Text Size: 

Leaving on a Jet Plane


Over 16,000 years ago, the bond between dogs and humans was forged. Some researchers debate that it was the wolf that first approached the human, and not the human domesticating the wolf, but regardless of who loved whom first, we can’t deny the unique and remarkable relationship that is now in 56.7 million homes in the United States.

Dogs bring to our homes the gift of unconditional love and loyalty; some also bring gifts of protection, some bring the gift of therapy and others bring the gift of laughter. Whatever special gift a dog may bring to a home, they never ask for anything in return other than to be loved.

Despite their unwavering devotion and altruistic behavior, millions of healthy dogs and cats die in shelters every year. Due to a lower use of spay and neuter practices, many of those pets are sheltered in the southern parts of the United States, where there also seems to be a lack of adopters.

Enter the practice of sending many pets to the northeast, where spay and neuter is more common practice, overpopulation is not such a problem, and where many people are looking to adopt a pet. It seems like an easy fix, but unfortunately, these four-legged companions don’t have access to the Greyhound bus, and their kibble can never seem to fit in the allotted 3-ounce containers at the international airport. While ground transportation options are available, many rescue groups and shelters aren’t always able to fund the costs or donate the lengthy travel time, and so the pets sit out their short lives in shelters while homes far away remain empty. 

In 2008, Debi Boies, who had always been active in animal rescue, wanted to adopt a Doberman named Brock, but needed him to be transported from Florida to her home in South Carolina. Jon Wehrenberg, a friend of Boies, offered to fly Brock to her in his plane. When the trip was successful, the two landed on an idea that would widen the field—or sky, rather—of animal rescue. That’s when they formed the nonprofit organization Pilots N Paws (PNP) of Landrum, S.C.

“Transportation is usually one of the hurdles involved with placing an animal in a new home, so overcoming that obstacle widens the field to allow the adoption can take place,” says Kathleen Quinn, executive director of PNP. “We are [expanding the adoption range] from the south… a home can now be found in Ohio or New Jersey.”

Volunteer pilot Pat Picornell in front of her Rockwell Commander 114 at the Melbourne, FL airport KMLB with her adopted dogs Parker, Lily and Dalton.

PNP’s website,, is a forum board where rescue groups, shelters or even individuals can go and post a request for an animal transport. The transport can be for any animal, from a furry kitten or pup to a slivering boa constrictor, as long as it’s a rescue, military or service animal in need. Volunteer pilots who have set up a profile on the website can see the requests and respond to the thread on the forum if they are able to help. The parties then exchange information and begin planning the actual transport for the animal.

“The premise for Pilots N Paws is that if you’re already flying for business or for pleasure, why not check out the ride board to see if there is an animal that needs a ride your way? Pilots have an amazing gift with the potential to save an animal’s life. The pilots are very generous and very willing to share this gift, which is truly inspiring for everyone involved in rescue,” says Quinn.

The pilots share their gift in the same way our furry friends do, without expecting anything in return. They cover the cost of the fuel, maintenance of the aircraft and many even pay to rent the airplane. The transports come at virtually no cost to the sending or receiving party of the rescue pet, and the pets are able to find their new homes in all different parts of the country.

On average, pilots can cover about 300 nautical miles in their general aviation aircraft. A transport flight originating from Nashville could easily travel to cities such as Bowling Green, KY; Atlanta, GA; Ashville, NC; or even Columbus, OH. Longer transports are called relays where several pilots work together to split up the different legs of the trip.

“We have some transports where one pilot flies from point A to point B, and another pilot from point B to point C, and then people who drive the rest of the way,” Quinn explains. 

Volunteer pilot Jeff Bennett snuggles with rescued pooch Boots before taking off for a transport from Greenville, AL to Orlando, FL. Boots was Jeff’s 2,000th animal transport with Pilots N Paws, making it a very special and rewarding flight.

As of 2014, 4,200 pilot volunteers have flown over 60,000 rescue animals to their new homes. Terry Janiak, owner of Terry’s Service Center in Nashville, has personally flown over 100 dogs through PNP. Janiak obtained his pilot license eight years ago and wanted to add purpose to his trips. His wife, Marge, stumbled upon PNP when researching volunteer opportunities online and the match was made. 

“It was a way for both of us to bring our hobbies together. I was big into dog rescue and he was in love with the plane he had just bought,” says Marge.

Whenever the Janiaks decide to take a trip, they share their plane ride with others. “We take the back seats out of the airplane and put blankets down and put cages in there,” says Terry. “Dogs that don’t fit in crates just run around the airplane, but they can’t go far because there’s no room!”

The Janiaks own a Piper Arrow which seats four people, or up to ten dogs depending on size. The pair hasn’t encountered any obstacles or accidents (well, some accidents do occur, but nothing a pooper scooper can’t fix!) and the sound of the engine tends to lull the animals to sleep. So far, none of their passengers have complained about the lack of peanuts, pretzels or cookies during flight.
“The way I look at it, the tax deduction pays for the fuel, the airplane and the maintenance is all on me and I’m going to fly the airplane no matter what, so I might as well do something good with it,” says Terry.

