Sometimes, the dogs ride shotgun, holstered to the backseat, able to take in the views from 10,000 feet high. Other times, they rest in the cargo hold, as the 4-seat Cessna 172SP soars 160 miles an hour to places as far flung as Indiana, Louisiana or Rhode Island. But regardless of where they’re situated in the plane or where they’re going to on the ground, these pups are almost always flying toward a better future, thanks to non-profits like Pilots N Paws – and a dedicated RS&H associate.
Nearly a decade ago, as Pilots N Paws expanded into North Carolina, the then new non-profit recruited RS&H aviation manager Tom Slater to help fly abandoned or injured dogs on missions to veterinary care facilities, rescue organizations, or new owners. Since the relationship’s beginning, Tom, of the Raleigh, N.C., office, has spent his off-hours piloting hundreds of flights, taking dogs all over the country. In that time, he’s made memories – and learned a few lessons.
“We flew into Asheville one time with a dog that was tethered in the back seat,” said Tom. “The handler unhooked the dog and didn’t tell me she had done it.”
When Tom opened the door, the dog got loose, exploring the airport for 45 minutes, until local firemen arrived and finally caught him.
From then on, he always doublechecked to make sure dogs were properly secured before getting out of aircrafts, said Tom with a laugh. But for every “learning experience” like that one, there have been many more rewarding moments, he added.
“We’ve had a lot of emotional hellos and goodbyes,” he said. “We fly a lot of trips from foster homes to new, forever homes. On both sides of these trips, it’s emotional.”
Emotions can sometimes even get the best of people mid-flight. Once, as Tom flew a litter of golden retriever puppies to a South Carolina rescue, the handler assisting Tom fell in love with one of the puppies and decided to adopt him.
Though his involvement with Pilots N Paws is extensive, Tom does not limit his volunteering efforts to the non-profit – or curtail his passenger list to canine companions. He flies dogs regularly for another non-profit, CrisisDogs NC, and has flown supplies to places such as Haiti as part of relief efforts. On a yearly basis, he also takes part in Angel Flights, transporting sick people across the country for treatment and other medical needs.
Tom is often joined by his wife, also a pilot, on his volunteer missions.
“When you can do something you love, with the people you love, and help others in the process, you can’t beat that,” said Tom.
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