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.
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?
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.
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 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.