For Marge, the motivation is simple: “You have the responsibility as a person to be [an animal’s] voice; I really feel that. They can’t tell you what’s wrong, that they’re hungry, that they don’t have a home.”

In September of 2013, Terry, Marge and several other volunteers of PNP became the voice of one such animal, Rocket, a Pointer mix found as a stray in Dyersburg, TN.

Pat Nichols of Durham, NC has a soft spot for Pointers and spends her free time rescuing and fostering them through the Pointer Rescue Group that operates across the United States. Nichols noticed six-month-old Rocket on the Dyers County Humane Society website and knew she needed to save him. “Dogs there have almost no chance. [The shelter is] small and they don’t have much time and he was so adorable. I had luck on my side.”

Nichols’ close friend and fellow dog rescuer, Sue Blackman, lived nearby in a suburb of Memphis. Blackman agreed to foster Rocket until a transport could be organized, and the lucky pointer got his first taste of a real home, “We never have less than six dogs [in the house]. Rocket came in and he was a baby and he started playing and he had the best time. He fit right into the rest of the gang,” says Blackman.

With Rocket safely out of the shelter, the campaign to organize a transport began. Nichols posted to the PNP’s website a request for transport from Memphis to Durham, and the first pilot to respond, Chris Hilty of Memphis, TN, took it from there.

“I had actually been working with the trip and trying to get Rocket moved for several weeks, but we were unable to secure transport for the entire trip. I was working closely with Marge and Terry Janiak and learned that they were attending a Pilots N Paws fly-in over in Knoxville. Seeing the opportunity, I reached out to the organizer and he was able to spread the word, so we were able to find additional pilots willing to take Rocket out to North Carolina.”

Chris Hilty flew Rocket on the first leg of the trip from Fayette County Airport to the Jon C. Tune airport in Nashville. The Janiak’s scooped up Rocket from there to fly him to the Downtown Island Airport in Knoxville where Rocket went from “the dog next door” to A-list celebrity. The fly-in event was a kick-off party for a documentary, called “Tales in Flight”, which focused on Pilots N Paws and Big Fluffy Dog Rescue Group.

“It was kind of a special flight for them because taking the dog to the airport was experiencing what the documentary was about, and people got to see firsthand what a Pilots N Paw mission is all about,” says Quinn.

Rocket’s final flight was with Tom and Ann Slater from North Carolina. They flew Rocket in their Cessna 172 Skyhawk from Knoxville to Raleigh-Durham International Airport where Nichols was waiting to take him home, “It’s such a fun thing to do. There’s a lot of joy. We like to take missions where we are the final leg and we deliver the dog to the final moment. It’s a special moment, usually emotional,” says Tom.

All pilots agreed that Rocket was a model passenger, calm, curious and sleepy. In one day, he covered over 700 miles, roughly an 11-hour drive, in only 4 hours.

“The animals, it’s almost like they know that they are going to a better place,” says Quinn. “They seem very happy and excited to be going on the planes. They don’t seem anxious or anything like that.”

After a short stay with Nichols, Rocket was adopted by a friend of Hilty’s in Atlanta, GA. Samantha Giroux, a pharmacy student, gave Rocket the new name of Remus, and says he helps her get through the school year by getting her out of the house for much needed breaks. “We go to the dog park almost every day. He is a year old now. He’s super hyper… and he is a toy thief,” she laughs.

Not all rescue flights go as smoothly as Rocket’s. Inclement weather can also play a significant role in the success of a flight transport, but Quinn states that the pilots and other non-pilot volunteers always go the extra mile. Many volunteers along the flight paths keep their homes open for temporary fostering in case of a delay or flight cancellation, while others jump right into their car and finish the trip on the ground.

Rocket, a Pointer pup rescued from a shelter, flew the last leg of his transport with North Carolina based pilot Tom Slater and his wife Ann. Their Cessna 172 Skyhawk picked Rocket up in Knoxville, TN and delivered him to the Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina, where new mom Pat Nichols was eagerly awaiting.

This year, PNP is expanding their reach even further by promoting spay and neuter practices, teaching children about animal education and conducting campaigns to encourage flight schools to participate in rescue flights. Terry and Marge Janiak have recently become representatives for this program and plan on spending the summer visiting local airports to give presentations on PNP.

“Not only are we saving the lives of these animals, but we are also influencing in a positive way the lives of the people who volunteer with us. It makes a difference in their life knowing the good they are accomplishing,” says Quinn.



60,000  The total number of animals transported through PNP since their inception

15,000  The total number of animals transported through PNP in 2013

8,000  The total number of non-pilot volunteers for PNP

4,200  The total number of pilot volunteers in PNP

2,324 The total number of animals transported by Pilot Jeff Bennet of Florida

531  The total number of animals transported by PNP in one day

0  The cost of the transport to a rescue group

Rebekah Olsen lives in Southaven, MS with her husband, Matt, and their Cane Corso, Midas. She is a freelance writer, small business owner and writes a blog for Dogs 2nd Chance Rescue Group. This is her second feature story for Nashville Paw.

comments powered by Disqus