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Dogs on a Plane!

A retired pilot starts a volunteer organization that flies rescued animals to loving homes.

Pilot Jon Wehrenberg

Some people can’t wait to retire. Some people can’t stand it.

That was me. Even though it had been 10 years since I’d sold my metal fabrication business in New York and moved down to Knoxville, Tennessee, with my wife, Diane, I still refused to call myself retired. That sounded so final. I was just 64, plenty of miles left in me. Surely God had something more in mind for me.

The problem was, I couldn’t figure out what it was. I could spend only so many hours puttering around my garden or tinkering in my garage. All the energy I used to pour into running my business had to go somewhere. For a while, flying was my outlet. There was nothing like jumping in my plane and taking off into the wild blue yonder. I loved my Cessna P-210. I’d flown that baby for 25 years, most of the time for work and these past several years strictly for fun.

But lately even flying wasn’t much fun. I was tired of $100 hamburgers. That’s pilot slang for making a short hop to a town nearby, grabbing a burger at the airport coffee shop and flying home. A hundred dollars was roughly what it cost to fly a small plane for a two-hour round-trip. Or used to cost before aviation fuel prices shot way up. “Maybe it’s time to sell the plane,” I said to Diane one night.

Diane knew I’d been at loose ends, but still she was surprised. “You love flying,” she said. “Are you sure you’re ready to give it up?” Well, no, I wasn’t 100 percent sure. So I prayed, Lord, help me find something worthwhile to do with my plane. With myself, really.

Not long after, I got a call from Debi Boies, a friend in Landrum, South Carolina. “Hey, Jon, I’ve got a strange favor to ask,” she said. “I remember you saying that pilots jump at any excuse to fly.”

I chuckled. “That we do. What’s up?”

“Bob and I heard about a badly abused dog in Florida who needs a home,” she said. “He’s a good-sized Doberman, and neither of our cars would give him enough room. Would you be willing to meet Bob in Tallahassee and fly him and the dog back here to Landrum?”

I knew Debi and Bob were active with an animal rescue group, but I didn’t know much about the work they did. I loved dogs, though—Diane and I had adopted two strays ourselves—and I told my friend I was glad to help. So far my passengers had been the two-legged kind. What would flying a dog be like?

That weekend I found out. At the Tallahassee airport, Bob lifted the dog into the backseat of my Cessna. “Jon, this is Brock,” Bob said.

I turned in my seat to get a good look at my passenger. The Doberman pinschers I’d seen before were magnificent, muscular animals. The dog fidgeting and whining in the back was scrawny, his ribs showing. His face and neck were splotched with scars. Bob told me he’d been rescued from owners who were into dog fighting. They’d used poor Brock as bait to train other dogs to fight and kill. They filed his teeth down so he couldn’t defend himself, slapped a crude tattoo on his belly. I couldn’t see that from the cockpit. What I saw were the most soulful brown eyes gazing back at me. “How could anyone treat an animal so badly?” I exclaimed. “It’s obvious he’s smart and sensitive. Just look at those eyes.”

“You got me,” Bob said. He got into the seat beside me. “But it happens more than you’d think. That’s what keeps us doing dog rescue.”

I cranked up the engine, hoping the noise wouldn’t startle the skittish Doberman. The opposite happened. He stopped whining and settled down. “Attaboy, Brock,” I said. “Nothing to be scared of. We’re taking you to a place where no one will hurt you again.” I taxied down the runway and took off. Ninety minutes later we landed at the Landrum airport. Brock had spent the whole flight lying quietly, better behaved than some human passengers. Bob got him out of the plane and led him into the terminal, where Debi was waiting.

As soon as I finished filing paperwork for our flight, I joined them. Debi was stroking Brock’s back and he was leaning into her hand, as if he knew she’d give him the loving home he deserved.

“Jon, thank you for flying our boy here,” she said. “Do you know how lucky he is?” I looked at her quizzically.

“Millions of animals are euthanized each year because shelters don’t have the space or money to keep them until homes can be found for them,” she said. “Even when people want to adopt them, they’re often hundreds—sometimes thousands—of miles away.

“Transporting them is a challenge,” she continued. “There’s a loose network of volunteers, but it usually takes several cars and drivers to relay these pets to their new homes. You can imagine how stressed out they get, being transferred from one car to another. It’s hard on the drivers too.” Debi sighed. “I wish there were a better solution.”

The whole flight back to Knoxville I kept thinking about what Debi had said. Back home, I kissed Diane hello and headed straight for my computer. I searched the internet for stories on transporting rescued animals. “Listen to this,” I said to Diane. “A New Hampshire family offered to adopt an abandoned dog in Alabama. It took 16 volunteer drivers to get him to their house.”

But like Debi had pointed out, that dog was one of the lucky ones. In many cases, there was no way to get homeless animals to people in another part of the country who wanted to adopt them.

Wait a minute…hadn’t I been praying for something worthwhile to do with my plane? There must be hundreds of pilots like me around the country itching for a good reason to fly, I thought.

I picked up the telephone. “Hey, Debi, it’s Jon,” I said. “You know animal rescue. I know aviation. There’s got to be a way we can tackle this problem together.”

We dreamed up Pilots N Paws, a website that’s an online meeting place for animal rescuers around the country and pilots willing to volunteer their time and planes. People post pet transport requests on a message board. If pilots can help, they get in touch with the rescuer directly.

Sometimes in business, you have a good idea but it just doesn’t take off (no pilot pun intended). This was different. This was about saving the lives of innocent animals. The site was up and running in March 2008, and soon dozens of recreational pilots had signed up.

We’re almost 2,000 pilots strong now. We’ve transported thousands of adoptable animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, even reptiles—to their forever homes. I’ve rescued more than 500 animals myself, including one memorable mission last September. Sixty-eight volunteer pilots helped fly 171 dogs out of New Orleans, so hard hit by Hurricane Katrina and then the disastrous BP oil spill, to new homes as far away as Iowa and New Jersey.

That was my last trip as an animal rescue pilot. It’s time for me to sell my plane and give up flying. I do it happily, knowing I’m leaving Pilots N Paws in wonderful hands. But don’t call me retired just yet. I’m ready for whatever God has planned for me next.   

Take a peek at our slideshow depicting the canine rescue efforts of Pilots N Paws.


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