GA pilots to the rescue

May 12, 2009

dogLeslie Smith is accustomed to reassuring nervous passengers from the 11 years she worked as a flight attendant—but none quite like these.

“Glacier,” a two-year-old Husky mix, sat on her lap; and a female Labrador retriever mix took the adjoining seat, and a third pooch occupied a crate in the back of a Cessna 210 flown by husband Jerry Smith, a retired Delta Air Lines captain.

“We took out three seats and put water, blankets, and dog treats in the back,” Leslie said. “The dogs seemed a little nervous at first. But Glacier climbed in my lap, looked out the window, and kissed me in the face. He looked out the window or slept most of the way here.”

The flight from Franklin, N.C., to Frederick, Md., was part of a 15-airplane, 28-dog airlift organized by Animal Rescue Flights (ARF), a group formed to transport neglected or abandoned dogs and cats from animal shelters where they face certain destruction to new homes across the country. Some ARF volunteers transport the animals by car. But the group’s 325 general aviation pilots are especially helpful because they can cover greater distances more quickly.

ARF was formed last year by Julia Ryan, a Connecticut-based pilot. Since then, volunteers have flown pets more than 50,000 miles to new homes.

ARF officials say animal shelters in the South and Southeast are inundated with adoptable pets—but there is a shortage of permanent homes in those areas. The dogs that landed in Frederick were bound for the Northeast and New England where the potential of finding families to adopt them is much better.

The airplanes arrived midday at Frederick Municipal Airport on May 10, a sunny, breezy Sunday afternoon. Pilots and crews exchanged greetings, checked paperwork, handed over dogs, leashes, Mutt Muffs, and other paraphernalia. The dogs played in the grassy infield, and soon it was time to launch again.

The airplanes that carried dogs on the trip north flew home empty. And those that flew south to Frederick to pick up dogs trekked homeward with their frisky cargo.
Glacier hopped enthusiastically into a Cessna 172 owned and flown by Joe and Lori Bisnov of Millbrook, N.Y. They were on their way to Montgomery Field in Orange County, N.Y., on the final leg of Glacier’s aerial journey.

“This gives us a real mission for flying the airplane, and it makes for a fun day,” said Joe Bisnov. “You feel good about what you’ve done at the end of the day.”

Leslie Smith said she grew so attached to Glacier during their first flight that she was tempted to take him home. But she and Jerry agreed before participating in the rescue flight that they wouldn’t add to their current pack of four dogs at home.

“My husband said we could fly these flights,” she said. “But I had to promise not to adopt any more dogs.”

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.