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First Look: No dog left behind

Pups—and pigs and pythons—fly to safety in a Mahindra Airvan

The answer to what to do with your pilot certificate once you’ve flown that $100 hamburger and taken your friends and family for their first flight became an issue for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-area pilots Brad Childs and Jonathan Plesset.
Pilot Briefing September 2019
Jonathan Plesset is handed an animal crate by safety pilot Pete Lehmann as the pair readies for a flight in the Rachael Ray-donated Mahindra Airvan, hangared at Allegheny County Airport outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Photography by Chris Rose

Always active and adventurous, the pair were not content to punch holes in the sky or loop around the pattern.

So, one day when a friend told them of a bulldog named Monte who was in danger of being euthanized at an overcrowded shelter and needed transportation to his “fur-ever” home (look, this is their word; these guys are really into animals), Childs and flight instructor Pete Lehmann flew to pick up the dog. Not having ever flown with animals in an aircraft, they did not secure Monte or put him in a crate. The fur flew (OK, that one’s mine) and Lehmann had to quickly right the airplane from a nosedive as 90-pound Monte attempted to give Childs a big sloppy kiss (that’s my words, too).

The joy in delivering Monte to his new owners spurred Childs to enlist Plesset, and the pair began flying to rescue dogs and cats, and bunnies, and pigs, and sea turtles, and—once—a python. They learned their lesson and have crates for the animals and, as their missions grew, they caught the eye of one Rachael Ray. She’s a television personality and chef who is mad about animals—especially dogs. She invested much of the money she’s made from her cooking shows, cookbook and cookware sales, and celebrity in a natural pet food company she calls Nutrish. And she offered to help fund a new aircraft and van for the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team (PAART)—the nonprofit organization Childs and Plesset founded in 2012.

With Lehmann often by their side (safety first, Plesset says) the pair—as well as other volunteer pilots—now fly a Mahindra Airvan GA8 and have a 50-animal rescue van purchased in 2014, which they call a “landplane.” They fly the Mahindra from Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. “The airplane recently had 41 bunnies on board,” says Plesset. “It was a hopping good time” (that’s all him). The “landplane” is necessary for when weather in the area keeps aircraft on the ground; Pittsburgh is often, let’s just say, weather challenged.

Since Monte’s eventful flight in 2006, PAART has transported more than 11,000 animals and work continues. Plesset always has a fun and interesting story to tell and his team is having a ball making sure there is #nodogleftbehind.

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Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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