In the two years Rob McMaster has flown canine rescue missions for the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team, there have been many highlights.
Some of them are heartwarming, such as the retired German Shepherd police dog with a bad hip who valiantly wanted to get himself on board, even if he did snap at Rob to get his point across.
Some are funny, such as removing a back seat to accommodate two large and fragile Greyhounds. And, most recently, having to endure the midflight stench of puppy poop — there were 10 pups aboard, so it’s unclear who the culprit was.
See the video below and be glad it isn’t in Smell-o-Vision!
“We’ve also had quite a few dogs who want to be up front with us,” McMaster says. “As long as they don’t cause a problem, we’re fine with that.”
But one flight stands out. Earlier this year, McMaster and his friend Brad Childs planned to get together with their wives for dinner. Then they got a call. Animal rescue group Pilots N Paws was reaching out to pilots across the country to help reunite a dying man with his dog. They could get as far as West Virginia. Could McMaster and Childs fly there and deliver the dog to a waiting relative in Pittsburgh?
The two didn’t hesitate. “We just had to tell our wives that we might not be able to make it to dinner,” McMaster recalls.
The dog’s owner, Rod Calvert, had battled cancer, which was in remission. So when he and his wife, Debbie, Florida snowbirds, returned to Pittsburgh for routine tests they planned on being away for just a few days and left their dog, Bailey, behind.
But Rod’s cancer was back, and he was given only days to live. As his family struggled to come to terms with the news, Rod’s final wish was to see Bailey again.
It took about a day, but Pilots N Paws, McMaster and Childs, and other volunteers were able to reunite Rod with his beloved Bailey. (We wrote about it in “Five-Kleenex Story of the Day: Man’s Last Wish is to Have Dog at His Deathbed.”)
Debbie Calvert wrote the rescuers: “My husband and I can’t thank you enough for bringing us our baby girl Bailey. She will help my husband and I through this difficult time. People like you are true treasures.” Rod died a few days later.
McMaster insists that he is just part of the work. “Sometimes we look like the heroes, but it’s always the people behind the scenes who are the true heroes,” he says. “The rescue coordinators who put flights together, the people in the field pulling animals out of shelters, the people who foster them until they can find a forever home — we work for them. They’re the ones pulling off the miracles here. We just want to be able to support them and the animals who deserve so much more the best that we can.”
McMaster, Childs, and Pete Lehmann, who co-owns the plane with Childs, share a love of two things: flying and animals. McMaster and his wife Anne have two dogs: Jackson, an 8-year-old black Lab who was rescued from the Humane Society, and Honey, a 1-year-old Pit mix whose previous owners tied her to a tree when they decided they didn’t want her anymore.
Childs made his first run in 2009 when he was asked to fill in as a backup pilot to rescue a deaf Bulldog named Monty. The experience made a deep impression. To date, PAART has been involved in more than 50 rescues.
In June, they incorporated their rescue organization. Hoping to expand their reach and rescues, they have filed paperwork to make them a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Right now, the pilots cover most of the costs. They can only fly regionally, and their small plane limits the number of animals they can fit on board.
But not surprisingly, for a group of pilots, they have high hopes for the organization. They’d like to fly more frequently to meet the increasing rescue needs. They also want to fly in resources and supplies during tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina, which left hundreds of dogs in need of food, shelter, and medical aid. “We want to be all-encompassing as opposed to just moving animals around,” McMaster says.
Pilots have this saying about a $100 hamburger; it’s an excuse to fly from one airport to another for a burger, and a ride. Members of PAART have taken plenty of those trips. But McMaster says working with animal rescues and forming PAART have given them an even more fulfilling reason to take to the skies. “To have a purpose makes it so much better,” he says. “It gives you this sense of accomplishment that at the end of the day, you’ve really done something worthwhile. We just want to do more.”
Do you know of a rescue hero — dog, human, or group — we should profile on Dogster? Write us at email@example.com.