Flying with Rifles: Travel Tips for an African Hunt

The airbus A-380 served as the author's ride from Dubai to Harare, Zimbabwe.

An Emirates plane waits to take off at the airport.

The airbus A-380 served as the author's ride from Dubai to Harare, Zimbabwe.Emirates.com

I started flying with rifles on a regular basis in 1971. I remember showing up at LaGuardia Airport in 1972 with two rifles in soft cases and asking at the check-in counter if the pilot would mind taking them into the cockpit with him. Sure, was the reply, no problem.

Things have changed somewhat.

By way of background for this post, I flew, with guns, out of either LaGuardia or JFK an average of six or seven times a year every year from 1978 until 2012. These airports annually make the top of “Worst Airports in the U.S.” surveys. LaGuardia is the Third World without the charm. JFK not only shares its ambience, but also was designed by someone in the final stages of paresis. Even with all that, I hardly ever had a problem, and never with the law.

So, let me tell you about my recent flight to and from Africa that you may be instructed thereby.

But first, a pair of disclaimers. Chuck Banks, with whom I traveled, and I are half a century past the point where we could make trouble, and are treated accordingly by airline personnel when we show up with gun cases. If we were 25 and 30, I don’t know what kind of reception we’d get.

Also, this is about long guns. I would not travel through a New York City airport with a handgun if I had a safe-conduct pass signed by God.

And, according to New York City law, travelers with firearms are allowed 24 hours to get out of town with their hardware. How something like this can be enforced is beyond my imagination. But then again, gun laws are written by people who do not like guns, and detest the people who own them, and are half-bright to begin with, so one should not be surprised, should one? But I digress.

Flying with firearms is like attending the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party as described in Alice in Wonderland. You enter a realm where there is no logic, or order, or consistency.

Air travel in the U.S. is almost certainly the worst in the First World, with Canada a very close second. Buzz Charlton and Myles McCallum do a lot of flying worldwide and have a considerable supply of horror stories. Every last one of them takes place in the U.S. As Myles put it, “You simply don’t matter to them [airline personnel]. You can miss your connection and sit in the airport for 12 hours and they don’t care. They’re going home when their shift is over.”

As for guns, the regulations for air travel are very simple, very easy to understand, and very easy to comply with. I’m not being sarcastic. If you read the TSA website section on firearms, you see that it’s in plain, colloquial English, not Governmentese. The problem is that airlines personnel have only a hazy idea what these regulations are, or no idea at all. The airlines themselves make things even more difficult by establishing their own nitwit variations on the laws.

Here are a couple of examples: The first leg of my African trip was via Jet Blue from Portland, Maine, to JFK, just outside of New York City. (JFK and Atlanta are the East Coast departure points for all Africa-bound flights.) At Portland, I declared my gun, and the Nice Jet Blue Lady called over a TSA officer to see that it was unloaded, as is standard. At some airports, not all, the TSA also checks for hidden explosives, and to do this they look at the case, not the gun. So the Nice Jet Blue Lady told me to leave the case unlocked and give it to her so that she could give it to the TSA bomb-checkers.

“If that case leaves my control,” I said, “it has to be locked.” Which is gospel. Once it leaves your hands, the padlocks had better be on and you better have the keys. The law says that if your case smells of Semtex, it’s the responsibility of the TSA to go and find you so you can talk about it. You do not leave the case unlocked, because if it goes on the plane that way, you are in Big Trouble.

She could see that I knew what the law was, so she told me to lock the case and go sit by the window in the event the bomb-sniffing puppies found something suspicious. After 15 minutes had passed, I asked my wife to enquire of the Nice Jet Blue Lady if my case had cleared and if it was OK for me to go through the TSA line. My wife did, and said that the Nice Jet Blue Lady had forgotten about me but that all was cool.

So it was off to the scanner, (this was in late May, at the very height of the Long TSA Lines Scandal) and I went upstairs expecting to stand in line for two hours. But there was no line. I asked the TSA guy who checked my driver’s license where the mobs of angry people were and he said that they had a good line at 5 AM, but since then they had been very lonely.

(Parenthetical note: I’ve been put on the TSA Pre-Check list three times and taken off it three times. I have no idea why, since I’ve neither applied nor asked to be removed.)

And through I went, ending Jet Blue Episode One.

Episode Two. Coming back from Africa, on the very last leg of nearly two days of continuous air travel, I arrived at JFK, cleared Customs, and found my way through the labyrinth of terminals to the Jet Blue counter, where another Nice Jet Blue Lady called over the police to clear my rifle.

At the New York City airports, the NYPD does this rather than the TSA. They also check your driver’s license and record all that stuff, as well as the make, caliber, and serial number of your gun. My friend John Blauvelt, who is a retired policeman and who has been through this process at JFK, says that the cops are recording what is known as a ‘field contact,’ and there’s nothing sinister about it.

I’ve never had problem with the police at either New York airport. The cops with whom I dealt on this trip were not only courteous, but also shook my hand when they were done and wished me a safe journey and good luck. I thought it was damned nice of them.

But back to Nice Jet Blue Lady Number Two. She had me sign two tags stating that the rifle was unloaded and that the ammo was packed separately. One tag she put in the case, which is standard. The other she tied to the handle, which is in violation of the Federal law that says you may not affix anything to the outside of a gun case that announces there is a gun inside. One side of the Jet Blue tag says “Firearm Declaration,” in big bold letters. Or it could have read “I am a gun. Steal Me.”

