At Midwest National Air Center near Excelsior Springs, a white Piper Cherokee drifts to earth like a paper airplane in the bright twilight, the buzz of its single engine only slightly louder than the chirp of grasshoppers in the surrounding farmland.
On the ground, the plane noses down deserted runways and taxiways toward the padlocked terminal building. The propeller coughs to a stop, and the pilot unfolds his body backward through the passenger-side door.
Standing on the wing he asks his passenger, “Honey Bee, do you want to get out?”
Honey Bee, a 2-year-old bluetick coonhound, raises her head and cocks her floppy velvet ears. But she remains rooted to the backseat where she has slept most of the two hours since the gentle-voiced stranger picked her up at Spirit of St. Louis Airport and loaded her into this strange vehicle that vibrates like a pickup but is much louder.
The pilot strokes Honey Bee under the chin, then leans in and scoops up the 50-pound hound, no easy feat while trying to keep your footing on a convex aircraft wing.
Even cradling a coonhound, Sam Taylor has the squared shoulders and stick-straight posture of military servicemen. Taylor is a retired Navy helicopter pilot who flew search-and-rescue missions during the Vietnam War. Now he flies animal rescue missions in his plane for a nationwide network called Pilots N Paws.
On average, Taylor goes on one to three rescue flights a week. Most flights are in a 150-mile range, but he has flown much farther. In September 2010, Taylor was part of a mission that rescued 171 dogs from Louisiana after the gulf oil spill.
Taylor would go more often if he could afford it. Pilots N Paws pilots pay for their own gas, which averages $48 per hour.
Last year, Taylor spent $3,255 on gas for rescue flights. This year he’s up to $2,400 already.
Taylor has transported 279 dogs and one cat, and he has pictures of every one of them. The bottom drawer of a metal file cabinet in the upstairs office of his Northland home is filled with manila folders labeled in a neat cursive hand in pencil: “Tuff the Weimaraner,” “Pippen the Italian greyhound,” “Layla the English pointer.”
And now “Honey Bee, the bluetick coonhound.”
Honey Bee was rescued from a farm in rural Kentucky where a once-respected breeder descended into ill health and hoarding behavior and ultimately abandoned his property, leaving behind 29 coonhounds, many locked in kennels, horse stalls and the house.
The grassy hills and ruffled tree lines surrounding the airport in Excelsior Springs don’t differ dramatically from the area in Kentucky where Honey Bee was rescued, and she strains on her leash to explore the new terrain.
But this is not her new home. Over the next five days, Honey Bee will be handed off 21 more times in a relay stretching 2,150 miles from Excelsior Springs to Reseda, Calif., near Los Angeles.But first, Taylor pushes his airplane into its hangar, pulls the door shut and locks it, the blanket Honey Bee slept on in the plane draped over his arm. He spreads the blanket over the front seat of his silver pickup.
“She’s familiar with the blanket, so that is a comforting thing,” he explains.
Honey Bee’s story is typical in many ways of how animal rescues in America play out nowadays. Pilots N Paws is just one part of a complex network that functions like a modern Underground Railroad for animals.
Honey Bee came out of the South. The lack of spay-neuter laws in many Southern states combined with their higher shelter euthanasia rates — 70 percent is not uncommon — sets up a continuous flow of dogs and cats from the South to the rest of the country. More than half the rescues Taylor flies are shelter-to-shelter transfers, moving an animal facing euthanasia at an overcrowded shelter to a no-kill shelter that has room.
On her trek, Honey Bee spent more than a month in Dittmer, Mo., outside St. Louis with Kathy Harden, a volunteer with American Black & Tan Rescue who often shelters up to 12 animals for long periods.
Many rescued dogs start their new lives with a stay at a long-term foster home while volunteers post information about the animal online in hopes of finding an adoptive family.
Once an adoption is arranged, the rescue organization contacts a volunteer transport coordinator to cobble together a route that often involves six to two dozen legs by road and by land.
Pilots N Paws runs a website where transport coordinators post routes where pilots are needed to “connect the dots” between overland segments of an animal’s journey.
“We try not to abuse our pilots when ground transportation can be found,” Harden says. But particularly going from the Midwest to California, it can be almost impossible to find enough short-leg drivers.
“I think they should call the group Angels N Paws because those pilots are angels,” she says.
Joan Nickum, a transport coordinator from Kansas City, Kan., met Taylor at a Platte Woods gas station to take Honey Bee to a foster in Kansas City, Kan., for two nights to bridge the gap until a driver was available to take her to Emporia, the next leg of her journey.
Short-term fosters are different from long-term fosters. They are often the unsung heroes supporting the more-heralded pilots, drivers and long-term foster farms.
These along-the-route fosters prefer to remain anonymous because often they live in towns and cities with codes limiting the number of animals allowed under one roof. Being animal lovers, they usually already have the maximum allowable number of pets, so by sheltering rescue animals, even for a night or two, they are exposing themselves to the risk of neighbor complaints or fines.
