillies fill the back, colts go in the front, Gravett says, “so the colts aren’t smelling and staring at the fillies for four hours.”

The entire boarding process takes less than 45 minutes. And then it’s time for takeoff.

The lack of seat belts changes the way this passenger plane is flown, says Capt. Alan MacDonald: Gentle ascents, 15-degree banks (as opposed to the standard 30-degree turns) and, when landing, slow decelerations that require the length of the runway.

If MacDonald slammed on the brakes upon touchdown, “the horses would get nervous and try to sit down,” he says. “We don’t want them to feel us moving the airplane, so it requires a lot of finesse,” which means more hand-flying and less autopilot.

Pilots also circumvent bad weather, flying hundreds of miles out of their way to avoid a thunderstorm, if necessary, “and sometimes we’ll just say, ‘Let’s go tomorrow’,” MacDonald says.

And what kind of passengers does the pilot prefer to transport — human or equine?

“Oh, horses,” he says. “Definitely.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Community

Fox News apologizes for misidentifying Patti LaBelle as Aretha Franklin
Fox News apologizes for misidentifying Patti LaBelle as Aretha Franklin

The singer who demanded respect in an iconic 1960s song was temporarily disrespected in the eyes of some of her fans Thursday, hours after her death.  >> Read more trending news  Fox News issued an apology for mistakenly using an image of Patti LaBelle in a news package tribute for legendary singer Aretha Franklin, who died Thursday...
What age should you stop breastfeeding your baby?
What age should you stop breastfeeding your baby?

It's motherhood 101: Breast is best for your new bundle of joy. However, there are few hard and fast rules on when to wean your little one from breastfeeding. August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, so it’s the opportune time to take a look at some of the benefits for nursing mothers and their babies.  Breastfeeding comes with...
Danny, Sandy back together again as John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John reunite
Danny, Sandy back together again as John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John reunite

“Grease” is the word! To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the rock ‘n’ roll movie musical that took us to the halls of the ‘50s Rydell High, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta show they still go together like rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong. The actor and actress who played Danny and Sandy reunited Wednesday...
Lennon, McCartney back together? Well sort of
Lennon, McCartney back together? Well sort of

Lennon and McCartney have teamed up again. But it wasn’t some long-lost recording of John Lennon fronted by Paul McCartney years later.  It was actually the sons of the two music legends. Sean Ono Lennon and James McCartney recently spent time together and took a selfie that could, at a quick glance, be taken for an image of their two fathers...
Here’s how to make sure your pooch is ready for the new baby 
Here’s how to make sure your pooch is ready for the new baby 

Your dog is a member of the family, right? So when that family expands to include a new little human member, your pup is one of the many "loved ones" you'll need to prepare for the arrival of a baby. Expectant parents can take heart from the multitudes of social media compilations featuring gentle dogs playing with their angelic baby...
More Stories