Cover image: Mason student helpers Claire Atkins and Samantha Dilday check out a pair of happy faces as they cruise north at 11,000 feet. Photo courtesy of Michael Young.
It was a cloudy day in September in Florence, South Carolina, when pilot Michael Young and his passengers prepared for the flight to Warrenton, Virginia, in his Columbia 400 airplane. His cargo? A group of rescued dogs heading to new homes.
Young, an adjunct faculty member in Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering  and faculty advisor for the university’s Aviation Club , was one of dozens of volunteer pilots who transported nearly 175 dogs from South Carolina to new homes in Washington, D.C., Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Georgia. The event was part of the annual Pilot N Paws Awareness Rescue Flight .
Based in Landrum, South Carolina, Pilots N Paws  is a nonprofit organization that helps connect individuals who rescue, shelter, or foster abandoned or abused animals with pilots and plane owners who are willing to assist with the transportation of the animals to new homes. The organization focuses heavily on the South because of its widespread pet overpopulation. More than 7,000 shelters and rescue organizations, along with 2,000 pilots, volunteer to help animals in need.
Come Fly With Me
Young’s first rescue flight took place a year ago when a friend asked him to help transport several dogs among hundreds that were displaced after the oil spill along the Gulf Coast. Young flew to Clemson, South Carolina, and transported four dogs to Warrenton, Virginia, where they were placed with foster or permanent families.
Since then, Young has flown 20 rescue flights and logged close to 12,000 miles transporting nearly 90 dogs to the Washington, D.C., region, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware.
“As a pilot, I am always looking for any excuse to fly,” says Young. “So when I had the opportunity to work with Pilots N Paws, I jumped at the chance to do what I love and at the same time help save these precious dogs from death row in the high-kill shelters and transport them to new homes.”
Typically, Young will fly to North or South Carolina to pick up the dogs and then transport them to Virginia or farther north. The dogs are then handed off to volunteer rescuers who help the dogs get adopted.
The biggest thrill, says Young, is when he gets to meet a family at the airport and hands over their dog. “The glow in their faces when they finally get to see and hold their pup for the first time is priceless,” he says. “I know right then that the dog will have a wonderful life.”
Student ‘Flight Attendants’
Having had as few as four and as many as 17 dogs on one flight, Young always has two or three helpers. Most of the helpers are Mason students and members of the Aviation Club.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to be up in the air working for a great cause like Pilots N Paws,” says Samantha Dilday, a sophomore biology major who has assisted Young on several rescue flights. “I love flying and I love dogs, so being able to combine two of my favorite things, as well as work with so many great pilots, has definitely been a rewarding experience.”
Before each flight, Young and the students let the dogs run around and play outside before loading them onto the plane. Getting the dogs tired and allowing them to relieve themselves, notes Young, helps them fall asleep during the flight and make the trip less stressful. The dogs are sometimes kept in crates, but are usually more comfortable when they can roam around the plane.
While most dogs sleep during the trip, some want to be held, so the student helpers are ready with open arms to hold and comfort them. Some of the dogs prefer a window seat and will climb into the students’ laps—and sometimes even Young’s—to see the view.
A Place to Call Home
While the expense of the flights and the constant maintenance of the plane might deter some people, Young says that as long as there are dogs in need he’ll continue making the flights to find them homes.
And the best parts of this experience?
One is Molly, a black and brown puppy that Young adopted at 10 weeks old after she caught his eye at a stop in Warrenton.
“She was the only dog who was smart enough to get in the shade under a table out of the hot sun,” says Young. “I just knew she was special, and I fell in love with her.”
Another is Biff, a three-month old Harrier and Tibetan Spaniel mix that also found a home with Young. Biff was rescued from Roxboro, North Carolina, and Young took him home after the dog was flown to Pennsylvania.
What was Molly’s reaction to a new dog in the house? “She loves him—Biff is her BFF!” says Young.
“The addition of Molly and Biff to our family has been wonderful. I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to work with so many selfless people who rescue these dogs and find them safe homes,” says Young. “I hope there are more people out there who are willing to open their hearts and homes for an animal in need.”
—Catherine Probst Ferraro