At this point, I had a choice. I could have said, “Madam, you’re breaking Federal law by putting that tag on the handle.” In which case, I’d probably still be debating at the Jet Blue counter at JFK instead of at home writing blog posts. So I let it alone. After all, what were the odds of anything happening as a result of the dopey tag on the outside of my case? My job at that point was to get home.

Since gun cases qualify as oversized luggage, they theoretically do not emerge on the conveyor belt where the usual stuff goes, but are sent to a special storage area for oversized and odd-shaped bags. Theoretically. When I flew from Portland to JFK, I looked for someone with an airport ID who might speak English and asked where a gun case would pop up.

“Oversized bags,” he said, “right over there.”

I thanked him, and watched as my gun case emerged just behind my duffle bag on the belt with the regular stuff.

Flying home from JFK to Portland, my gun case did end up in Oversized. When we landed at JFK, one duffle bag came out on the regular conveyor and the two guns and the second duffle appeared in Oversized. My advice is to have two sets of eyes and watch both locations simultaneously or, if there are two of you, have one person watch the conveyor and the other watch Oversized.

It’s worth pointing out that Jet Blue and Emirates Airlines, our other carrier, got the bags to us fast. I think we may have waited a couple of minutes each time; certainly no more. Do not dawdle on your way to the baggage claim. You don’t want your rifle circling on the conveyor belt where someone can pick it up and walk off with it.

Now some words of praise. On this trip, we flew Emirates Airlines, whose center of operations is Dubai International Airport. We were told that it is a terrific airline, and we were told correctly. Emirates is the largest user of the Airbus A-380, which is the biggest passenger jet in the world. The thing is absolutely immense; takeoff weight is 1,268,000 pounds with between 500 and 600 people on board, and it can fly through the air at 560 mph. Miraculous. Next thing you know, men will be landing on the moon.

Most important, there’s plenty of room even for the wretches in economy class. Your knees do not fold up under your chin. You can get up and walk around. The flight attendants are exotic-looking and highly efficient. The food is very good. By flying from JFK to Dubai and then down to Harare, we avoided having to fly to Johannesburg, going through all sorts of horsesh*t with the rifles, and then flying up to Harare. I am now a big fan of Emirates Airlines.

Second: Travel with Guns, travel agents par excellence. This outfit was recommended to us by Buzz Charlton who said they were terrific, and they are terrific. The average travel agency will either tell you that travel with firearms is illegal, or will not have the faintest idea where the rocks and shoals lie. TwG knows where the pitfalls are and will steer you around them because they do it all the time.

In order to fly with firearms on Emirates, we had to get clearance from United Arab Emirates Security, which would, in turn, inform the airline. Did we have to do this? No. TwG did it for us. We sent them all the paperwork, which was three items, I think, and by and by got an e-mail that we had been approved for travel with firearms on Emirates, and so it was. No hassles, no confusion, no glitches.

In addition to getting your tickets and whatever clearances you need, TwG also sends you a briefing book with all sorts of information on the country to which you’re going, airport layouts, and everything else you might need to know. They do what they say they will do when they say they will do it.

Time, when you travel with firearms, can be either your greatest ally or your greatest enemy. If you have lots of it, you can relax and watch all the wonderful permutations of the airlines as they try to figure out what to do with you and your gun. If you do not have time, the same process can reduce you to a nail-biting frenzy and turn your plans to rubble.

So get there early. Wherever you’re supposed to show up, allow at least an extra hour beyond what is recommended. Two hours is better. You may not need any of it or you may need every minute of it.

Know your s**t. If the airlines tell you that the limit on ammo is 5 pounds and that you’re over, tell them that it’s 5 kilos, not pounds, and that there are 2.2 pounds to a kilo, and that you’re not over. Know how many rounds of ammunition you have and how much they weigh, to the ounce.

Get your Form 4457 from Customs long before you fly. Don’t try to do it at the airport. This is the little white form that is legal proof that you own your rifle. Next to your passport, this is the most important document you have. You can download it, print it out, and fill it out yourself, then take it to a Customs office to be stamped, but most Customs people want you to bring your gun and let them see it physically and fill out the form themselves.

Call ahead and make an appointment so Customs expects a person with a rifle. If you show up with a rifle unannounced, they may shoot you or arrest you and throw you in jail, where you will be beaten twice a day until you die.

Keep all your paperwork in order and keep it where you can get at it without delay. I bought a clear-plastic folder at Staples that held all my documents and let me see instantly what they were. I kept the folder in my daypack where it didn’t get mangled. When you know you’re going to have to produce a document, have it out and ready. Officials need to keep the herd moving, and if you stand there fumbling, trying to remember where you put your 4457, they will become cranky, which you don’t want.

Some of this is actually fun. When Chuck and I were waiting in the lobby of our motel at JFK, surrounded by gun cases, I was approached by one of a group of flight attendants who said: “Excuse me, but we have a bet going. What’s in the cases?”

“Guns,” I said in my best stage whisper.

“Oh good,” she said, “I win.” And went to collect from her colleagues.

In Johannesburg Airport, I was standing in line waiting for a security check and getting the Hairy Eyeball from one of the security people. By and by, he came over to me and said, “You don’t have to stand in this line. You’re too old to make any trouble. Go to the front and get your ticket.” Which I did.

Coming back from New Zealand, at San Francisco Airport, a TSA guy (a great big kid) was putting on his rubber gloves prior to running an explosives-detecting swab around my rifle case, when he fixed me with a truly fiendish grin and said: “Whenever I do this, people get nervous. I have no idea why.”

Going to Africa is the greatest experience you can have if you are a hunter, and the travel is part of it. Treat it as an adventure, not an ordeal. And don’t lose your Form 4457.