Because of Kansas City’s central location in the north-south and east-west interstate highway system, certain Walmart parking lots and gas stations around the perimeter of the Interstate 435 loop are frequent handoff stations, either from pilot to driver, pilot to foster, driver to driver, or driver to foster for dogs making their way across the country.
Pilots N Paws was co-founded in 2008 by Debi Boies of Landrum, S.C., and her pilot friend Jon Wehrenberg, after Wehrenberg offered to fly a dog Boies had adopted from Florida.
Today the network has 2,700 volunteer pilots in all 50 states and has flown more than 10,000 animals.
Kansas City author Patrick Regan has written a book about the organization called “Dog Is My Co-Pilot,” released this month and sold at Reading Reptile and other local booksellers.
Regan said of all the pilots he met in the course of his book, Taylor stands apart because of the combination of his professionalism and extreme compassion for dogs, an assessment shared by rescue volunteers on the ground who work with him.
“He’s just such a great guy,” Nickum says. “There’s been very few times when he hasn’t responded with, ‘You betcha.’ ”
Taylor is respected and beloved by rescue groups for the precision of his communications, paperwork and scheduling.
He says his military experience gave him organizational skills and a love of problem-solving that he applies to Pilots N Paws missions. “If I see two dogs coming in I try to combine them into one trip. The last thing I do before every flight is look online to see if any other dogs have popped up. It’s a resource management instinct.”
Early this year, Taylor’s plane was out for maintenance. After he got it back he flew four rescue missions before spending 11 days in Guatemala with his church group installing a water purification system.
Since getting his plane back in early May, he has rescued 16 dogs in eight flights.
Taylor was not a dog person growing up in Flint, Mich. When he married in 2005, his wife Wanda’s deep love of dogs began to rub off on him.
In 2009, a co-worker told Wanda about a friend who flew rescue missions for Pilots N Paws. Wanda told Sam, “You should do this,” she recalls.
“When your wife is telling you to go fly, that is as good as it gets,” Taylor says with a wide smile.
Wanda enjoys flying, but she has accompanied Taylor on only one rescue mission. There was a scheduled pickup of a Labradoodle in Pryor, Okla., coming back to Olathe to an adoptive home.
Wanda had heard Labradoodles were good dogs — gentle like Labs and non-shedding like poodles (not true). She wanted to see one in person.
When the Taylors got to Pryor, they took possession of a stately curly haired blond dog with soulful eyes and a gimpy leg.
As usual, just prior to takeoff, Taylor called the new owner in Olathe to give her a heads up on their expected arrival time. He learned the adoption had fallen through, and Taylor hadn’t been notified.
“We looked up and the animal control lady from Pryor was driving away,” Wanda recalls. “I said, ‘We can’t leave her here.’ ”
The blond Labradoodle resides with the Taylors now. They call her Pryor.
Wanda is “banned” from riding co-pilot on any more rescues, she says, eyeing her husband.
Taylor nods in agreement: “Banned.”
“Foster failure” is the term rescuers use when they fall too hard for a dog they are supposed to be only temporarily in charge of.
Pryor was a “foster failure,” and Taylor feels he has to limit the couple’s exposure to any more until the day when, if Wanda gets her wish, they move out to the country with acreage where she would like to have “tons of dogs and two donkeys.”
Two and a half weeks after the Honey Bee flight, Taylor pushed his Piper Cherokee out of the hangar at Midwest National, loaded in three plastic kennels, which he cleans and disinfects after each transport, and taxied over to the terminal to meet fellow Pilots N Paws flier Jim Bordoni of Lenexa.
On a heat-waves-rising-off-the-tarmac kind of morning, Bordoni had just flown in from Pittsburg, Kan., with a male chocolate Labrador named Jackson and a litter of six, 8-week-old Lab puppies not related to Jackson.
Unlike the timid Honey Bee, Jackson and the fat, fluffy pups — two black, two blond and two chocolate — called Pepper, Cinnamon, Basil, Rosemary, Sage and Nutmeg, leaped and rolled in the grass, tails aloft in the hot breeze.
This is the way most rescued dogs behave, Taylor said. “It’s like they know they are being rescued, and they are so happy to be here.”
After the puppies’ potty break, Taylor loaded them two by two into the kennels in the rear of the cabin.
Jackson scrambled in through the open door and sat on the floor directly behind the front seats. His tail beat one of the kennels like a drum. He looked out the window as the plane, fully loaded with its canine cargo, lifted slowly slowly slowly up in the air bound for Omaha.
Taylor kept reaching his right arm around the seat to pat the dog.
“He likes to fly!” Taylor said, his cornflower blue eyes as bright as Jackson’s hazel ones.
Fortunately for 279 dogs, one cat and counting, so does Taylor.