A friend with the flu had an urgent request for Brad Childs – he needed someone to pick up a 90-pound American bulldog named Monte and fly the dog to Philadelphia to meet his adoptive family.
After waiting a full minute to answer, Childs replied, “You want me to put a dog in our airplane? This is not a Subaru Outback.”
Childs eventually agreed to the flight in 2006, which he intended to be his last as a pilot. However, it became the first of a life-changing passion.
Today, Childs and Jonathan Plesset, his best friend and accomplice in most of his adventures (including motocross, wakeboarding and flying), run the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team, a nonprofit with a fleet of planes and ground vehicles, and a crew of more than 100 volunteers who move animals from danger to safety.
Founded in 2013, the team’s missions take them to places where they discover hoarding cases, dogfighting rings, natural disasters and overcrowded shelters. They’ve rescued 10,000 animals to date, some in the sky in their Airvan and some on the ground in a vehicle they dubbed the “Landplane.” Though they mostly rescue dogs, they have managed to transport a few cats, chickens, guinea pigs, sea turtles and even a monarch butterfly.
“It really has become an addiction,” said Plesset, owner of Shadyside Inn in Pittsburgh. “It’s a rush of adrenaline when you complete a mission like this. The animals definitely know something good is happening.”
Childs, the executive vice president of Eyetique, a Pittsburgh-based vision care company, is an adrenaline junkie who began flying on a whim. One morning in 2002, after taking a detour from his Upper St. Clair home to his office in Squirrel Hill, he passed the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin and was intrigued by a sign that read “Learn to fly.”
Childs usually white-knuckled his way through flights. But he stuck with his new hobby and earned his pilot’s license, conquering the challenge but never the fear.
By 2006, he was planning to sell his share of the plane he co-owned and stay on the ground. And then his friend asked him to take one last flight, to deliver Monte.
Unfortunately, Monte liked flying about as much as Childs.
On the approach into Philadelphia, Childs spotted a white blur over his shoulder. In a flash, Monte was in his lap and the plane was taking a nosedive. His co-pilot landed the plane safely, but Childs was shaken – until he saw the two children who had been waiting for their pet to arrive.
That was the moment Childs decided to keep the plane.
“There’s something magical about rescuing an animal,” he said.
Though it is gratifying to take an animal out of an overcrowded, underfunded, cinder-block shelter and deliver it to a shelter or home that can better care for it, Plesset said the missions are as much about people as they are about animals.
He recalled sitting at the end of the runway at Allegheny County Airport, staring up at a ceiling of low-hanging clouds and thinking about what this particular trip would cost him in fuel.
He was scheduled to pick up a young German shepherd in West Virginia and fly it to New York. At the end of the trip, when he met the couple adopting the dog at the airport, they were euphoric. “Do you know the story?” they asked.
The dog was going to work at a camp for children on the autism spectrum, helping them handle their emotions and find their voices.
“I thought, ‘If didn’t fly this mission, those kids don’t get the benefit,’” Plesset said. “What we’re doing has such an impact.”
The impact has continued to grow in the years since Plesset and Childs founded PAART. Thanks to social media and word of mouth, they receive nearly constant calls for assistance, sometimes from as far away as Texas and the British Virgin Islands. And a grant from the Rachael Ray Foundation, which is dedicated to helping animals in need, allowed them to graduate from a plane that was able to hold only three or four animal crates to the Airvan, which can hold up to 30.
Not bad for perhaps the unlikeliest duo to launch an air-based animal rescue.
“Yeah, the irony is that Brad’s terrified of flying and I’m definitely allergic to animals,” Plesset said with a laugh.
“It’s not logical,” Childs said. “But we can’t walk away from it.”
If you’d like to volunteer with the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team or know an animal in need, visit their website at https://nodogleftbehind.org/