By Elizabeth Sills
Parked at the Triangle North Executive Airport (LHZ) located in Louisburg, N.C. is a six-seat, blue and white Dahler plane whose back two seats have been replaced by rows of deconstructed banana crates. Instead of fruit, the crates cradle cold-stunned sea turtles.
The plane belongs to Paul Schubert, a volunteer with the organization Turtles Fly Too (TF2). The group connects a network of pilots to turtle rehabilitation centers and marine hospitals around the country. Alongside his wife Sherry, the two spend their free time transporting sick turtles around the United States.
Before takeoff, Sherry helps load the turtles into the plane, assuring that they’re all facing the back of their assigned box so as to minimize their chances of escape.
Not that wandering around 30,000 feet in the air would be appealing to a sick turtle.
How they get sick
Since sea turtles are unable to regulate their own body temperature, cold stunning makes them incredibly weak when exposed to cold temperatures.
“They stop being able to use their body,” said Michelle Lamping, a turtle rehabilitation specialist at Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium. “It gets to the point where their organs, their vital function start to slow and then get to the point where they actually freeze.”
And since the majority of sea turtle species are endangered, this makes their rescue all the more pressing.
Paul and planes!
The Schuberts have been flying for TF2 for seven years. Schubert’s father was a pilot who worked with the NASA space program in Cape Canaveral. He was responsible for plucking astronauts from the ocean after they safely returned to earth. While Mr. Schubert grew up surrounded by planes, he didn’t get his pilot’s license until he was 51.
After passing his pilot exam in 2007, the Schuberts began working with an organization that transported homeless animals from the northern U.S. to the southeast. One day they noticed an advertisement on the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association website for an opportunity to fly sea turtles.
It seemed like the natural next step.
Who is TF2?
The organization, aptly named TF2, was the brainchild of Leslie Weinstein, a technology entrepreneur. Weinstein grew up in St. Augustine, Florida. He spent his childhood summers rescuing sea turtle eggs from poachers and relocating their nests into the safety of his family’s secluded yard. Ultimately, Weinstein would sell his property to fund education projects about sea turtles.
Weinstein often received calls from veterinarians who had sick turtles and no means to transport them, so he found them a ride.
In 2014, TF2 transported their first passenger, a green sea turtle named Pierce. Pierce was bound for an aquarium in Iowa, where he was soon to become an education ambassador.
As climate change escalates creating unpredictable cold snaps, Weinstein has exponentially expanded the non-profit. There are now 450 pilots in the TF2 database. They’ve even extended their rescue missions to other animals like fur seals. They survey whales caught in fishing lines. No matter how tall an order, Weinstein has a pilot ready to match its height.
“I believe in taking care of what’s in front of your eyes,” Weinstein said.
The same was true for the Schuberts. Paul describes himself as a business man. He’s managed medical equipment manufacturers, nursing homes, and a real estate agency. He currently manages a telehealth company. Flying is a side hustle.
“I hate to do one thing when I can do two things,” Schubert said. “Or more.”
The first mission | how they met.
Paul’s first flight was in Nov. 2016 when he and his son William transported 32 sea turtles from Massachusetts to Morehead City, N.C., Pine Knoll Shores, and Charleston, S.C.
Paul met Sherry through her roommate, who applied to work as a salesperson at his telehealth company. Sherry was attending UNC-Chapel Hill to study nursing at the time. The two embarked on Schubert’s business ventures together, building medical treatment systems.
“We were a company of two,” Sherry said.
“She was my first employee,” Schubert said. “I couldn’t run businesses and hold down all the strings of all the things that I do without her.”
When she’s not flying with Schubert, Sherry crochets stuffed turtles to sell on her Etsy shop. All of the proceeds go to TF2.
“I call them my carpool critters because I would make them when I was waiting in the carpool for my kids to get out of school,” Sherry said. “They’re now 25 and 27.”
Always to the rescue
After Paul’s first flight for TF2, Sherry decided to dust off her crochet needle and contribute to the organization.
Ultimately, it was a lot.
“[The turtles] paid for our software program for the internet that our website was built on. And our web maintenance,” Weinstein said. “Those little turtles pay for that.”
One of these turtles sits on Schubert’s desk in his office in Raleigh, N.C., in front of two huge computer monitors. The screens display a map of the United States, where Schubert enters the airport coordinates to track the route of his next turtle mission.
Although flights are becoming less frequent due to the warming waters brought on by spring and summer, Schubert remains always on call for when there might be a rogue turtle stranded somewhere.
“When you find something that’s important to do, you should do it. Otherwise, why else are we here?” Schubert said. “I don’t need to be known for it as long as what is important gets done.”
Edited by George Adanuty and Tajahn Wilson