How racehorses are transported by plane. Very sensitive customers.

In august 2.018, ASL Ireland took a strategic decision of closing freighter company Pan Air. Pan Air which started operations in 1.988, had a highly demanded speciality in their portfolio thanks to their professionality and aircraft used: To transport racehorses onboard.

During spring and summer months, is very characteristic to see in United Kingdom and France racehorses in the weekends. It is a billionaire event thanks to bets and draws many people. Horses are product of best breeds and stables, descendants of champions. It’s value ranges from 5 to 10 million pounds.

Most of Pan Air flights were done from Shannon, in the west Irish coast. Very close is where the most important stables of Europe are located. Due to the highest value of horses and distance from Farnborough, Deauville, Cambridge or Edinburgh, transport by plane worth it.

The airplane.

BAe 146 has been the most accepted model amongst the customers for this specific purpose. It’s a regional four jet engine aircraft manufactured by British Aerospace in the beginning of last decade of twentieth century.

BAe 146-300QT awaits for special passengers. (Photo: José Velasco).

The airplane was designed to land in short runways and, for that purpose has a very characteristic airbrake in its tail cone, a very strong landing gear and very efficient brakes.

It’s also relatively quiet, and its cockpit is wide and very comfortable.

Because it’s a freighter airplane, there are no seats in the cabin. Instead, there are some rails and metal locks to move and fix pallets and freight containers to the floor.

Cargo is loaded into the plane through a big hydraulically operated door on the rear left side of the fuselage. It’s the way horses use to get on the plane as well.  

To adapt the cabin for livestock, up to seven single stables are installed alongside the cabin to make horses as if they were at home.

Stables mounted on cabin of BAe 146.

A pallet of seats is installed in the area between de freight door and the rear part of the airplane. These seats will be designated to all people who travel besides horses: veterinary, loadmaster, and engineer, and grooms.

Because seats are in the rear part of the airplane, horses are facing backwards in order to have visual contact with their grooms.

Very sensitive guests.

Special considerations have to be taken when carrying racehorses onboard of an airplane. The goal is to take them to a race and that is the reason why they are given no substance to make their flight more comfortable. Otherwise, their capabilities could be diminished during the race.

Unknown people are not permitted to get closer in order to avoid they get nervous. Only their personal grooms, veterinaries or, even another animal who travels besides as a companion such as her colt if her/his mother races. Usually, two or three horses are carried and maybe only one or two will race.

Not very luxury but conevenient seats for staff who comes with horses. (Photo: José Velasco).

In addition, to avoid the get nervous, airplane noises are reduced to a minimum. The APU Will be started once the freight door is closed and engines are about to be started as well.

Moreover, getting into the cabin yelling or making noise is absolutely prohibited. For this reason, unless in case of an emergency, the used of PA (Passenger Addressing) through speakers is restricted. All messages take place through interphone with Loadmaster who plays the role as a purser in fact.

During flight, only grooms are authorised to stand-up and stay beside the horses to keep them calmed if necessary.

Horses settle in just 40 minutes. (Photo: José Velasco)

The operation.

Given customers are more sensitive than usual, flight operation has to be very smooth.

Trailers to move horses are more like luxury caravans rather than typical animal transports. Trailers are parked just in front of the airplane’s freight door and their grooms take them into the airplane thanks to a special ramp designed for animals. When this operation is taken place nobody else is allowed to get closer to animals as they could be afraid of a stranger.

Legatissimo boards the airplane with its groom.

One they settle in their respective stable, doors are closed, ramp is disassembled and put into the belly holds of the airplane, and airplane’s freight door is closed.

As we mentioned before, noise could disturb animals. So, APU is started once all doors are closed and just before engine start.

BAe 146 has four jet engine but, its start procedure is quite fast, and there is no need to wait for so long to start taxi.

BAe 146 engine start procedure.

Even this is not a long airplane, is able to turn very close. Because of this, to leave the parking area have to be done with special care and very slowly to avoid high speed turns that could disturb horses. Furthermore, taxi speed is slower than usual and air traffic controllers, who are familiar with this type of operations, advice other airplanes we are carrying “livestock on board”. Basically, to ask for understanding.  

When take-off is about to take place, power is applied progressively and slowly, adjusting take-off power just before a certain speed. To avoid a high speed rotation and a very steep climb, flap position is selected in a very high deflection (30º).

As in take-off, climb gradients do not exceed 1.000 feet per minute in order to avoid steep climbs. This allows animals not to make too much effort with their legs. Flight levels chosen are around 20.000 feet in order to keep the pressurisation system working with a relatively low cabin altitude. Then horses will not suffer any adverse symptoms during race. Besides, in the unlikely event of loss cabin pressure, breathable atmosphere would be reached very soon and there would be no risk for the animals.

When descent and approach is initiated, air traffic control coordination, again is very helpful an essential. Even is contained in our flight plan and controllers are familiar with this kind of flights, we give this information on the radio when we have the first contact on their frequency. Descent is initiated to with time enough to plan it slight.

Approach is flown very smooth. When reducing speed, airplane tends to raise it nose, increasing it angle of attack. To avoid it, we select flaps earlier than usual trying to ease nose up momentum. Moreover, turns to final approach are done with lower angle and at a distance of 15 NM, which is longer than usual.

When landing is about to come, autopilot is disconnected and, as my friend Rafa says, is “when technology ends and art begins”. Overflying runway threshold, tailcone airbrake is deployed smoothly and firmly. Touchdown must be done flat, almost allowing to land with main landing gear and nose landing gear at the same time. Captain’s gold hands are necessary at this time. The Bae 146 is very appreciated after a smooth touchdown and commences to decelerate easily with wing mounted spoilers and its full deployed tailcone airbrake.  

Braking is done manually and progressively, using the full length to stop the airplane.

BAe 146 on it landing roll with its full deplyed airbrakes.

Once parked on stand, a convoy is waiting to take horse to their destination: the race. Before opening freight door and assemble the ramp, engines and APU must be switched off.

When horses are being taken to their new ground transport, number of inquisitive ramp workers are attracted to the plane asking about the animals… Bets move a lot of money.

End of service.

 When this first sector is finished, the whole crew goes to hotel until daily races are over. Then, we’ll start again to take them back to Shannon.

Well done!

Crews are ususally infected with groom’s joy after winning races. Meanwhile, jockey is back on his A319ACJ with horse’s owner.

After a series of flights a bond between crews and people who works with horses is created. There is an empathy with horses and grooms which has been translated into a relationship of more than 25 years. A lot of gratitude has been received thanks to the very good crew’s attitude, high experience and professionality.

For many years Pan Air pilots has shown their value. Even up to their last day. Their commitment has always been showed when situation was very far from being favourable.


I’d like to dedicate this short article to whom they were may colleagues in Pan Air Líneas aéreas for almost a decade. Therefore, serves as a tribute to all staff in the company: administration, maintenance, flight operations, ground operations and, my beloved friends and cockpit colleagues, the pilots. Many names are coming up to my mind, some of them retired some years ago.

All of them in a new professional stage in other airlines but, we’re always will be “Paneros”.

I wish you very happy flights Paneros!

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