Freeing 'Willy': a Whale Of a Job for the Air Force

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The pilots and loadmasters at Charleston Air Force Base here have ferried some unusual cargo in their careers, including Russian fighter jets and foreign heads of state fleeing into exile.

But the passenger they are to take next week from Oregon to Iceland might top them all.

Maj. Tim Harris will fly Keiko, a 10,000-pound killer whale and star of the film "Free Willy," from a Newport, Ore., aquarium to a tiny coastal Icelandic island.

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"This is about as unique a mission as most people could do," Major Harris says. "Obviously, we don't fly killer whales too often."

Members of the Free Willy Keiko Foundation, who own and care for the 20-year-old celebrity, have planned for some time to return Keiko to his North Atlantic birthplace. The group, formed four years ago, brought Keiko from a Mexican amusement park to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Keiko is known to movie fans for his role as the abused whale who leaps to freedom in the 1993 sleeper hit. In recent months, the once-sickly cetacean has gained 2,000 pounds and recovered from a string of ailments.

The US Air Force became key to the trip because of the unique capabilities of its C-17 cargo plane. Designed to carry heavy loads, such as Army battle tanks, the Globemaster III is also capable of landing on short airstrips.

It is apparently the only airplane in the world big enough to haul Keiko, yet nimble enough to land on the 3,900-foot runway in Vestmannaeyjar, on one of the Westman Islands.

Airfare for a whale doesn't come cheap. The Free Willy Keiko Foundation is paying the Air Force $315,000 for the ride.

The real mission is scheduled for Sept. 9, but the Air Force made a dry run last weekend. Harris piloted a C-17 from Charleston, S.C., to McChord Air Force Base in Washington State, where he and his crew practiced loading a 28-foot tank that will hold Keiko. The team then flew on to Iceland, where it dropped off a huge platform that will be used to lift the whale off the aircraft.

On the actual nonstop flight, officials from the foundation will be aboard to care for Keiko.

THE mission will mark the first-ever return of a killer whale to its native waters, says Bob Ratliffe, the foundation's executive vice president.

But Keiko will not be alone in his new home. At first, he will live in a gigantic floating pen in a sheltered bay. The hope is that he will eventually adapt and join the 400 other killer whales who live nearby, says Diane Hammond, spokeswoman for the foundation.

She says, though, that he may not make that transition to open waters. Scientists and caregivers may stay with Keiko indefinitely.

"Kids worry that we're going to take him over to a foreign place and dump him in," Ms. Hammond says. Not so, she notes. "The whole staff will be there with him."

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