I was sitting on the back patio last Sunday morning with my girlfriend idly browsing the internet when a story popped into her feed that caught her eye. It was a story about a pilot flying rescue puppies to their new home, and she thought the puppies were adorable. Smelling a chance to get her back in the air I explained that it’s an organization called Pilots N Paws where volunteers fly dogs around the country. She loved the idea, so I decided to make the jump and sign up. Four days later I was flying my first set of adorable puppies, a flight neither of us would soon forget.
The sign-up process was remarkably easy. All I needed to do was make an account on their forum, list my home airport, and how far away I would be willing to fly to pick up the furry passengers. The ride requests started appearing in my inbox within minutes, complete with details about the breed and age of the dog needing a lift as well as helpful information about how far away the source and destination airports were and the probable round trip distance.
Pilots N Paws is a decentralized system — people make requests for rides (typically from shelters or rescue organizations), and pilots respond if a proposed trip (or a section thereof) sounds good to them. It’s a pretty straightforward system, all of the requests and offers are made through the public forum and then the requester contacts the interested pilots directly.
The vast majority of pilots participating in the program hold only a Private Pilot certificate, which usually would start raising some alarm bells on the regulatory front. Thanks to FAR 61.113 private pilots aren’t allowed to fly for compensation or hire, meaning that these flights are 100% on the pilot’s dime. There’s also the minor issue of “holding out” — pilots aren’t allowed to offer flights to the general public. But given the charitable nature of the organization the FAA has given their stamp of approval on the whole operation.
A couple days later one of those emails piqued my interest. A pup needed to fly from a shelter in Houston, Texas to Missouri, and as luck would have it there was a pilot in Dallas willing to fly them the rest of the way if they could only make it up there before 2 PM. A plan was quickly hatched — I would fly to Houston to pick up the pooch, fly them to Dallas Love Field, and then head home mission complete. Total flying time approximately five hours.
Shortly after finalizing the plan, the requester called back and wanted to know if I could fly an additional puppy in the same direction. I was comfortable handling one dog in the plane, but two seemed like too much for me to fly solo. I asked the girlfriend to take the morning off from work to make the flight with me, and as soon as I showed her a picture of the adorable puppy she was completely on board.
We departed Georgetown airport at 8 AM, arriving ahead of schedule at Hooks Airfield. A few minutes later our puppies arrived along with their paperwork and we set about getting them situated in the plane. The larger dog — a husky who had recently been treated for some injuries — I strapped into the back seat using a seatbelt harness. The girlfriend offered to hold the adorable puppy for the entire flight.
The biggest risk in my mind for the entire flight was whether the dogs would be comfortable in the airplane. The older dog appeared to be fine in vehicles, but I wasn’t sure how the puppy would respond. I figured that if they showed any signs of anxiety on the initial climb out I would turn back to the airport, land, and we would figure out the plan from there. My other fear was that the dogs would need to use the restroom mid-flight, but given that I wouldn’t have much warning on that issue I just brought some extra blankets along with me and hoped for the best on this short hop. Thankfully the dogs absolutely loved flying and my fears never came true.
Climbing out of Hooks Airport the husky in the backseat wasn’t very happy. He was well behaved, but the hot Texas weather wasn’t very appealing. He kept trying to get out of the sunlight to keep his temperature down. I opened all the vents I could to get him some airflow back there during the climb, and once we were leveled off in the cooler air at altitude he seemed much more comfortable. The puppy was probably the happiest passenger I’ve ever had, enjoying the constant love and attention my girlfriend was giving him as we flew along. A few minutes after leveling off he fell asleep and was an adorable little furball on her lap for the rest of the trip.
The plan called for me landing at Dallas Love Field for the hand-off to the next pilot. This would be my first time landing at a Class B airport and operating in some of the busiest airspace in the United States, but I wasn’t all that concerned. I’ve had my instrument rating for about a year now and I’ve been using it at every opportunity, putting about 150 hours on the plane on IFR flight plans. I figured I was ready for a new challenge and Dallas Love sounded like a ton of fun.
Arriving into Dallas was a little bumpy. The hot Texas afternoon wasn’t very fun below the cloud layer and I made every effort to get on the ground quickly. That said, the girlfriend wasn’t very happy about the idea of giving up the dogs. In the short flight from Houston she had fallen in love with the little puppy in her lap, and even though he was going to a good home she says that her heart broke a little bit when we handed the dogs off to the family waiting for us at the FBO. I can’t blame her — that fuzzball was adorable.
As we were flying back to Austin we talked about how surprisingly helpful and well coordinated everyone connected with Pilots N Paws has been. The person organizing the whole trip made sure to send an email with all of the relevant contact information and the flight schedule so everyone was on the same page, and they followed up with us when we landed to make sure that the pups were doing well along their journey. They asked us to send them some pictures of the flight, and when the whole journey was done they emailed us a compilation of pictures from every leg showing their whole journey from start to finish. It really made us feel connected to the whole process and was a great way to validate that our hard work had paid off to improve the lives of a couple rescue dogs.
It definitely wasn’t cheap, but it was completely worth the time and effort to fly for Pilots N Paws. And as I sit here and write up my experience I’m already scheduling another flight for this coming weekend. Pilots N Paws is a remarkable organization filled with genuinely nice people just trying to make a difference, and I’m happy to be a part of it!