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Greenville Business Magazine

GSP Prepares For Equine Invasion: Airport Will Be Entry Point For 550 Horses Bound For World Equestrian Games

Jul 05, 2018 10:53AM ● By Kathleen Maris
Main photo: Michael Stone is president of Equestrian Sport Productions, the organizer of the WEG. Gallery photo: Horses are loaded into cargo aircraft in air stalls.

By John McCurry

Martin Atock may know more about the global transport of competition horses than anyone in the world. He’s the managing director of Peden Bloodstock, a renowned Germany-based horse logistics specialist. The firm’s mantra is “We Fly Horses,” and they’ve been doing it since 1947.

Peden’s expertise is coming into play in a big way in the run up to the World Equestrian Games set for the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, N.C., Sept. 11-23. The company is in charge of what is likely the biggest equine airlift ever into the U.S.—550 horses on 10 chartered flights scheduled to land at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport beginning on Sept. 2. 

These horses will be among nearly 1,000 set to compete in the WEG. Organizers expect the event to draw at least half a million visitors, making it one of world’s largest sporting events.

The horses will be flying in from Leige Airport in Belgium, a relatively small airport, but one that has become significant in air cargo. About 3,000 horses are transported from Liege every year. A major piece of infrastructure, known as the “Horse Inn,” opened at the airport in 2016, enhancing its capabilities to house and move horses. Liege is located in the center of Belgium, giving it good proximity to large numbers of equestrian competitors. Atock says the vast majority of horses competing in the WEG are based in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and France, so Liege is “enormously convenient.”

Peden has chartered 20 Emirates aircraft that can each carry 25 air stables to make the seven-hour, 20-minute flights to GSP. Dubai-based Emirates has a reputation of having one of the top air cargo operations in the world, and the carrier has extensive experience moving horses. All of the flights will be made on Boeing 777 freighters. 

GSP cargo staff will serve as cargo handlers for the horses once they arrive.

“Actually, the flying bit is the easiest part,” Atock says. “Preparation is 95 percent of the effort in getting horses from all over the globe to meet the health requirements of the U.S. and to be sure we can get them back home.”

The 777 is by far the most effective aircraft to haul horses, Atock says. It offers an optimum airflow, which is paramount for the horses. Emirates is the best and most cost-efficient carrier for horses, according to Atock.

Michael Stone, president of Equestrian Sport Productions, the organizer of the WEG, believes the only other comparable airlift of horses into the U.S. was in 2010, when the games were held in Lexington, Ky. About 440 horses were flown at that time. A trial flight of horses to GSP was conducted in April with 15 horses on an Emirates flight. Stone reports everything went smoothly. 

“Logistics planning has been excellent and GSP has been fantastic to work with,” Stone says. “They have bent over backwards to make it work. The test event was a challenge, and there were a lot of humans on the flight with the horses, which isn’t typical. It created a lot more work for Homeland Security and Passport Control, but it all worked really well.”

A total of 980 horses will participate in the games. Those arriving from South America will be transported to Miami International Airport and then trucked to North Carolina. A few flying from Japan will arrive in Chicago and also be transported by truck. The remainder will be arriving from U.S. destinations.
Emirates carries around 1,000 horses annually on its flights, always on dedicated freighter aircraft. The airline began equine transportation in 2002. Flights allow for experienced horse grooms and veterinarians to travel with the horses. The freighters have seating space at the front of the aircraft for nine people. Seating is connected to the main deck, allowing them to check regularly on the horses.

“What we keep in mind when we are transporting horses is that the comfort and safety of the horses is of primary importance,” says Wilfred D’Souza, Emirates manager of cargo scheduling & planning. “We need to make sure that the horses are not fatigued because of the journey and arrive after a comfortable and quick journey ready to hit the ground running.” 

Two of Peden’s flying grooms travel with the horses. 

“They know all the procedures and are there to protect the integrity of the whole flight,” Atock says. “Once the horses are all in there, you are in good shape if they are all happy, passive travelers. Movement is the next crucial thing, and flight crews are enormously experienced. They start very gently, and if there is a turn on the runway, they will move to the right so the horses can adjust their balance. Once they are on the runway, they don’t go tearing down at full throttle. These pilots use the whole runway and gently ascend up to cruising altitude so the horses don’t lose their balance.” 

Horses must be kept well hydrated during the flight, and air circulation has to be just right. During the flight, horses are given water and hay. Grooms check on the horses every two hours to make sure everything is going well. Likewise, with the plane’s descent, pilots take it gently with no sharp turns to avoid upsetting their equine passengers. 

Peden Bloodstock is responsible for the horses from the stable of origin until they arrive at GSP. At that point, Dutta Corp., a firm based in North Salem, N.Y., takes over, handling local logistics. The horses will be taken by truck to the TIEC, with a South Carolina Highway Patrol escort to the North Carolina border, where the North Carolina Highway Patrol takes over for the remainder of the journey. 

The first flight will carry 75 horses. After it lands, horses will be scissor lifted out of the planes while under quarantine conditions and lowered to a walking bridge connecting directly to trucks, which will transfer them to Mill Spring, where they will undergo 36 hours of quarantine. Before they leave GSP, blood is drawn from each horse. A special courier then flies with the samples to the USDA testing lab in Ames, Iowa, where the blood is immediately tested for diseases. 

All of the waste from the horses’ journey and everything that comes off the plane is incinerated to make sure there is no possibility of spreading disease. Stone says the chance of disease is slight due to the top-quality care given to these horses.

Atock has traveled to Mill Spring eight times in preparation for the WEG and has visited GSP several times. He praises GSP staff and other regional officials, noting that their helpfulness will be a contributing factor to the event’s success.

For GSP, which added general cargo to its services just seven years ago, the horse transport will be a chance to show the aviation world that it can handle much more than packages. Dave Edwards, GSP’s president and CEO, says the process has been interesting.

“We’ve been doing a lot of preparation, working with the equestrian center and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture,” he says. “We got into general cargo in 2011, but moving livestock is a different type of cargo. These are horses that are very valuable.”

Edwards also expects GSP to see increased passenger traffic during the WEG. He says carriers that serve the airport have been advised of the event and that that GSP needs increased capacity during that period. 

GSP became involved with the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) about three years ago as a sponsor. At that time, the games were scheduled for Bromont, Quebec, a suburb of Montreal. However, local organizers ran into financial problems and the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the Switzerland-based governing body for equestrian sports, elected to seek another venue. TIEC won the bid.

Long-term, Edwards says, GSP would like to establish itself as a gateway for horses entering the U.S. That would require establishment of a USDA quarantine center, either at the airport or Tryon. 

“The question is, would this region and beyond support it,” Edwards says. “First, we need to prove we can do this well through the games. We hope it will create more opportunities going forward.”

Currently, most livestock flown into the U.S. enters through four gateways: Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Miami. Columbus, Ohio, does some exports. Edwards believes there is room for another airport to join the mix.

But GSP isn’t the only Greenville-area air cargo connection to the WEG. ACL Airshop, which manufactures and leases air-shipping containers, also produces and leases airborne horse stalls. Part of the Ranger Aerospace group, ACL is providing 45 stalls to Emirates from its cargo support sites in Liege and Amsterdam. The company has also assigned one of its Amsterdam-based horse experts to accompany the airlift and to be on hand during the games.

“We are beyond excited about the positive impacts that the WEG will have on the Upstate and look forward to helping the owners move their horses safely and efficiently,” says Wes Tucker, ACL’s executive vice president.