Chris Pease's 3-year-old blue heeler, Tango, is a light in his life. A pilot, Pease named his dog for the aviator's code word for the letter "T." She wears a pink collar that says "Princess," and trots faithfully by his side. "She's a wonderful dog with a playful personality, and very protective," he says.
The bespectacled business owner with the easy grin and close-cropped shock of bright white hair adopted his sturdy, springy companion as a young puppy; she and her littermates were rescues and he got "first dibs." And while she's the only dog Pease owns, she's just one of in a long line of canines that Pease has kept from being euthanized. He estimates in the past three years he's flown dozens of missions on behalf of Pilots 'N Paws, the nationwide organization that acts as a clearinghouse to match private pilots willing to provide free transport with people and organizations who rescue, shelter, or foster animals and need to move them to another location where adoptive homes await.
The volunteer work is a "three-for-one" good deal for him, says Pease. "I get to save animals and I get to fly, and both of those are really enjoyable. And it makes my animal-loving family members happy as well."
Founded in 2007 by South Carolina animal rescuer Debi Boies and Knoxville pilot Jon Wehrenberg, PNP now boasts more than 3,000 pilot volunteers and 10,500 others who help on the ground. Most often, rescue groups are removing the pets from "death row" in high-risk Southern states, where PNP estimates 70 percent of dogs that enter shelters are euthanized. They find refuge in Northeast or Pacific Northwest locales where spay-neuter laws are stricter and adoptable animals are in shorter supply; New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and California are some of the most popular final destinations.
Pease has flown entire flights or legs to assist animals from such organizations as the Tennessee Pekingese Rescue and Young Williams Animal Shelter. He once flew a dog named Caesar. "Being a Doberman, he was a little on the edgy side, but he took right to me, which is good, since he didn't have a crate and was so big he took up the whole back of the plane," Pease says. "That was probably my most memorable dog."
Inspired by "the thrill of the flight," Pease has been flying since 1987 and is now a commercial pilot with a multi-engine instrument rating. He flies some charters, and also volunteers for Remote Area Medical, and says he may cap off his working days with a career as a commercial pilot. Right now though, his day job is at PBM Sales & Service, a bustling Xerox copier and IT solutions dealership that he's owned for 14 years.
Outgoing and affable, Pease is full of quips spoken in a distinctly East Tennessee accent, and describes working at PBM as the equivalent of "falling on two hand grenades" at the start of each business day. The volunteer piloting is his main "thing" outside of his whirlwind job, begun when he was doing flight training with Corey Gerulis out of Lebanon, Tenn.
"He got me into this by saying he'd give me free commercial instrument flight instruction cross-country as long as we were saving animals—Corey is so cool."
Between Pease, Gerulis, and two other aviation mentors and friends, Philip Beebe and Andy Hungate, Pease says they've probably been involved in 100 or so air rescues ("I should have kept count!") He's also volunteered as a pilot for Remote Area Medical's adoptable animal airlifts. "They tend to use bigger airplanes, and take some 25-50 dogs at a time," says Pease.
The four rallied when PNP's Boies put together a national rescue to airlift dogs from New Orleans in 2010. "Everybody flew in from different parts of the country, and Subaru put us all up in hotels and fed us. The next morning over 100 planes were flying to different parts of the country. We probably took 20 a piece. It was a wild trip with that many dogs in a small plane, about three hours flight each way—we all smelt like the dogs we are."
Canine passengers are usually agitated during loading and many are nervous being in a crate, says Pease, but the standard procedure is to give them Benadryl. "Shortly after departure, they settle right down. I'm not sure, but I think it's the sound of the engines."
FAA regulations make it so pilots are not allowed to accept fees to fly such missions, and gas prices can be staggering—$500 and up for even short jaunts. Pease is quick to point out that while flying adoptable animals is more comfortable for all than long car rides, and every animal saved is a karmic boost, the enterprise is not a comprehensive solution. "Pilots ‘N Paws and Remote Area Medical give national attention to a horrific topic, saving a portion of the millions of animals that are euthanized. They're great, whenever they do an event, it helps energize the base of animal rescue volunteers. But no one is going to tell you flying is the most cost-effective way."
The animals that don't survive trouble Pease. "I probably get three-five e-mails every day, ‘Can you do this rescue?' It's very disturbing when you know how many of them get put down. It breaks my heart. It's—just a shame. It was Gandhi who said, ‘The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.' The more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man."
Pease sees more widespread success coming from increased spay-neuter education, more adoption programs, and an investment in no-kill shelters.
While Pease revels in getting to pilot for a good cause, he won't take much credit for himself or other volunteer pilots. "The people on the ground, the people who work to get these dogs to safety—the ones who adopt rescue dogs? They're not getting national attention, but those are the real heroes." m