The Problem With Horses in the Hold

10 Mar 17 8 Comments

PH-BFT is a Boeing 747-406(M) operated by KLM. It’s a 747 combi for mixed passenger and freight operations. The aircraft was travelling from Amsterdam to New York JFK, cruising at flight level 360 (36,000 feet). They were about 330 nautical miles (600 kilometres) north of St John’s in Newfoundland, Canada when the captain fell ill. The first officer declared a medical emergency and diverted to St John’s.

After they landed at St John’s, the captain was brought out of the cockpit in a wheelchair. He apologised to the passengers and seemed alert and stable. The passengers were then told that a replacement crew, who had been rostered to fly the return flight from JFK to Amsterdam, would instead fly to St John’s on a charter plane, arriving in four and a half hours.

However, the passengers were then informed that they would not be able to disembark, as the airport wasn’t able to handle that many passengers (the KLM B744 Combi is usually configured with 233 economy seats and 35 business seats). The issue appears to have actually been the nine horses in the aft cargo hold. There was no ground support at St John’s for the horses and so they could not be unloaded. Meanwhile, the crew believed that if the passengers exited the aircraft, the weight of the horses, which were in the aft cargo hold, would unbalance the aircraft.

Photograph of completely different horses and aircraft because that’s all I could find. Photograph by HE Tex Sutton Forwarding Company

Apparently, at JFK they would use a tail stand (or “jack-stand”) to ensure that the aircraft was not unbalanced but there was no such equipment at St John’s.

Unfortunately, the replacement crew were not able to depart JFK for St John’s. The aircraft balance was recalculated in Amsterdam and they determined that the suitcases and cargo in the other holds would be sufficient to balance out the weight of the horses at the back. Five hours after landing, the passengers were allowed out of the aircraft and made it into local hotels at about 4 in the morning local time.

Now my first thought was that I wouldn’t want to be the person mucking out the aft cargo hold after the horses had been in there for over 25 hours. I searched for more information about how this might work. The World of Showjumping had a cute article talking about the details.

Each horse has a “baggage allowance” as they call it – water and water buckets, 30kg shavings for bedding, tack bags for the saddles and bridles, rugs, a large hay net and a small overnight bag with a spare head collar and rug. Stallions and mares are separated, with the stallions apparently generally flying at the front of the aircraft so they aren’t distracted by the females.

However, I found the conversation on PPRuNe about transporting horses to be rather interesting, as I literally know not a thing about transporting animals in aircraft. The conversation started with someone asking about whether you could really just put nine horses in the aft cargo hold like that.

I seem to recall all sorts of rules in the flying manuals about carriage of horses on the old 747-100, 200 combis ( e.g; need for handlers, options if the horse literally starts kicking off, etc )………… Times certainly have changed if you can stick 9 of them unsupervised in the underfloor “aft cargo hold”.

I’d wondered about this too. Ascending into the sky must be pretty disorienting for a horse. If the horses were stomping, could you feel the fuselage shake? As a passenger, I’d be pretty uncomfortable with that.

I thought that flying horses had to be accompanied by a vet carrying a humane killer in case they literally kicked off. A friend who transported a horse in his furniture van (dropdown loading ramp) was shocked by a series of terrific bangs in the back. The horse had put one hoof straight through the alloy side of the vehicle, fallen on its side and flailed about in panic to such an extent it had to be destroyed due to its injuries.

Well, that’s exactly what I was worried about! But surely the aviation industry is a bit better organised than a man with a van. That post kicked off a great discussion of pilots discussing the issues with transporting horses.

Yep, the humane killer was certainly mentioned in the old “long long time ago” combi manuals for the early 74’s, can’t remember if we needed a vet to be carried or if the Groom/handler/PIC would end up being responsible for use thereof (I never operated a flight carrying horses).

A pilot who had operated a flight carrying horses then commented although he wasn’t sure what would have happened if a horse did kick off.

Always carried grooms and captive bolt humane killer but not a vet. Never clearly understood how a captive bolt device could have been accurately applied to the correct spot on the head of a horse going nuts in its box.

As a side note, I couldn’t actually find any incidents of a horse going beserk in a modern transport situation. I presume that either it is a very rare event (although I found references to pilots avoiding turbulence when horses were on board to keep from spooking them) or that it’s generally quickly and easily handled with tranquilisers. In any event, the best information I found was definitely on the PPRuNe forum.

