Flying First Class
Piloting private planes, volunteers deliver precious live cargo in the form of pets.
Since February 2008, dogs and cats in desperate need of homes have received aid from Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit organization that is a network of pilots who donate their time and resources to flying abandoned pets—often doomed to euthanasia in animal shelters—to new homes across the United States. Based in South Carolina, the association has participated in the rescue of hundreds of animals through the efforts of volunteers, via the Pilots N Paws website, pilotsnpaws.org. It is described as “a meeting place for those who rescue, shelter or foster animals, and pilots and plane owners willing to assist with the transportation of animals.”
Debi Boies, a retired nurse living in South Carolina, is the co-founder of Pilots N Paws. “I’ve been doing Doberman rescue for a number of years. And when we lost our 12-year-old Dobie to cancer, I adopted a rescue dog that was in Florida,” says Boies. “You have to kind of search for a rescue dog that might fit your home, and rescue [organizations] are very good about doing that. The problem always is that if they are a fair distance away from you, how do you get them? Either you have to drive there or meet someone (volunteer couriers involved in dog transport). I put a little e-mail out to several of our friends who travel in [RV-style] motor coaches and asked, ‘Hey! If any of you are coming through Florida and heading to the Carolinas, would you think about bringing my rescue dog on board with you?’ Jon Wehrenberg, my cofounder, said, ‘How about if I pick up your [rescue dog] by flying down there?’ So I said, ‘Wow! That is so extremely generous!’ And he said, ‘Oh Debi, pilots love to fly. Just let me do this for you.’”
After Boies shared with Wehrenberg that thousands of animals face euthanasia in regions of the country where spay and neuter laws and practices are often lax, the pair started Pilots N Paws.
“We started a [website] place where general aviation and volunteer pilots could connect with [animal] shelters and help each other out. We basically just created a meeting place for them [online],” Boies explains. Dog rescuers post requests for homeless pets in need of transportation on the online bulletin boards. Pilots available to fly a dog or cat contact the person seeking help. “Everything is in their hands, the pilot has control over the date, the time, the location, and the rescues do their best to abide by that because pilots are controlled by weather and distance,” Boies says. Those piloting volunteer flights cannot accept money for their efforts, as FAA regulations forbid noncommercial pilots from receiving compensation. However, because Pilots N Paws is a 501(c)(3) organization, pilots can write flight expenses off on their income taxes.
The average distance for a Pilots N Paws rescue flight is 300 nautical (straight-line) miles. It’s not unusual for airplanes to relay an animal to a destination where another volunteer then continues the creature’s journey to a new home. The organization has transported thousands of animals over the past three years. There are more than 1,500 pilots currently signed on for rescue flights, as well as more than 4,000 animal shelters and other volunteers registered with the program. The group also transports cats and kittens, and some flights have carried snakes and lizards to wildlife rescue habitats. One pilot flew a pot-bellied pig and a baby chick on the same plane (in separate crates). Navy SEALs rescued an Afghan eagle during the war there and brought it back to the United States, where Pilots N Paws volunteers flew it on to a rehab center, the Berkshire Bird Sanctuary in New York. There, the rescued bird chose an American eagle as its companion.
“We did a huge rescue out of New Orleans where we transported 171 dogs. There were 54 planes, and the pilots involved in that rescue flew out in three different directions,” explains Boies. “Many of these animals had been displaced from the oil spill—their owners could no longer afford them—and the shelters are still overrun. I was on a plane that had 31 dogs on the way to Washington, D.C., and they all fell asleep, [we] didn’t hear a peep out of them.”
Pilots N Paws depends on the generosity of sponsors for funding. The organization’s primary partners are Subaru and the pet products company Petmate, which designed the first pet carrier approved for air travel in 1964. Petmate supplies the crates for all Pilots N Paws transports. For the recent New Orleans rescue effort, Subaru arranged for ground transportation, and provided hotel rooms and meals for volunteers.
Pilots N Paws has assisted with dogs that U.S. soldiers have adopted and brought back from Afghanistan or Iraq. “When they get back to the States . . . then our pilots step up and offer to fly them on to the soldiers’ homes,” Boies says. The families of soldiers are the official adopters, as it is against the military’s policy for soldiers to take in dogs while serving. “There have been cases where some of these dogs have been honored because they have saved soldiers’ lives,” Boies says. “One story that was in the news was about five dogs within a base camp in Afghanistan that soldiers had befriended, and a suicide bomber was sneaking up to the camp and the dogs alerted the soldiers. I think there were only about five injuries, none life-threatening. One dog lost her life doing it and the rest of the dogs were brought back to this country. . . . The dogs are usually mixed breeds, but there are also Afghan hounds and a couple of other breeds that are specific to Afghanistan and Iraq.” Dogs are reportedly very mistreated in those countries, often stoned or burned to death, with feral dogs running amuck, according to Boies.
Another war dog story involves a canine named Molly who appeared one day at an American army base in Afghanistan. Since military personnel are not allowed to keep pets, Molly was given to a child in a nearby village. However, the dog preferred the soldiers’ company and walked back to the base, some 20 miles from the village. A Pilots N Paws rescue volunteer, Joanne Kubacki, arranged for foster homes and flights for Molly so that she could come to Kentucky, where she was adopted by the parents of a soldier who doted on Molly while she hung around the army base in Afghanistan.
Don Hull is a 62-year-old aerospace engineer who lives in Decatur, Alabama, where he and his wife have a pecan- selling business. After undergoing heart surgery, Hull eventually regained medical clearance from the FAA to fly again (all pilots, commercial and private, are required to pass medical exams, according to FAA regulations). A dog lover who has a terrier that loves to fly, Hull was so grateful for the opportunity to once again pilot a plane that he felt compelled to get involved in charitable flights.
“I noticed on the Internet that there were people from north Alabama—a couple of them that I knew—that were flying with Pilots N Paws,” Hull says. “My first flight was to Kentucky to pick up a Boston terrier that somebody decided they didn’t want any more and that the shelter there was going to put to sleep. That’s what I really like to do, to help dogs that are going to be put down, to give them another chance. It’s a very rewarding experience.” Hull began to get pilot friends involved in the rescue program. “It’s amazing, this network of people that gets together to make Pilots N Paws work.”
Hull always transports dogs in a crate, though he has seen pilots who allow dogs to either be tethered in the rear seat or to lie in a pilot’s lap. “The dogs put their heads in their laps and go to sleep while they are flying,” he says, laughing. “I could comfortably put five dogs in my plane. I fly dogs in crates in my plane’s backseat, and we attach a cord to the seatbelt to secure the crate. Every dog I’ve transported has been so good and calm, they just go to sleep back there.” &