Sunday, January 27, 2013

Adventures in flying Pt 1: “Tarantulas on a Plane".

In the fall of 1995, my junior year at Denison University, that lifelong fascination with snakes had expanded its long nose into an obsession with spiders…the big hairy kind. My curiosity started a few summers earlier in Belgium when I visited an exhibition on tarantulas. This was the day I faced my fears, because up until that very moment I was absolutely terrified of spiders. Within minutes of entering the exhibition hall though, my fear turned into fascination. What my mind had previously perceived as black hairy monsters, revealed itself as a true kaleidoscope of diversity. For the first time I saw the psychedelic colors of the Antilles Pinktoe (Avicularia versicolor), with its bright red backsite, metallic green head and metallic purple legs. The lemon yellow highlights on the legs of the Sri Lankan Ornamental Tarantula (Poecilotheria fasciata), and the mesmerizing blue sheen of the spectacularly aggressive Cobalt Blue Tarantula (Haplopelma lividus). The list goes on. If I were you I would plug these names into Google and take a look for yourself. By the end of the afternoon, I went from being a complete arachnophobe, to having let one walk on my hands.

This particular adventure was set in motion a year later when I had purchased around 30 spiders from the exhibitor in Belgium with whom I had become friends. I kept them in my University dorm room (other students religiously avoided my corner of that building). He gave me the contact info of his buddy Jim in Cincinnati, Ohio who had a collection that numbered in the thousands. Jim would very likely be interested in trying some captive breeding between his specimens and mine. Why captive breed these beasts? Firstly, it’s pretty easy with a high survival rate of spiderlings. It allows more species to be introduced into the hobby while reducing the need for wild caught spiders. Second, habitat destruction has caused many species to become critically endangered in the wild. Captive breeding could at least ensure survival of the species.

Back in the States, this spider sightseeing trip looked all nice and exciting in theory, but I had one problem…no car. I felt bad enough about begging people for rides to the local mall, and wasn’t about to ask for a ride down to Cincinnati. Doing the 130 mile trip on my rusty bicycle with a bag of spiders on my back in one weekend would be fitness overkill. Not wanting to miss out on this opportunity though, I did some thinking and it soon dawned on me that with a bit of ‘schmoozing’, I probably had an airplane at my disposal… I was in the process of getting my Private Pilot’s License, and needed to do a number of longer flights to complete the FAA’s ‘cross country’ portion of my training. Why not do one of them to Cincinnati Lunken Field (a stone’s throw from Jim’s house) and let the spiders tag along for the ride? As a student pilot I wasn’t technically allowed to carry passengers, but I couldn’t find anything in the Federal Aviation Regulation about arachnids being ‘legally classifiable as passengers’ so figured it would probably be ok.

Two Saturdays later, after much flight planning and route plotting, I departed Newark-Heath airport. My flight bag full of spiders was buckled into the seat next to me. It was a very pleasant day for flying with minimal turbulence. After take-off, I opened up the bag to let fresh air in. The cockpit of a Cessna-152 can get pretty hot on a sunny day, and that heat can quickly kill anything that’s in a small enclosure. My route took me over the city of Wilmington where permission was granted to overfly Airborne Airpark. From my Cessna I could see a DC-8 on the runway that had just landed. It felt pretty amazing to have the privilege of operating a real aircraft through controlled airspace. This was no simulation courtesy of Microsoft. The approach over the hills of southeastern Ohio was spectacular, many of the trees having already taken on the red and copper pastel colors that are so typical of a Midwestern autumn. I got some great views of the Ohio River, and after being vectored low over a neighborhood in the hills, I was cleared to land on Runway 25.

After landing, I was quickly overcome by a ‘kid in a candy store’ feeling and was probably high as a kite on endorphins. I’d just gotten to do a pretty cool bit of flying, and was about to see a world class tarantula collection. As I taxied to the corporate ramp, looking past the perimeter fence, I could already see Jim waiting for me with his van. My focus should have really remained with the airplane but I was too excited. I made a rookie error as a result, and forgot to complete the aircraft shutdown checklist… This oversight was to come bite me in the butt later that day.