OK, a little misinformation here. PH-BFT is indeed a combi, the horses were not under floor but on the main deck, hence the need for a high-loader for which St. John’s possibly lacks. Or, possibly, the horses could not disembark due to quarantine regulations. KLM sends trained animal attendants on every flight with horses, so they would be the ones to take necessary action in case of disruptive behaviour. And although the aircraft has seven pallet positions, it can hold a lot more horses than that because you can fit more than one horse in each stall – nine is by no means unusual.

And finally, a pilot tells about his experience transporting an expensive race horse.

Once carried a race horse to the German GP in Baden-Baden. Him and his mate, that is, an old nag which couldn’t run a hundred yards if his life depended on it, but it was a good mate of the racer and kept him calm during the flight.

The single horse, and its mate, was accompanied by an entourage of 10-odd staff, including the trainer, the vet, the vet’s assistant, 4 grooms and 2 bodyguards. The vet gave us the briefing on the humane killer along these lines: ‘That horse is worth more than the aircraft we’re flying in. You will not apply the human killer. If he kicks off, dump the cabin pressure and put him to sleep – the rest of us will go on portable oxygen’.

Luckily, it didn’t come to that on the KLM flight! The passengers eventually made it to JFK and the captain and all the horses horses are reported to be healthy and stable.

You can read about the original incident and updates on the Aviation Herald: KLM B744 over Atlantic on Feb 25th 2017, captain incapacitated.


  • I have flown horses, but not in a 747. In the ‘eighties one of the most successful trainer of race horses in Ireland was Vincent O’Brien. His stud farm was Ballydoyle in county Tipperary.
    This place also had a small landing strip and O’Brien owned a Shorts SC7 Skyvan. This could just lift two horses out of the small strip. When not in use for the transport of race horses, this aircraft could be used for cargo flights but that is another story. The Skyvan could transport two horses in a specially made box that would be inserted through the large cargo ramp at the back.
    One of my colleagues was flying the horses to an airport where the horses were to be transferred to a larger aircraft. For some reason there were no grooms that normally were to accompany the horses. Ian was given a gun, the famous “humane killer” with three bolts. When he asked why there were three bolts for two horses, the answer was: “If you have to destroy two horses worth more than ten million dollars each, you’d better use the third one for yourself.”
    One day Ian and myself were flying two horses to a race in the UK. The nearest suitable airport was Fairoaks. Officially the grooms were supposed to clean the aircraft before leaving but, claiming that they had to calm the horses, they disappeared, leaving us with the mess.
    The Skyvan was quite able to taxi in reverse, so we backed it to the grass verge, opened the rear ramp and started the unpleasant task of “mucking out” when a yellow van arrived. The airport authorities had sent a health inspector who ordered us to put it all back again in plastic bags, citing the risk of bacterial contamination.
    We were perplexed. “Do you really believe that these horses will keep it all in until after the race is over and they are back on Irish soil?” Ian asked. But no, the UK had to be protected from foreign animal waste.
    And so we were just starting our unpleasant job when Ian put up the collar of his coat and looked away. “What is the matter, Ian?” I asked. “SSHH!” A few minutes later the explanation came: Another pilot walked by. Ian knew him from a previous job with a small commuter airline, Avair, that had gone in liquidation. Ian did not want him to see that he, as he put it, “had been reduced from flying passengers to shoveling shit out of an aircraft”.

  • I’m reminded of a colorful story about some people who knew plenty about flying, but nothing about horses. I give the broad outline in excerpts:
    “We’re going to haul six horses in 6CA across the Gulf to Belize? How the hell are we going to do that?

    None of us knew anything about handling horses and it was to prove near fatal.

    [on takeoff] They were jumping around and I was afraid the big ones in front were going to push the mares into the tail.
    That, of course, would have put our center of gravity too far back and we would have lost control of the aircraft.

    I was thinking of the consequences of the horses getting loose inside the airplane, picturing what the airplane would do as the tail dropped and we flipped over on our back and spun into the water

    The half-inch manila rope which had secured the horse to the plywood wall in front had broken. The brass halter chain had broken. The horse was rearing up in the air, shrieking and shaking his head from side to side, his hooves flailing out in front of him banging on the plywood. ”

    Obviously, he lived to tell.

  • The Vickers Merchantman at Brooklands museum in the UK has a mock up, including a fake horse, in its hold showing how horses were flown around in it.

    • I have added it to my list of places to visit — although I have to admit, that list is pretty long and spread around the world!

  • There is a PBS show called Cities in the Sky. The second episode shows KLM transporting horses to Hong Kong

  • I love horses and aircraft. Thanks to all for this article and comments. I’m glad no horses or people were hurt.

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