Nine eight-week-old puppies made a pitstop in Billings on Saturday afternoon on their way to a better life.
The squirmy, affectionate black, chocolate, and yellow Labradors flew into Billings Logan International Airport on one Cessna 182 and flew out on another, all in about a half-hour.
They started the day in Monroe City, Mo., and would end it in Missoula. In between, they made stops in Valentine, Neb., and Billings, all thanks to pilots who belong to Pilots N Paws.
The national nonprofit connects animal rescue groups with pilots and others. It was founded in 2008 and now has 2,466 pilot volunteers and 8,281 rescuers.
The Labrador puppies were donated by the Monroe City Canine Search and Rescue, whose members voted to donate the animals for training as service dogs.
The puppies will go by ground transportation from Missoula to Colville, Wash., north of Spokane. There, they will be trained by Shepherds for Lost Sheep Inc. as service dogs for veterans dealing with physical and psychological injuries.
In other cases, the rescued dogs, cats, pigs, reptiles, rabbits and other animals are transported from shelters to foster or permanent homes.
Different groups arrange the rescues. Saturday’s mission was coordinated by Quailwings Transports. Headquarters for the group of air and ground transporters is in Cut Bank.
Saturday was the maiden flight for Billings pilot Brandie Emmett, a new Pilots N Paws volunteer. She flew the puppies from North Dakota to Billings, more than 300 miles roundtrip.
She’s been a member for about four months. A friend told Emmett to check out Pilots N Paws on Facebook, and she was hooked.
“It doesn’t get any better than this, to take what you love doing, which is flying and helping animals,” she said, sitting on a couch in her hangar at the airport.
Emmett works in marketing for a State Farm Insurance agent in Billings. She took up flying as a hobby four years ago.
A pet owner, she has two adult labs and a cat. So she was equipped to transport the puppies in one of her large kennels.
She was a little nervous at the start of her flight in Valentine.
“They were really kind of yelping when we took off, so I did not think this was probably a good thing,” Emmett said. “But within 10 minutes they had calmed down, went to sleep and I did not hear another word from them until we turned on the taxiway.”
Once Emmett landed in Billings, she taxied to her hangar, powered down the plane and hopped out to unload her noisy cargo. Pilot Jerry Cain of Lincoln, Mont., another Pilots N Paws volunteer, was waiting to load them into his plane.
He’s been part of the nonprofit for “three or four years” and enjoys doing the charitable flights. Cain also ferries humans through the nonprofit Angel Flight West program.
Cain, his co-pilot Jerry Hover, Emmett and pilot Scott Newpower moved the puppies from one plane to the other. The dogs couldn’t be let down to run around, Emmett said, because they had just received their parvo vaccinations and could be vulnerable if exposed to the virus.
Cain gave bowls of fresh water to the puppies and got them settled in two crates in his plane. Emmett signed off on some paperwork, and then Cain taxied to the runway and took off.
Because of the weather, Cain tends to make fewer rescue trips in the winter. But in the summer, he may fly a couple of times a month or more.
His rule of thumb is that he will fly a 500-nautical-mile round trip from Lincoln. This particular flight totaled 484 miles, he said.
Cain, who has sled dogs he runs in the winter, has a soft spot for pets. So it just makes sense for him to be involved in rescuing them.
“I love animals, dogs, cats and horses,” he said. “And it’s a good excuse to fly.”