Plane turns back to JFK after horse escapes on board

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A Boeing 747 en route from New York JFK to Liege, Belgium, was forced to turn around on November 9 after a horse got loose in the cargo hold.

The horse, which partially escaped its stall while airborne, had to be euthanized due to the extent of its injuries, according to two people familiar with the episode.

The cargo flight operated by charter airline Air Atlanta Icelandic had climbed to around 31,000 feet when the crew contacted Air Traffic Control in Boston to report that the horse had escaped.

“We don’t have a problem (…) flying-wise,” one of the pilots says in a video reconstruction by YouTube channel “You Can See ATC,” but “we cannot get the horse back secured.”

A representative from Air Atlanta Icelandic told CNN that the information in the “You Can See ATC” video is correct.

Turbulence struck and the horse jumped

The horse was among 15 being transported to Liege — an import hub for Europe — when turbulence struck shortly after takeoff, according to John Cuticelli, the head of the corporation responsible for operating animal quarantine and export at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The horse became spooked and jumped halfway over the high front barrier of the stall and became hung up, with his front legs on one side of the barrier and his hind legs trapped on the inside of the stall.

“The horse jumped and managed to get its two front legs over the (front) barrier and then got jammed,” Cuticelli said. “It’s only the second time in all the years I’ve been doing this that I’ve ever seen that happen. And we do thousands of horses a year. A very unfortunate event — but that horse was spooked.”

In the recordings, Air Traffic Control can be heard granting the pilots’ request to return to JFK Airport and, because the plane was too heavy, to dump 20 tons of fuel east of Nantucket.

The pilot also asks for a veterinarian to meet the plane upon landing, because “we have a horse in difficulty.”

At that point, Cuticelli said, “we dispersed veterinary care, animal handlers, medical equipment, horse slings, a horse ambulance, everything necessary to accommodate that horse.”

“We had to take the other horses out to get the equipment in to get the horse out,” he said.

But once the animal was on the ground, it was determined that its injuries were too severe to survive and it was euthanized, Cuticelli said.

CNN was not able to confirm the nature of the horse’s injuries. A representative for the shipping company that transported the horse declined to comment.

A near-impossible task

Performance and breeding horses — including racehorses and show horses — are routinely shuttled safely around the globe without incident. But the episode speaks to the inherent unpredictability of work with horses, which are flight animals that can injure themselves unexpectedly when they are frightened or startled.

It would have been virtually impossible for flight grooms — the people responsible for caring for the horse on board — to get the animal safely back into his stall while in mid-air because of the mechanics of how horses are transported on planes. Horses are loaded on the ground into massive, dead-bolted shipping containers with three narrow stalls per container. Those containers are then stacked against one another inside the plane, making impossible to open the stall door mid-flight.

Horses can hang their heads over the front barrier of the stall so that flight grooms can replenish feed and water and have access to the animal’s head, but that gangway is narrow.

It would also have been impossible for flight grooms to physically lift the horse back into his stall; horses weigh on average around 1,000 pounds.

The flight history on tracking site shows that, following the diversion, the plane was able to take off again some three hours behind schedule. It landed in Liege at 6:49 a.m. local time on November 10.

Pound for pound, this incident is one of the biggest-hitters when it comes to animals escaping on planes, but critter problems are surprisingly common in the air.

In October 2023 alone, an otter and a rat were reported to have caused uproar after escaping from hand luggage on a VietJet flight from Bangkok, while a bear cub broke loose from its crate on a flight from Baghdad to Dubai while passengers were on board. You can watch that video here.

And a South African pilot was forced to make an emergency landing in April after a deadly Cape cobra slithered up his shirt.

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