Again, live turkeys tossed from plane at Arkansas festival

A live turkey is released Saturday from a plane flying over Crooked Creek during the Turkey Trot festival in Yellville.

YELLVILLE -- Several live turkeys were tossed from an airplane as it flew by the annual Turkey Trot festival Saturday.

But it was a different airplane from previous years and apparently a different pilot.

"My plane is on the ground," texted Dana Woods, a Mountain View alderman and pharmacist who had been "the Phantom Pilot" for the previous 15 years.

The 1966 Piper PA-28-140 that flew by the festival Saturday and dropped turkeys is registered to Aldino Raimondi of Yellville, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

Three live turkeys were tossed from the plane shortly after noon Saturday, then several more during the afternoon as the plane made circles over Crooked Creek, which is two blocks south of the downtown square, where about 4,000 people were gathered for the annual festival. A few kids left the festival to collect the turkeys.

Raimondi didn't return voice and text messages left on his cellphone Saturday.

Animal-welfare activists have been trying to stop the 50-year tradition of the Yellville plane drops, which may have inspired a 1978 episode of the television show WKRP in Cincinnati in which turkeys were dropped from a helicopter as a Thanksgiving promotion.

The Phantom Pilot is celebrated by some in Yellville. T-shirts declaring "I'm with the Phantom" were for sale Saturday on the town square, and people could get photos made with their faces in a cutout of the Phantom Pilot.

Rose Hilliard of Bruno said she would file a complaint with the Marion County sheriff's office, probably on Monday, regarding Saturday's airplane drops.

Hilliard filed a complaint earlier this month in an attempt to stop the Phantom Pilot, but Sheriff Clinton Evans said he hadn't seen a crime committed, and the previous festival happened over a year ago, so the statute of limitations had expired for misdemeanor crimes. Evans wasn't sheriff last year.

"I didn't think he would go back and investigate anything from last year," Hilliard said. "But I thought he might try to stop it from happening this year."

According to Arkansas Code 5-62-103, cruelty to animals is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Upon a fourth conviction within five years, cruelty to animals becomes a felony in Arkansas, and the guilty party is ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

This year's Turkey Trot festival was held Friday and Saturday.

No airplane turkey drops occurred Friday, but turkeys were released from the Marion County Courthouse roof both days as well as from a stage on the square.

Lisa Chism, who owns Simply Beautiful Medical Spa in Gassville, caught one of the turkeys launched from the courthouse roof. It landed next to her child's stroller.

"They will never believe I caught the turkey," said Chism, apparently referring to her clients.

She said she'll have the turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, when all her kids are there.

Gemma Vaughan, an animal-cruelty caseworker with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the group had people in Yellville watching turkeys being dropped from the plane and the courthouse roof.

"We rescued four turkeys -- one who was trussed by his legs and tossed onto the concrete where he lay panting as spectators walked over him, and another found bleeding from her neck and legs," Vaughan said.

"Both are being rushed to a veterinarian for their injuries. Anywhere else, the participants would be in jail, and officials' failure to prosecute those responsible makes Yellville synonymous with cruelty to animals."

"The turkey drop is a throwback to a sorry time when human beings were bone-ignorant of animals' feelings," she said.

The Phantom Pilot usually tries to remain anonymous. But newspaper photographs in 2015 revealed the identification number of Woods' single-engine 1959 Cessna 182B.

He flew again as the Phantom Pilot last year.

Investigators with the FAA met with Woods and determined that he wasn't doing anything that violated their rules regarding turkeys being "released" from his plane as it flew over Crooked Creek.

It's legal to drop objects from airplanes as long as they don't damage people or property on the ground, said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the FAA in Fort Worth.

"FAA regulations don't specifically deal with dropping live animals out of airplanes, so we have no authority to prohibit the practice," he said in an email. "This does not mean we endorse it."

Animal cruelty isn't the FAA's jurisdiction, he said.

Terry Ott, the county judge in Marion County, said things seemed to go smoothly Saturday.

"The ones I saw flew fine, no trouble whatsoever," he said. "One of them while I was there flew back over the town and went to the north side of town."

Most of the turkeys glide to a landing and are then caught by people at the festival, who sometimes have them for dinner during the holidays.

Last year, about a dozen turkeys were dropped from Woods' plane, and two of them reportedly died on impact.

For more than 50 years, the turkey drops have occurred during the annual Yellville Turkey Trot festival. No turkeys were released from airplanes from 2012-14. Woods resumed the practice in 2015. He said the hiatus wasn't because of outside pressure. During that time, turkeys were tossed from the roof of the courthouse or from the stage.

In a text message Saturday, Woods wrote that "all those 'bird-loving' people" have misplaced priorities. They use "nasty, threatening words" and are upset about turkeys, which can fly, but they didn't say anything when a 4-year-old child was killed in the area in November.

Whether wild turkeys can fly has been a central issue of the turkey-drop debate.

Wild turkeys can fly at speeds up to 55 mph, but they usually fly from treetop to treetop, at an altitude of less than 100 feet. Woods said last year that the turkeys were released at an altitude of 600 to 700 feet over the creek.

Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton, a professor of poultry science at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, said that altitude would be enough to cause stress to the birds. She called the turkey drop a "horrific act of abuse."


NWA Democrat-Gazette

Festival officials release a wild turkey from the stage Saturday during the annual Turkey Trot in Yellville.


NWA Democrat-Gazette

Sierra Martinez, 12, (center), of Yellville holds a wild turkey she caught Saturday after it was released from a stage as Angie Heringer (top), founder and executive director of ARC Angels 4 Animals, and animal rights activist Ruth Scroggin, both of Jonesboro, offer to purchase the bird during the annual Turkey Trot in Yellville.


NWA Democrat-Gazette

A wild turkey is held by Kent Chism whose mother, Lisa Chism, caught it Saturday after it was released from atop the Marion County Courthouse during the annual Turkey Trot in Yellville.


NWA Democrat-Gazette

Lisa Chism of Gassville laughs Saturday after catching one of several wild turkeys released from atop the Marion County Courthouse during the annual Turkey Trot in Yellville.

Metro on 10/15/2017