Fort McMurray Fire: Suncor Pilot Broke Rules To Fly Pets To Safety

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Keith Mann is the manager of flight operations for Suncor Energy, but after recent heroic actions, it might be more accurate to call him Noah.

When news broke last week that over 88,000 people would be forced to flee a massive wildfire near the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray, Mann and Suncor jumped into action.

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Pilot Keith Mann made the call to fly nearly 100 pets out of the Fort McMurray area to safety. (Photo: Suncor aviation crew and chartered companies and services)

He received a message that 300 evacuees needed to be flown out from one of the company's lodges.

Mann, who was at the operational control centre, noticed the Calgary-based company still had room on a few flights with partnering airlines. He quickly arranged for a bus to pick up the evacuees and take them to the tarmac.

He had no idea his air crew would soon have to fly a menagerie.

"When they arrived at the airport — we didn't even think about it — but they arrived with all their pets," Mann told The Huffington Post Alberta.

fort mcmurray pets
Suncor's airline Sunjet worked with partners Air Canada, Air North, Enerjet, North Cariboo, Sunwest, Westjet, and West Wind to get pets and their owners out of Fort McMurray. (Photo: Suncor aviation crew and chartered companies and services)

Normally, Suncor's private airline doesn't carry pets — it's typically used for flying employees back and forth from work sites.

But, seeing close to 100 animals waiting with their owners, Mann realized an exception would have to be made.

airplane pets fort mcmurray
Pilot Keith Mann says these pets were calm and tranquil flyers. (Photo: Suncor aviation crew and chartered companies and services)

"We didn’t want any people to make the decision to stay behind because they couldn’t take their pets so we sort of broke, or bended our policies on the carriage of pets to let that happen."

Crews welcomed the pets — including dogs, rabbits, cats, chinchillas, hedgehogs and a frog — into the planes' cabins.

Mann said there was a rumour someone brought along their pet pig.

"We didn’t want any people to make the decision to stay behind because they couldn’t take their pets so we sort of broke, or bended our policies on the carriage of pets to let that happen."

"Our crews made sure the number of pets they would take inside the cabin they could carry safely, so the largest number we had was 36 in the cabin," he said.

One 200-pound dog decided he wanted to sit in a seat like a passenger.

"He just hopped into a seat and wouldn't get out, so we were trying to encourage him to sit on the ground."

"It was a range of pets, so you can just imagine the potential of it. But once they got airborne it was just total tranquility."

suncor aviation crew
Planes sit on the tarmac at For McMurray's Firebag Aerodrome, 120 kilometres northeast of Fort McMurray. The aerodrome was where flights of evacuees and their pets departed from. (Photo: Suncor aviation crew and chartered companies and services)

It's unclear who will end up paying the bill to cover the flights, but Mann said that money was the last thing on their minds.

"It was ‘worry about it after’. The main thing was make sure we had enough airplanes and enough time to get people out and do it safely because it was a mass effort," he said.

"It’s not a big airport we’re talking about. It’s got one tarmac and one runway. And we had to coordinate all the airplanes taking off and landing and loading. So that was the primary focus."

"Once they got airborne it was just total tranquility."

Over the past 10 days, Suncor has flown up to 10,000 people out of the Fort McMurray area. Since the evacuation, he's also been busy shuttling people in critical roles back and forth from the crisis.

The wildfire is still burning out-of-control, but Mann says he'll be prepared when evacuees are allowed to return to their homes.

"We’re just poised and ready and when we’re told we’re ready to go we’ll go."

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