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Pilots N Paws passenger Oreo was perfect

Animal relocation missions attractive to volunteer pilots, others

I had access to an airplane and a pilot certificate—the basic necessities to take on a humanitarian aid mission—but I didn’t have a ton of flight hours or an instrument rating. Those essential tools and a little scheduling flexibility led me to a rewarding flight with a young border collie named Oreo that had miraculously escaped certain death.

Border collie Oreo looks from the back seat of a single engine Mooney M20C Ranger before her general aviation journey to South Florida. Photo by David Tulis.

Like many of us, I wanted to use my aviation skill set to give something back to the community, but I was reluctant because troublesome questions tugged at my best intentions. What would happen if I had a mechanical issue? What if I got "cold feet"? What about the weather? Would lives be lost if I couldn’t go?

I found my answers in the Pilots N Paws community, a nonprofit animal rescue organization founded 10 years ago by Debbie Boies when she discovered pilots could transport a dog named Brock from Florida to her South Carolina home. She set up a system where pilots register online with their name, address, and home airport, and indicate how far they can fly a pet in need.

The best part is that the whole family can participate and nonpilots are welcome too. The organization explains on its website that it occasionally needs temporary foster homes while weather clears for pilots on an animal relocation mission. Volunteers perform vital roles as fosters and chip in with ground transportation as needed.

The online forum is a clearinghouse where pilots and others scour opportunities and then self-determine if they have the time and resources to transport a puppy, a dog, or a canine family from one place to another. There’s a lot of give and take, and volunteer coordinators often help link two short legs into a single mission when animals need to be transported great distances.

Oreo observes from the back seat of a Mooney during her general aviation journey to South Florida courtesy of Pilots N Paws volunteers. Photo by David Tulis.

Pilots N Paws Executive Director Kate Quinn noted that it’s common for many animals to begin their aviation journey among the wide-open farmlands, rolling hills, and coastal areas of the South and end their general aviation flight with families living in the more densely populated Northeast.

Quinn participated in the recent Air Care Alliance’s 2018 Summit at the AOPA You Can Fly Academy in Frederick, Maryland, and said the organization has “flown close to 150,000” rescues since its inception, including a record “535 [missions] in one day.”

I signed up to transport the undernourished black-and-white six-month-old female from Athens, Georgia, to the Florida border in my 1968 Mooney M20C Ranger. Fellow pilot Tom Ivines volunteered to escort Oreo the rest of the way to Stuart, Florida, where the canine would be eagerly adopted, in his Cessna 172.

Oreo, a six-month-old female border collie, gets a last hug from her foster human Sabrina Sweeney-Garcia, who rescued Oreo from a north Georgia facility before the animal was to be put to sleep. Pilots N Paws is a volunteer organization that matches pilots and their aircraft with animals in need of new homes. Photo by David Tulis.

Oreo was rescued by foster Sabrina Sweeney-Garcia, who runs SOS Labrador Retriever Rescue and has a heart of gold. She swooped into the local animal shelter and rescued the border collie the day the cute pup was to be put to sleep.

I took the mission seriously. I felt like I was saving the life of an animal literally on its last legs, but I was a little nervous because it was my first transport flight. I needn’t have worried. Sweeney-Garcia had fed and cared for Oreo; packed medicine and identification papers; and provided a harness, leash, and crate.

If you’ve never experienced the “border collie stare” followed by their playful tongue-wagging and tilted head maneuver, be advised that it will likely melt your heart. That’s what happened when I first met Oreo. Sweeney-Garcia gave the pet one last hug before a paw gently tapped my arm for attention, seemingly saying, “OK pilot guy, let’s pull chocks and get this show off the ground.”

The weather was a little iffy for me as a VFR-only pilot, so I enlisted Skybound Aviation instructor Michael O’Neal from Atlanta just in case I needed some help navigating pop-up storms notorious to summertime in the South. It had been decades since I was a dog owner, so I figured O’Neal could lend an extra hand with Oreo if needed. She turned out to be a great passenger, especially for her first flight in a GA airplane. The tuckered-out pooch ended up sleeping comfortably on the 1960s-era Mooney’s forest green back seat for most of the trip, and I could tell she would make someone very happy.

We met Ivines as intended and after a quick bathroom break everyone was on their way again. He disappeared in his Skyhawk to points south while O’Neal and I journeyed a couple of hours north back to Georgia's DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.

Looking back on the experience, I realized just how rewarding it was for me personally and professionally. I felt like I did something useful with the pilot certificate that I earned, and it was great to know that I likely made a few people—and one border collie—really happy.

Pilot David Tulis and Skybound Aviation flight instructor Michael O'Neal of Atlanta prepare to transport a border collie named Oreo on a Pilots N Paws relocation mission in Tulis's Mooney M20C Ranger. Photo by Sabrina Sweeney-Garcia.
David Tulis
David Tulis
Senior Photographer
Senior Photographer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying, Aviation Organizations

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