On Monday, there was one traveler who got a true bird’s-eye view of the Charlotte Douglas Airport.
Clark, a 19-year-old bald eagle, was recorded going through TSA with his handlers for his return flight home to Missouri. The footage and photos caught the attention of Twitter.
Clark is a flying ambassador of World Bird Sanctuary in south St. Louis. The scales on his talons never developed properly, and he would eventually get pneumonia and die if he were to hunt in the wild, the nonprofit’s executive director, Dawn Griffard, told NPR over the phone.
Griffard said Clark’s job is to spread a message about conservation and raise money to support the sanctuary. He does this by attending events to fly to songs like The Star Spangled Banner or You Raise Me Up.
TSA officers are used to seeing an eagle on their uniform as they look over their shoulder, but I’m sure the team at @CLTAirport Checkpoint A did a double take when they saw a real one earlier this week. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/cxfbqyVok1
— TSA Southeast (@TSA_Southeast) August 25, 2022
Griffard said that Clark, who is named for William Clark – and yes, there is another eagle named Lewis at his sanctuary – is hired to fly between four to six times a year. Over the course of 12 years, this frequent flier has taken more than 100 commercial flights.
Eagles may not have shoes or belts to remove, but they have their own version of being patted down. A TSA search of a bald eagle involves investigating its crate and under the carpet inside it.
People at airports often want to touch or see Clark, and his stewards have to deny their requests to stick their fingers through the window in his crate. But usually they’re respectful, Griffard said.
Much to World Bird Sanctuary’s appreciation, Southwest Airlines lets Clark travel in the main cabin. Other airlines don’t allow this, and Griffard has had to put him in cargo in the past – once, she said, an airline misplaced him this way.
Despite standing 30 inches high and weighing 7.5 pounds, Clark gets two seats and three seat-belt extenders. That’s because of his crate, which gets strapped in at the plane’s bulkhead. A member of World Bird Sanctuary’s eagle team sits beside the crate to keep an eye on him and give him snacks — typically bits of rat, Griffard explained.
In each stage of travel, World Bird Sanctuary’s team, the airport staff and often even the Southwest pilots are careful to keep Clark’s trip as bump-free as possible. He hates turbulence.
When the group arrives at their destination, Clark gets his own hotel room. They move the furniture and throw a large tarp over the floor. He gets a perch in the middle of the room, from which he watches TV. Griffard said he prefers cartoons and nature shows.