October 3 was the date that a pregnant dog named Danni was scheduled to die at a North Carolina animal shelter. Instead, she gave birth that day to a litter of puppies at a pet-rescue facility near Philadelphia, where they are soon to be put up for adoption.
No one is happier about that than Michael Young, a pilot and adjunct professor of engineering at George Mason University's campus in Fairfax, Va., who flew Danni, along with three long-eared coonhound pups and a gentle dog named Forest, out of North Carolina the day before all were to be euthanized. In a little over a year, Mr. Young has completed more than 20 rescue flights for Pilots N Paws, an organization that plucks adoptable dogs like Danni from high-kill shelters and uses a relay system of volunteer pilots to deliver them to pet-rescue agencies.
"We pilots are always looking for an excuse to fly," says Mr. Young, "and what better excuse than to save dogs?"
He transports them in a four-seat Columbia 400 aircraft that he owns with a couple of friends.
"I can take the back seats out if I've got to do a lot of dogs, which I did in February of this year when I had 17 puppies in the plane," says Mr. Young. "When we landed it was like a clown car" as all the dogs exited the plane. During the flight, he says, some of the pups cuddle together in crates and sleep, while others wander around the cabin or snuggle with student volunteers. As faculty adviser for George Mason's aviation club, Mr. Young recruits students to help out with the dogs while in the air and—most importantly—to exercise them before flying and to put them at ease.
Mr. Young's inaugural flight for Pilots N Paws was in September 2010, but he pinpoints the roots of his participation at eight months earlier, when his family learned that their beloved German shepherd, Conan, had cancer. "We finally had to put him to sleep in July," says Mr. Young. "I had a hole in my heart."
Then a pilot friend invited Mr. Young to help with a mass airlift of dogs that had been abandoned amid the economic turmoil of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and he has been hooked ever since. He describes a military-style operation that begins with volunteers on the ground who pay weekly visits to "high kill" shelters and ask, "Who's on death row?" Many dogs are too ill or aggressive to be suitable for adoption, but those that aren't are matched up with rescue agencies that promise to find suitable homes for them. Pilots N Pets then e-mails its network of volunteer pilots to see who is available to pick up the animals. Because flying is so costly—Mr. Young says he pays about $1.05 per statute mile—the trips are often broken into relays, with each pilot flying a leg and then handing off the dogs to another until they reach the receiving rescue agency.
"The receiving rescues know all about every dog they're getting—their picture, their description, their weight, temperament, if he's got any illnesses," says Mr. Young. "Before they are even pulled from the shelter and brought from the airport, the receiving rescues know where they're going to go"—usually to foster homes, where the dogs will await adoption.
Occasionally, though, plans do change, such as on Mr. Young's third flight, when he picked up eight dogs in Lumberton, N.C., and spotted a chow chow-Maltese pup that seemed brighter than the others. With the consent of the rescue agency, he took her home and named her "Molly." A few months later, "Perry," a harrier-Tibetan spaniel mix from Roxboro, N.C., would be the next dog diverted from its intended destination. Today he is known as "Biff": Molly's BFF.