Jim treated me to lunch after which we drove over to his house. His basement which would have been the stuff of nightmares for most, was like a temple for me. There were thousands of containers, neatly organized, containing an unbelievable assortment of exotic spiders. There were larger enclosures as well that had previously contained venomous snakes and crocodilians. He had traded those in order to make more room for the spiders. He was in the process of creating a comprehensive encyclopedia of tarantulas which he wanted to publish.

I showed him what I had with me, including two sub-adults of a newly discovered species. These were very likely the first two Tapinauchenius elenae spiders imported into the United States. The pride and joy in my collection was a dinner plate size Cameroon red baboon spider (Hysterocrates gigas). This species has a rather aggressive reputation, but mine was surprisingly calm. Granted, its half inch long fangs put me off from ever seriously thinking about handling her… He showed me more Avicularia species as well as a shelf full of Lasiodoras and Theraphosas, the largest spiders on Earth. He had at least one of every species I had ever read about in the literature. He had suitable ‘mates’ for most of my spiders, and I ended up leaving most of my animals in his care. It really is true that time flies when you're having fun.

A most educational day behind me, it was time to return to Newark and Jim dropped me back off at the airport. I filed a flight plan and walked out onto the ramp to the Cessna. As soon as I opened the door though, I heard the whining of gyros and knew something wasn’t quite right. In my over excited haste, I’d left the Cessna’s ‘Master’ switch on. The electrically operated flight instruments had been draining the battery for most of the day. As a result, the charge was so low that I was unable to get the engine started. Time for an embarrassing phone call to the flight school… I got a well-deserved, though surprisingly kind lecture from my instructor about how ‘them darn checklists’ are there for a reason. His advice was to see if a mechanic could hand-crank the propeller for me, let the engine charge the battery up, and then fly home. Now hand-cranking an airplane is a ridiculously dangerous procedure. It is the WW1 way of starting an airplane (before electric starter motors were available) and involves using your full body weight to swing the propeller around. If you lose your balance, you fall right into it… and that leads to all sorts of unpleasant paperwork.

After a fair amount begging from me, and head shaking from more experienced pilots, an adventurous mechanic agreed to give it a go. The engine started up after about 20 minutes of hand propping, and I ran it for about an hour to re-charge the battery. Once I got a 'good' indication I shut the engine down. By this time it was getting dark, and the FAA rules on student pilots flying at night were crystal clear: Don’t! Time for another embarrassing call down to Newark to let them know they wouldn’t have their plane back until the following day. Then came the question of sleeping arrangements. I didn’t want to impose on Jim for a place to crash as I’d only just met him in person for the first time. Fortunately for me, the staff at Lunken were very supportive, and they put their crew facilities (including the snooze room) at my disposal.
The following morning I was up pretty early, eager to be on my way. As soon as I started to load up my airplane though, one of the ramp staff walked up to me and said there was ice on top of my wings. It is probable that I would have noticed the ice myself during the pre-flight procedure, but I was grateful he pointed it out to me…just in case (he probably heard how good I was at following check lists). Trying to take off with ice on the wings tends to lead to more of those annoying forms to fill out. The easiest way to get rid of it was to let the sun melt it off.  So I took the guy’s advice, had some breakfast and watched jets take off. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday morning either.

Around 10am, my remaining spiders and I finally got the all clear and flew back to Newark. I had seen the most insane collection of tarantulas, and had learned the hard way how important following procedures is to a pilot. I met up with Jim again later that year at a reptile show in Columbus Ohio. I bought more spiders, bringing my collection to a total of 85 and thoroughly ruining my chances of a date for the next two years. My Cameroon red stayed with him for the rest of its days. Hysterocrates species were found to have a particularly nasty venom, and Denison’s entomology professor had politely requested I please keep it off campus. He didn’t want any annoying forms to fill out either… I haven’t kept any spiders in a while now. Being a busy single father, keeping exotic pets is on hold. I am hopeful though that at some point in the future I can admire their beauty again from the comfort of my living room. I will never forget the enthusiasm shared by Jim, and his passionate support for my interest in them. He sadly passed away last August. Thanks for some incredible memories mate!

(FYI: All my spiders that were not locally bought, were legally imported into the United States with the correct paperwork, and inspected by US Fish & Wildlife at Washington Dulles Airport in August of 1995)