For over 20 years, the American Eagle Foundation (AEF) has been traveling coast-to-coast with a very unique celebrity. His name is Challenger, and he's a 27-year-old male Bald Eagle
No matter how many times we step into an airport, we never cease to get the same awe-struck reactions from other travelers.
Traveler: "Can I ask what's in that box?"
Me: "It's a Bald Eagle!"
Traveler: "You're kidding me! Is it really? That's incredible! He's going to ride on the plane with us!?"
For over 20 years, the American Eagle Foundation (AEF) has been traveling coast-to-coast with a very unique celebrity. His name is Challenger, and he's a 27-year-old male Bald Eagle who is unable to survive on his own in the wild because he was accidentally human imprinted as a young eaglet after falling out of his nest. The result: he basically thinks he's a person and never learned how to hunt.
After being released into the wild twice, he kept seeking out people for food. The last time he attempted to beg for food, he was almost hurt by a man who felt threatened, but luckily, another man saved the young eagle from harm.
At one year of age, he was turned over to the American Eagle Foundation to be permanently cared for. It wasn't long that the AEF realized this bird was special. Because of his early association with humans, he was extremely accustomed to people and very easy to train. AEF Founder Al Cecere had the outlandish vision of training this eagle to free-fly through stadiums during the national anthem—so, that’s what we did!
More than two decades later, Challenger is the most famous eagle in the world and is the first in U.S. history trained to accomplish this incredible feat. He's flown at nearly 400 events (mostly professional and collegiate sporting events) and has educated and inspired millions upon millions of people.
So how do we get him from our little town in East Tennessee to states all across the country? We fly!
For years we have flown on commercial airlines, but in the past couple of years, Southwest Airlines has opened up its doors (and hearts!) to our organization and has allowed us to partner with them to transport Challenger all over the country (as well as his understudy, Mr. Lincoln, who travels during the summer months when Challenger is going through his annual molt).
Where does he sit in the plane?
He sits right in bulkhead in a custom-designed transport carrier, secured by seatbelts.
It's quite normal for the fun and welcoming Flight Crew to allow the AEF to jump on the intercom and tell all of the Customers on the plane about Challenger and his story.
Before we get on the plane, Challenger is usually allowed to be taken out of his carrier so he can stretch his wings and drink some water (while at the same time allowing other travelers to see something that they had never imagined they'd see in an airport).
The American Eagle Foundation is very grateful to be able to work with such an incredible airline, and we look forward to a busy travel season this fall. If you’re flying through Nashville, keep your eyes peeled—you just may see Challenger traveling on your next Southwest flight!