At Potomac Airfield near Washington, D.C., you would expect to see pilots transporting politicians, spin-doctors and other bureaucrats to and from the nation's capital, but on a sunny day in July, Mike Young prepped his aircraft for a different type of mission. He, along with two canine-handlers, were preparing to pick up two foster dogs from North Carolina to bring them to their "forever" homes in Blue Bell, Pa.
"This is a voluntary effort," said Young, a longtime pilot with the volunteer organization "Pilots N' Paws" that works with rescue groups across the country to bring adopted animals to their new homes. "We don't charge anything for it. We do it because we like to fly and we want to save dogs."
Young was inspired to get involved in these rescue efforts while evacuating dogs from the Gulf Coast oil spill in 2010. Following this experience, he jumped at the chance to join "Pilots N' Paws" and even adopted a dog from his second-ever rescue flight.
"These dogs are gems," he said. "They have so much love to give and people have so much love to give them that it's a shame that they're being put to sleep."
Most of the dogs that Young transports come from "high-kill" shelters, which often can only keep animals for up to 72 hours. The animals that do not get fostered or adopted within that time-frame face euthanasia -- a harsh necessity in many parts of the country where lax spay and neutering practices often lead to higher-than-average shelter populations.
This is a common reality for Rhonda Beach, who rescued the two dogs Young will transport today from a high-kill shelter in Person County, N.C.
"They use the gas chamber here," she said outside the local animal shelter. "They put them in ... a steel box -- and they put multiple dogs in at the same time and they turn the gas on. It's horrible. ... The carbon monoxide gets pumped in and the dogs actually suffocate."
More than 20 of North Carolina's 100 counties still use the gas chamber, a process that Beach has been trying to get lawmakers to outlaw in favor of more humane, yet often more expensive methods. In the meantime, she has been doing whatever she can to get as many dogs as possible out of the shelter and into carefully vetted adoptive homes through her non-profit organization, "Chance's Angel Rescue & Education."
In order to reach potential adopters in other, often more-urban parts of the country, Beach partnered with the "Pilots 'N Paws" organization.
"It's just an amazing resource for the rescue community -- and I have really taken advantage of it and use them quite a lot," she said. "[Young] is an awesome friend and pilot, he's just so dedicated."
To help bridge the gap between the time she rescues the dogs and when a permanent home can be found, Beach has built a team of local foster parents who provide temporary care until a "forever home" can be found.
As Young and his helpers arrived at Person County's airpark, the foster families took a few last moments to enjoy the two dogs leaving on today's flight: Rudy and Buddy.
"I wanted to do something to give back and animals have always been a passion," said Lisa Gunter, who took care of Rudy for more than three months. "I can't afford to keep them all, so this is my way of enjoying them and then seeing them find their home. ... When you've had them as long as I've had him, it's going to be emotional for me today, I think."
Buddy, the other foster dog, lived with Nicole Noon and her family for numerous weeks, as well.
"We're going to miss him. It's always sad when you let them go," she said. "I tell my kids, the best way to think of it is it's better than dead, because where they were going to end up was the gas chamber ... so when we're a little sad, [we remember] it's better than dead."
After some group photos, the foster parents loaded their dogs into Young's plane and said their final goodbyes. A few embraces later, Young taxied to the runway while the canine-handlers sat in the back holding Rudy and Buddy.
"I always take helpers with me," Young said. "I can't worry about the dogs while I'm flying the airplane. There have to be other people in the plane who are tending to the dogs while I tend to the flying."
The dogs dozed in the handlers' laps and occasionally snuck glances out the plane's windows as if they were simply sitting in the backseat of a car. Upon landing in Pennsylvania, the dogs began to get excited.
"You're looking for your mom," one handler said to the dogs, as they parked at the terminal. "He's like, 'Where's my new mom?'"
Minutes later, the families that had adopted Rudy and Buddy began to walk toward the plane. Before this moment, they had only seen photographs of their new dogs.
"We decided to get him, like, four days ago," Buddy's new owner said while playing with him on the tarmac for the first time. "So it was nice and quick. It's like when you see them you just know, like, you need this dog. It's your dog."
Both Rudy and Buddy wagged their tails and were quick to accept their new families' back scratches and attention.
"When I see the dogs go to their new owners," Young said, "to me that's what's rewarding -- that this dog is going to have a good life. And I don't know who's the better ... the dog or the person ... for having done the rescue."