When FAA Examiner Peyton Enloe presented me my pilot’s license on a sunny July 4th day many years ago, he gave me more than a license to fly. He gave me a unique opportunity to make a difference. One of my bucket list items had always been to fly for a nonprofit organization. It was at AOPA’s Camarillo fly-in that my wife and I learned about Pilots N Paws, a wonderful non-profit organization that engages in the valuable service of rescuing, transporting and adopting animals in need.
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Right before Christmas, I saw the following cry for help: “Small Terrier Pup Needs Ride from Shelter to Rescue ASAP!” Heidi and I were available, and our Cessna Cardinal was eager for a cause greater than a $100 hamburger. So we committed to saving this little eight-pound pup named Carson. The logistics began—coordinating the pickup of Carson, the drop off of Carson, and the route through Los Angeles’ bustling airspace, and ensuring the Cardinal was fueled and operational. Southern California was experiencing raging fires, and temporary flight restrictions were popping up, complicating our rescue effort.
We met Carol and her daughter Aolani at our hangar. This lovely mother and daughter team spent family time volunteering at the animal rescue to help “fur babies.” They entrusted the care of little Carson to Heidi and me. We read his paperwork and learned his story. This was his last chance at a home. He could’ve had a chip on his shoulder, but he was sweet and friendly. He had never flown in an airplane before, and he was scared. But our chocolate Labrador, Piper, jumped in the airplane and showed him that it was going to be a fun adventure.
Once we settled into the airplane, I tried to start the engine, but the prop lazily turned only a few times. With the wildfire smoke, the temporary flight restrictions and now this, I started doubting our prospects for success. I exited the plane and manually rotated the prop a few times before climbing back in our Cardinal. Three times was a charm! The Cardinal woke up and started charging the battery. We departed the Palm Springs area and flew west through the mountain pass. ATC no longer called us Cardinal 753. That day we were on a special mission. They called us Compassion 753. Heidi helped with pet care, and she input radio frequencies and squawk codes while I navigated and talked to ATC. Piper helped by being a good canine ambassador.
Carson was in great spirits when we landed in Van Nuys. He was wagging his tail as I transferred him to Tim, the husband of another animal shelter volunteer. Tim said the little guy was going to a home up north, and this leg of the trip was an important piece in getting Carson to his furever home. We said goodbye to Carson, and then Heidi and I took a break outside the FBO. We tossed the ball with Piper and thought of how much joy our dog had brought to our lives. Carson had been rescued, and he would have that same opportunity to bring joy to another family.
A Pilots N Paws Freedom Flight might seem like a simple trip from point A to point B, but I was reminded how many links in the chain make such missions successful. From the Cessna engineers who designed my Cardinal, to my flight instructors who taught me, to the volunteers who rescue and adopt animals, to the air traffic controllers, the FBO staff and the taxpayers who fund public airports. I’m proud to be a pilot, and I’d like to think that at least on this day, I was the person my dog thinks I am.
Tucker’s first novel, “The Reawakening of Mage Axum,” follows two journalists whose aviation adventures, politics, and love span two continents and half a century of America’s defining moments. For more flying stories, please visit www.tuckeraxum.com.