Better than a $100 burger: A flight home


UPDATE: Five of the puppies have found forever homes with approved adopters in the Albany area, including little Mickey pictured above.

They come from the worst of circumstances, wandering the back roads of Kentucky and Tennessee, locked on chains or dumped at the shelters by the box load.

Not so long ago most of these highly adoptable dogs, met a grim fate - gassing at the shelter, starvation or target practice.

The Internet brought hope to impoverished corners of Appalachia and elsewhere in the South, giving rise to a network of transporters that drive dogs from high-kill shelters to adoptive homes in the north. 

Now some lucky dogs, often mothers and puppies, have a different route out - 7,000 feet up - thanks to a dedicated group of pilots, who volunteer to transport these abandoned dogs to new homes. 

I got a glimpse of Pilots n Paws in action on Saturday when weather forced a flight from Tennessee to Albany, NY to overnight in Carlisle.

That meant six eight-week-old shepherd mix puppies and their mother, plus a Lab-mix puppy were stranded not too far from where I live. 

I got a call to help out and gladly took in two shepherd mixes and the Lab-mix puppy for the night. When I arrived they were comfortably resting under the plane belonging to James Watson who had just flown them in from Hot Springs, Va. (James Carney flew the first leg from Knoxville to Hot Springs.)

The pups were full of energy even after their long day in the air, but they settled down after a meal and some playtime with new toys. Our evening was far less eventful than the night the stranded pilots for the next leg spent in Carlisle.  

On Sunday morning fellow puppy host Valerie Loughry and I met up with pilot Dean Chenarides and his co-pilot Bruce Cohen who were handling the final leg to Albany. Bruce told me they were standing outside their hotel during a fierce thunderstorm Saturday  night when they heard a terrific bang. Their hotel had been struck by lightning, but fortunately no one was hurt.

It was during our talk on the tarmac that I learned about the $100 hamburger.

Dean, who flies out of Dutchess County Airport, near Albany, said pilots are always looking to fly somewhere to log their flight hours and make use of their investment. They often just wing it to a nearby airport, grab a burger and fly home.

With jet fuel in the $5-a-gallon range, it costs $300-$400 to fill up a tank. That is indeed an expensive burger.

Dean said he'd much rather fly with a purpose. So he signed up for Angel Flight, which transports critically ill patients to treatment center. Soon he started helping rescued dogs get to their forever homes.

The passengers on this trip started their journey in Winchester, KY. after being saved from the Clark County Animal Shelter by the rescue group a Time To Live. (A shelter's rescue partner usually steps in to save dogs that would otherwise be euthanized.)

Transport coordinator Lorene Steffes pulled all the travel pieces together (no small feat) to make sure the four-legged passengers reached their destination, Homeward Bound rescue in Albany.

At 9 a.m. Sunday morning we packed Becca, the mother dog, and two pups in one crate and the five other babies in another crate, a big load for the single-engine Piper Warrior. There was just enough room left for Dean, Bruce and a small flight bag.

As I watched them take off into the hazy sky, I thought about how far these puppies and their mother had come thanks to the generosity of so many people along the way.

A new line of storms forced Dean to detour northwest though State College, but by early afternoon the pilots and their barking cargo had arrived in Albany safe and sound.

We wish Becca and her pups, not to mention our little hitchhiker Mickey (pictured above being helped into the aircraft with Dean, Bruce and Valerie) all things good in their new lives.