Turtle Fliers – Pilots join forces to help endangered sea turtles and other species

Turtle Fliers – Pilots join forces to help endangered sea turtles and other species

Turtle Fliers – Pilots join forces to help endangered sea turtles and other species

I’m on the telephone with Leslie J. Weinstein, who is calling from Idaho, where he lives and operates his business, True-Lock LLC, and a nonprofit he founded, Turtles Fly Too. He feigns surprise when I ask about the irony of learning that a sea turtle rescue is based in a landlocked state known for its mountains and freshwater habitats.

“Wait a minute. Now, why would you ask that?” he quips. “Don’t you know that Boise, Idaho, is the sea turtle capital of the world?”

Turtles Fly Too helps more than just rescued turtles. Pilot Dave Sutton volunteered his Piper Turbo Saratoga and his time to assist the effort to rescue a young Guadalupe fur seal – a threatened species – that had washed up on an Oregon beach dehydrated and lethargic. Five separate organizations were involved in this rescue with oversight by NOAA Fisheries West Coast office. Sutton flew the seal pup to Petaluma Municipal Airport which was then transferred to The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California.
Experts say these seals, listed as a threatened species, are traveling farther north than usual following prey shifts due to warming waters along the West Coast, and an alarming number wind up dead or sick, malnourished and stranded.

While you won’t find sea turtles living in Idaho, thousands are alive because of the efforts of Turtles Fly Too, which supporters refer to as TF2. The organization coordinates and facilitates general aviation efforts within a larger scale first responder relocation program directed toward sea turtles and other endangered marine species such as seals and whales that have been cold stunned, injured or entangled.

Jets, pistons and turboprops including the Beechcraft King Air are used to help TF2 fulfill its mission. The organization’s leadership and considerable investment of time is driven by Weinstein’s passion and the support of more than 400 volunteers. An industry-related, dedicated advisory board helps guide TF2, and the nonprofit hired its first staff member in November. Bonnie Barnes is a long-time TF2 volunteer based in Miami who also is a seasoned nonprofit professional; she designed and maintains their international database of available pilots.

When a mission arises, Weinstein uses the aviation database to select pilots by geographic region. These Turtle Fliers donate their aircraft, fuel, labor and expertise to transport endangered species or to give personnel and equipment a lift to a rescue site.

TF2 partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), along with many nonprofit rescue facilities across North America that provide lifesaving rescues and rehabilitation services.

“We are the only organization that has been granted sea turtle transport authority by the USFWS, so we are called upon for rescue operations from Alaska to Mexico on the West Coast and on the East Coast, from Canada down into the Caribbean. We’ve begun to provide international flights as well,” Weinstein says.

Using air transport instead of ground transportation shortens travel time for the mammals, reducing stress on the injured passengers. Air travel also means rescue teams can arrive on scene quickly, as was the case in July 2020 when a young humpback whale was found entangled in line, netting and cable in New York’s Ambrose Channel. TF2 was contacted to transport a disentanglement team from Massachusetts to New York and back. Time was critical because the whale was alive but unable to feed and could barely raise his head above the surface for air. The mammal also was in danger of being hit by ships operating in the channel.

Emergency requests are the norm for TF2, which is why Weinstein feels they can never have enough pilots in their database. Occasionally, though, transport requests are known well in advance.

In a fall 2020 newsletter, the Turtles Fly Too team put out a call for two upcoming missions. One was taking an endangered olive ridley sea turtle named Berni from a rehabilitation stint at the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia, to be released back to the wild in warmer waters off San Diego. The other was moving Pistachio, an endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle from Tampa to her new permanent home at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. She’d been rehabilitating at a facility in Florida since being struck by a boat nine years ago. The wounds healed but permanent injuries to her head, shell and spine left little chance she’d survive if released back to the ocean.

Warren Brown helped transport a green sea turtle named Tsunami from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center to the St. Louis Aquarium in June 2020, here being loaded by volunteers. A boat strike left the small turtle with head, jaw and flipper injuries, and he has been rehabilitating the past three years at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. He is estimated to be between 15 and 20 years old and weighs about 66 pounds; he could grow to about 500 pounds in his new permanent home.

The busiest time of year for TF2 is November. It’s the start of cold stun season, which typically lasts 10 weeks. A sea turtle is cold-stunned when the water temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The condition causes a turtle’s heart rate and circulation to drop so drastically that they are unable to swim or forage.

“It is anyone’s guess how many turtles will wash up on the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, this year,” Weinstein says. “The number that have needed to be transported to rehabilitation facilities has ranged from 300 to 1,200 a year since 2014.”

What he’s most worried about this year is diminished resources available to help the turtles: from pilots who have personally been affected by the pandemic to rescue centers that have closed due to COVID-19 restrictions or cannot care for additional patients because their funds are down during this trying year.

“The Vancouver Aquarium announced the day after we transported the olive ridley sea turtle to SeaWorld San Diego that they were closing because of funding shortfalls due to COVID,” Weinstein says. “And on the East Coast, instead of dropping 50 or 75 turtles at one place, we are having to make multiple drops at facilities in different cities. There’s been a lot written about COVID being good for nature and conservation, but in this case we think conservation is being negatively impacted. This may be the most difficult winter we’ve experienced.”

Merging conservation and aviation

“We are on the verge of losing many of our critically endangered species that our grandkids will never have the opportunity to enjoy. I do this for my grandkids and your grandkids,” says Weinstein, proudly reporting the recent birth of his 12th grandchild.

He has dedicated his entire life to conservation, having spent his youth rescuing sea turtles on the shores of St. Augustine, Florida, hunting and fishing in the nearby woods and streams, and then working in ranching. His experiences taught him to protect the environment by improving, not depleting, valuable resources.

