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April 2019 Hero of the Month: Leslie Weinstein, Founder of Turtles Fly Too (aka “TF2”)

This month’s hero is a man who has answered a desperate call for a unique kind of help to save the lives of endangered sea turtles.

As the Arctic ice melts and the polar vortex sweeps lower each winter, more and more of these fascinating marine animals are washing up on the shores of New England, cold-stunned by the suddenly frigid temperatures of waters where they once swam safely. If not rescued and warmed immediately, the turtles die.

Leslie Weinstein, the owner of True-Lock, a general aviation parts manufacturer, is also the founder and coordinator of a tremendous volunteer operation to ferry these rare turtles to warmer climates, where their lives can be saved and they can then be returned to the ocean. This article, from Aviation Week and Space Technology, tells the story:

TF2 Airlift – Two Endangered Species Help Each Other

by William Garvey
(Editor-in-Chief of Business & Commercial Aviation) published in Aviation Week and Space Technology,
February 11-24, 2019

IDAHO MAY BE A LONG WAY FROM any ocean, but it is the nexus for activists fighting to save one of the ocean’s most troubled denizens, the sea turtle. And that is because Leslie Weinstein decided to establish his aircraft-fastener company in Boise.

A Florida native, Weinstein grew up on the Atlantic coast near St. Augustine. As a kid, he was fascinated by the turtles that would crawl ashore at night to build nests on the beach and lay their eggs. The vast majority of all sea turtle nesting in the U.S. takes place on Florida’s beaches. He recalls lying beside one of the turtles, stretching out his arms, and realizing the sea creature was larger than he.

A turtle can lay 50-200 ping-pong-ball-size eggs at a time and then uses her flippers to cover them with sand before returning to the sea. Young Weinstein became upset when humans or animals uncovered the nest to retrieve, consume, vandalize or destroy the eggs.

To counter that, he began digging up the eggs himself, moving them to nearby oceanfront property owned by his father, digging a new nest and redepositing the eggs there and fencing the site with chicken wire. He estimates that over the years, he has been stepfather to tens of thousands of hatchlings. And then as adults, those turtles returned to that same spot year after year to lay their own eggs by the hundreds.

Fast forward several decades. By the early 2000s, Weinstein had overseen businesses ranging from ranching and engineering to real estate and had launched True-Lock, which makes wheel fasteners for a wide variety of general aviation aircraft. Although he never progressed beyond soloing as a student pilot, he is as impassioned about aviation as sea turtles.

Accordingly, he and his wife, Linda, decided in 2010 to donate their beachfront acreage, valued in excess of $2 million, to the University of Florida for research on sea turtle biology as well as turtle conservation and education about all seven species – Loggerheads, Greens, Leatherbacks, Hawksbills, Kemp’s Ridleys, Olive Ridleys and Flatbacks. It became the first sea turtle conservation easement of its kind.

As part of the gift, he strongly encouraged the college to collaborate with other research organizations such as the Georgia Sea Turtle Center and with general aviation operators and organizations.

Those two wishes came into sharp focus four years later. Veterinarian Terry Norton, who heads the Georgia center on Jekyll Island, called Weinstein to say he had been alerted that the New England Aquarium was overwhelmed by sea turtles that had been cold-stunned by a sudden drop in water temperature, causing their body temperatures to fall dangerously. They needed to be transported to rehab facilities in the South immediately. Could he help?

Weinstein began contacting his network of aircraft owners to assist with the turtle airlift and very quickly had a small fleet of light aircraft heading to New England to collect towel-covered banana boxes containing heat pads and turtles in trouble. In the end, the pilots transported some 600 turtles.

And thus was the founding of “Turtles Fly Too,” or simply TF2, a 501(c)(3) organization of volunteers dedicated to the rescue, transportation and rehabilitation of sea turtles and to educating the public about the endangered animals.

According to Weinstein, years ago the number of cold-stunned turtles averaged fewer than 100 per season, but that “has skyrocketed” to four, five or six times that figure. “Definitely, we have a problem with climate change,” he says, and the number of turtles needing transportation increases every year.

The aircraft involved, he says, have included “everything and anything” from small single-engine Pipers up to a Pilatus PC-12. On two occasions, the U.S. Coast Guard assigned C-27 Spartans to the airlift. TF2 averages 15-20 flights per year, with many involving 50- 60 turtles or more. However, Weinstein says he would launch a flight to transport a single turtle, if need be. The heftiest to date weighed in at 300 lb.  Almost all this activity is coordinated through Weinstein, who says experience has made him partial to long-range aircraft since relays “are tough on turtles.”

In the end, he believes Turtles Fly Too is good for all involved. Observes Weinstein: “The little sea turtle, an endangered species, and general aviation, another endangered species, have come together to rescue each other. That’s the way I see it.”

Veterinarian Terry Norton of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center
receives a turtle airlifted by a TF2 volunteer.

TF2’s website posts regular updates on turtle rescue efforts, and has a donation page and a plea for volunteers. If you’re interested in learning more about TF2’s efforts, there is also a well-made YouTube video about TF2. — Jim  

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