It was, Pilots N Paws volunteers Steve Shoop and Pam Wahl agreed, a great morning to fly.
Clear blue sky. No storm nearby.
Friday, Aug. 15, 8:10 a.m., Shoop’s twin engine Cessna took off from Leesburg, Virginia, to pick up eight dogs, rescued from shelters where their time was running out.
“Climbing to one zero thousand,” radioed Shoop, who flew C-130 cargo planes for the Air National Guard while he was in college.
“It looks like snow,” Wahl, seated next to him, said about banks of fluffy white clouds the plane cruised above.
Soon Shoop, a retired surgeon who lives in Northern Virginia, and Wahl, who lives in Yellow Springs and publishes the magazine Virginia-Maryland Dog from offices in Frederick, were talking about brushing dogs’ teeth and giving cats fluids.
By 9:28 a.m., we were approaching the Rocky Mount, North Carolina airport, ahead of schedule.
Over nine or 10 days, and countless email and bulletin board posts, Shoop and a flock of fellow pilots and rescue volunteers worked to arrange the relay flight for eight rescued dogs.
At the time Shoop and Wahl, who is a student pilot and the vice president of Pilots N Paws, did not know we’d be so lucky.
And a just a few weeks earlier, neither did the dogs.
Titan, an attentive shepherd mix, estimated to be almost one year old, had, according to a rescuer’s notes, “lived his life on a one-foot rope that was embedded in his neck when he was taken by animal control,” in Wilson County, North Carolina.
Throughout the flight from Rocky Mount to Frederick, Titan sat beside photographer Sam Yu, who policed Titan’s urge to mix with other dogs that already had settled quietly into the ride.
Titan and his seven canine companions are among thousands of homeless and injured animals that Pilots N Paws volunteers move to better lives each year.
Since Debi Boies and pilot Jon Wehrenberg flew a rescued Doberman from Florida to South Carolina and got the idea to start the free animal aid service in 2008, Pilots N Paws has transported more than 75,000 animals, executive director Kathleen Quinn said.
The organization has grown to include 5,000 volunteer pilots and more than 12,000 registered non-pilot volunteers in 50 states.
Many of the animals come from areas in the South and other states where spaying and neutering dogs and cats and keeping them from roaming has been slow to catch on.
The largest concentrations of Pilots N Paws volunteers are on the east and west coasts of the United States.
And the animal aid air service hasn’t limited its work to pets. In August, the group flew a bear cub, badly burned in a Washington state wildfire, to a Lake Tahoe wildlife care facility where she is being treated and recovering from her burns.
The group also has flown snakes, eagles, guinea pigs, rats, a potbellied pig, turtles and donkeys, Quinn said. But so far a bunny is probably the most exotic animal Pilots N Paws has flown through Frederick.
Many of the organization’s pilots are based in the Washington-Baltimore region, including about 25 who list Frederick as their address, she said.
Online lists also show many post Gaithersburg, Leesburg, Westminster or Hagerstown as their home base.
Volunteering is often a family affair.
“It’s a reason to fly and that’s a good thing to do,” said Martha DeGraff of Poolesville, who coordinates as many as two Pilots N Paws flights a month for her husband Elliott DeGraff, a retired engineer and flight instructor who began piloting planes in 1953.
In the five years he has volunteered with Pilots N Paws, DeGraff has flown 565 dogs and seven cats, mostly flying solo.
“Once you’ve done one flight, you’ll do more,” DeGraff said.
Among his most memorable flights was a trip with a thoughtful dog. Harnessed in the back of the plane, the little dog managed to make his way to a hat rack and tear down a paper towel roll.
After they landed at Frederick, DeGraff saw that the dog had unfurled the roll on the floor and deposited his poop on the paper.
“Which I thought was a very good dog,” DeGraff said.
Pilots said flying animals in and out of different airports can sharpen their flying skills and teach them a lot about handling animals.
On one flight, “a German wirehaired pointer kept trying to climb over the co-pilot seat and help land the plane with me,” said David J. Kenny.
“He did teach me that a retractable shoulder harness is not a good place to secure a dog,” said Kenny, who has flown 225 dogs as a volunteer pilot for Pilots N Paws since January 2009.
Generally flying with pets is very safe and pet-caused accidents are so rare that they are not tracked, said Kenny, who manages aviation safety analysis for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based at Frederick Municipal Airport.
Only one springs to mind from the past six and a half years, Kenny said. A big dog got too far toward the rear of a plane and threw the aircraft off balance, but that was a personal dog and not a rescue flight, he said.
Kenny also flew on Aug. 15 – a long trip from Frederick to Raleigh, N.C. to Dayton, Ohio and home to Frederick, logging more than eight hours flight time.
Pilots N Paws flights are usually shorter — covering about 250 to 300 miles, although relay missions involving several planes and pilots often cover 500 to 900 miles, Quinn said.
The group’s volunteers are dedicated, members said, as are those who volunteer with rescue organizations and take animals at risk of euthanasia into their homes as foster pets.
Many caregivers who brought their foster dogs to Rocky Mount for the flight north had grown attached to the dogs in just a few days or weeks.
“She thinks she’s going to go back home and get in that recliner,” Lisa Jo Lucas said of the black Labrador-mix named “Kate Upton” who had climbed back into her truck.
But Kate was off to a new life and was adopted eight days later by a family in northern Virginia.
After Kate, Lucas was slated to take home “George Clooney” — a beagle who would stay with her and several other foster dogs, she said.
“Vin Diesel,” who looked like a Labrador-shepherd mix, was accompanied to the airport by foster caregiver Christina Powers, her two daughters and a babysitter. He has found a home with a young woman since landing in Frederick.
On that flight back, I couldn’t help but wonder how Journey, a “brown mix,” got his name and the small scars on his nose.
Otherwise unassertive, Journey sat on the floor to my left and seemed to occupy as little space as he could. Soon he placed his paws on my leg. Doubting that he could be comfortable that way for long, I urged him toward my lap.
There he sat for most of the flight, including the last 20 minutes when I held him tightly, my stomach churning, as we flew through some turbulence before landing in Frederick. Although a couple of the dogs couldn’t hold what they last ate, Journey and I managed.
Stoic and steady, Journey is a dog that is hard to forget. In September, he was reported to be living on a farm with a rescue volunteer outside Washington, D.C.
More about Pilots N Paws, including information about volunteering and guidelines for rescues, can be found online at www.pilotsnpaws.org.