“Even as a child, the sea turtles that laid their eggs on our property fascinated me,” Weinstein writes in his bio. “I found myself protective of them as I rescued many eggs from other beaches, where turtle nests were being robbed for profit or vandalized for sport, and brought them home, buried them and watched over their eventual hatching and journey to the sea.”

His family’s passion for the preservation of sea turtles and for research and education to improve sea turtle conservation is what encouraged he and his wife Linda to donate their oceanfront property in 2010 to the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida, where he served on the development board.

Weinstein is no stranger to aviation. His father Nathan I. “Sonny” Weinstein was a pilot and an attorney for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, among other aviation-related entities. Weinstein also became a pilot but didn’t stay current, though he has remained passionate about the industry.

Georgia Sea Turtle Center staff releasing one loggerhead and 16 cold-stunned Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles back to the ocean off Jekyll Island after recovery. Turtles Fly Too was requested to fly the emergency mission as it is imperative to transport the rehabilitated sea turtles to a release beach as soon as possible. The release ensures that healthy turtles do not spend time in a rehabilitation setting where they could be susceptible to ailments of other turtles and/or risk being habituated to a captive environment.

“When I made the donation of my oceanfront property, the contract specifically stated that aviation had to play a role,” although Weinstein shares that he wasn’t sure what that would be. Later that same year, his friend Dr. Terry Norton, a veterinarian and founder of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island, Georgia, came up with a way to bring Weinstein’s passions together. Norton needed him to use his aviation contacts to find a pilot willing to transport a green sea turtle from his facility to Dubuque, Iowa.

The same day Weinstein put the word out, the need was answered. Just a few months later, Norton called with a request to fly 50 cold-stunned turtles out of Cape Cod. And that’s how Turtles Fly Too began, and why a sea turtle rescue group happens to have its home office in Idaho.

Turtle Flier Chaz Harris used the King Air 350, owned by his employer Polar Beverage, on five different missions to haul loggerheads and green sea turtles. He said the King Air was great for these missions as the cargo area is right in the back by the door and that makes it really easy to load them in and out.

Weinstein, who serves as president of the board for TF2, has lived in Boise since 1978. He founded True-Lock LLC in 1992, which designs advanced fastener and materials technology for the commercial truck and bus industry. He converted that technology to the aviation industry, first by developing a solution for securely fastening skis to aircraft, then earning close to 2,000 FAA supplemental type certification/parts manufacturer approval certifications, including an aircraft wheel fastener assembly system and fire detector shield articles for the King Air series.

In 1991, Weinstein reconnected with Ed Stimpson, the longtime president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, and someone Weinstein’s father had worked with. When Stimpson learned Weinstein had developed fastener technology that would withstand hostile environments, he facilitated a fast-track path to FAA certification. Weinstein received assistance from Gary Landes from Airglas, manufacturer of aircraft skis among other accessories. Prototypes were prepared within two weeks, and six weeks later, Weinstein had his first FAA certifications. What began with fastener technology gave True-Lock the ability to develop new STCs and PMAs, leading to the many certifications that included foreign aircraft and cloud seeding equipment.

As TF2 has grown, the nonprofit no longer relies solely on Weinstein reaching out to his industry connections. The Turtle Flier database has streamlined the process to match volunteer pilots to missions and the group holds two fly-ins each year to recruit and recognize volunteers. Weinstein says he hopes to resume those when restrictions on gatherings are lifted.

One shell of a mission

There have been a few King Air aircraft used in TF2 missions and Weinstein says he’d like to see more. They can haul a nice size payload of sea turtles, and if the aircraft is equipped with a cargo door, it’s especially useful for transporting loggerhead sea turtles, the largest of all hard-shelled turtles and listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since 1978.

TF2’s experienced Turtle Flier Chaz Harris has flown five missions using the King Air 350, owned by his employer Polar Beverage, based in Worchester, Massachusetts. The chief pilot and flight department manager for the family-owned business had a blast trying to wrangle the heavy loggerheads and was thrilled to find out the appreciative aquarium staff even named one of the rescued turtles Chaz.

Harris flew missions from the New England Aquarium to South Carolina and Georgia from 2014 until 2018, a convenient route because Polar Beverage has a plant in Georgia. Then, the company expanded by adding a plant in the western U.S. and replaced the King Air with a Cessna Citation 560XL business jet.

Harris hauled five loggerheads each riding in a dog kennel on three different missions and twice flew green sea turtles traveling in individual banana boxes.

“The King Air 350 was great for this, and really any King Air would be,” he says. “You’ve got the cargo area right in the back by the door and that makes it really easy to load them in and out. Usually the limitation is not the weight, but you have these kennel cages that won’t fit through the door.”

The majority of sea turtles transported are recovered from Cape Cod after suffering the effects of cold stun. From early November through mid-January each year, hundreds of turtles wash up on Massachusetts beaches during their migration south.

The sea turtles are taken to the New England Aquarium for triage and initial care, including warming their body temperatures slowly and starting treatment until they are stable enough to move to a long-term care facility. The goal is to bring the turtles back to health and return them to the wild so that they may rejoin the reproductive population and contribute toward recovery of these endangered species.

Chaz, the loggerhead named after Harris, spent a week at the New England Aquarium before Harris flew him to the South Carolina Aquarium, where he was admitted to their Sea Turtle Hospital to complete rehabilitation. The juvenile loggerhead arrived on Jan. 11 and was released in the ocean May 10.

“How cool is it that there’s a turtle out there named Chaz?” Harris says. “These are fun missions to fly and they leave you with such a good feeling because all of the people involved are so appreciative.”

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