Interesting Passenger: Bald Eagle Hitches A Ride On Southwest

Southwest Airlines flights attract all sorts, but run-of-the-mill passengers did a double-take on Tuesday when an adult male bald eagle strapped into a choice row two seat on a flight from Houston to Nashville.

Southwest Airlines flew a bald eagle from Houston to Nashville on Tuesday. Photo: William P Hobby Airport

Challenger the bald eagle heads home on Southwest after an “event” in Houston

The eagle’s name is Challenger. He is 32 years old and a regular flyer on Southwest Airlines. According to News 2, Challenger was heading to Pigeon Forge. That might sound like a dinner destination for eagles, however, Pigeon Forge is a city in eastern Tennesse and home to the American Eagle Foundation’s Eagle Mountain Sanctuary.

The American Eagle Foundation cares for over 70 non-releasable raptors and other birds, including the world’s largest collection of non-releasable bald eagles who reside in Eagle Mountain Sanctuary. The Foundation says these birds are non-releasable due to permanent physical disabilities or human imprinting/socialization.

On Tuesday, News 2 reports Challenger was housed in a large cage and accompanied by two handlers on the flight. Southwest Airlines says Challenger is a regular passenger, and he was returning home from an “event” in Houston. A frequent flyer eagle with a social life … who knew?

Challenger makes himself known to his fellow passengers. Photo: Southwest Airlines

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Can’t hunt, can fly commercial & show off

A blog post from 2016 buried deep in Southwest’s website reveals a bit more about Challenger. According to that post, Challenger was accidentally human imprinted as a young eaglet after falling out of his nest.

“He basically thinks he’s a person and never learned how to hunt.”

The American Eagle Foundation has taken care of Challenger since he was one year old. As a young eaglet, Challenger became accustomed to humans and proved easy to train. Once Challenger grew his big boy feathers, he settled down to a career free-flying through stadiums during the national anthem.

As readers will observe from the publicity photos, Challenger has got it all going on. He is a fine-looking rooster (would an eagle take exception being called a rooster?). After 400 plus free-flying appearances at stadiums around the United States, Challenger “retired” in 2019 after a highly successful 2017 touring season. Unlike many human celebrities, it seems Challenger knows when he’s peaked and it’s time to quit.

Challenger strutting his stuff at Detroit in 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Challenger sticks to Southwest as he slides into retirement

Well, maybe not. According to the American Eagle Foundation, Challenger continues to travel (after trying several airlines, he settled on Southwest). The Foundation says Challenger will;

“… continue to travel from coast-to-coast making gloved appearances at national sporting events, conventions, conferences, galas, fundraisers, schools, and other events.”

It seems Challenger and his managers at the Foundation have reached an understanding with Southwest. He travels in a custom-made cage and prefers a bulkhead seat. When Challenger is unavailable (or double-booked), Southwest Airlines also takes care of his “understudy”; an upstart 23-year old bald eagle called Mr Lincoln.

As an experienced showman, Challenger knows a thing or two about getting people’s attention. His party trick is to stretch his wings in the departure lounge just before boarding. His handlers remove Challenger from his cage, he has a drink and stretch and generally makes his presence known to all the other passengers.

Challenger has been a regular Southwest passenger since 2016. Bald eagles can live into their late 30s if well cared for, so while winding down, Challenger still has a few more years of flying in him yet.

You can find out more about Challenger and the American Eagle Foundation here