Amherst Magazine

Some Things He's Carried

As a pilot, Randy Davis ’76  has chauffeured emperor penguins, celebrity wolves, even a saint. But his most memorable flight was on 9/11.

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Ten Emperor penguins needed a lift to California. A few wolves had an acting gig. A Catholic priest, dead since 1888, wanted to see his admirers. On 9/11, government experts had to get to New York, quickly.

The man who transported all of them was Randy Davis ’76, a lawyer who learned to fly before he could drive and is now vice president, general counsel and sometime pilot at Phoenix Air Group, Inc., a specialized aviation firm based near Atlanta.

Davis grew up in eastern Long Island on a farm with an airstrip, and he got his solo pilot’s license as soon as he was eligible, on his 16th birthday. At Amherst he was a political science major who concentrated in Soviet affairs and Russian language and literature. He restarted the Amherst Flying Club, worked as a flight instructor and flew college President John William Ward to alumni events. Davis made his first transoceanic flight as a sophomore, delivering a small twin-engine aircraft from Boston to London.

Next came law school at Emory. “I knew I wanted to be an aviation lawyer,” he says. He went on to a career at a law firm, defending airlines (including Delta, Continental and United), aircraft manufacturers and the aviation insurance industry.

Then, in 1991, Phoenix Air Group offered him a job as general counsel. “I was getting tired of being a full-time litigator,” he says. And the job came with a perk: He could fly the company’s Learjets and Gulfstreams on missions around the world. Those missions include, among other things, government and defense contract work.

Randy Davis ’76 in cockpit

Randy Davis ’76. His most satisfying flights have been evacuations of injured military personnel

His longest nonstop flight for Phoenix was an air ambulance evacuation from Atlanta to Gibraltar. He’s delivered satellite parts to the space center in Kazakhstan several times. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, he flew CDC emergency personnel  to that country to help. He’s even carried a 19th-century priest: Some of the remains of St. John Bosco are kept in a sarcophagus in Turin, Italy. “Every once in a while he does a world tour,” explains Davis, who in 2010 flew one leg of such a tour.

Then there are the animal transports. The wolves were going from Canada to Siberia to be in a movie. Davis chauffeured the penguins on part of their long journey from Antarctica to their new home at the San Diego Zoo. “We had to keep it below 40 degrees in the cabin to keep them happy,” he says. “There were 10 of them, and three chilly animal handlers in winter coats.”

Emperor penguins in transport crate in airplane's cargo bay

Davis flew 10 adolescent emperor penguins to the San Diego Zoo.

For Davis, the most satisfying flights have been medical evacuations of injured military personnel. “Unfortunately,” he says, “in this last decade there’s been a fair amount of that.” Overseas, he’s come to the rescue of sick and injured civilian Americans, too: “They’re just so happy to be going home.”

His most memorable flight was on 9/11, when he brought federal workers—experts in logistics, counseling and mortuary matters—from Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina to Stewart Air National Guard Base in New York. “They seemed calm, professional,” he told an Atlanta-area newspaper on Sept. 12, 2001. “Everyone was in awe of the magnitude of this event.” For part of that flight on a Learjet 35, Davis and his copilot were the only known civilian pilots in the air east of the Mississippi.

Asked now what the experience meant to him, he points to a comment in the Sept. 12 article: “It’s natural for each of us to wish to come to the aid of others when an epic human tragedy occurs,” he told the paper. “My primary memory of this 9/11 midnight flight will be that it was a privilege to help out in such a direct and immediate manner.”

Davis routinely spends about a quarter of his working life in the cockpit, and he’s pleased to have found a way to combine his legal skills with his piloting skills. What’s left to transport? “I wouldn’t mind some pandas,” he says. “Or a kangaroo.”

Photos courtesy of Randy Davis ’76.