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Animal-rescue group takes to the friendly skies

| Friday, Aug. 21, 2015, 8:57 p.m.
Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team.
Jonathan Plesset (left) and Brad Childs are co-founders of the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team.
Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team.
Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team rescues dogs and brings them to no-kill shelters.

A well-meaning bulldog that almost caused a plane crash ended up inspiring a flying animal-rescue organization.

When pilot Brad Childs of Upper St. Clair was transporting 90-pound Monte as a favor to a friend in 2006, the dog broke free from his harness and jumped onto Childs' lap in the middle of the flight. The plane nosedived, but Childs straightened it out in time. He found the dog, on its way to a new adoptive family, to be endearing.

After that incident, Childs talked to his friend and fellow pilot Jonathan Plesset about the idea of a flying mission to help transport all of the animals out there in need — securely restrained, of course.

They did some fundraising for animal causes — like answering a call to help provide pet food to Georgia shelters that were running out of it — and, in 2012, formally created the nonprofit Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team, which will have a social fundraiser Aug. 22.

“We've found the greatest thing,” says Plesset, 40, of Shadyside. “We're both passionate animal lovers and lovers of aviation, and what a great way to mix these two passions. It just puts a smile on our face every time we do this. ... It's an addiction.

“It's blossomed into this giant thing,” Plesset says of the animal-rescue team. His main business is owning Shadyside Inn All Suites Hotel, while Childs is one of the owners of Eyetique. “We can't believe we're moonlighting as 501.c3 (nonprofit) directors.”

Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team's crew of nine volunteer pilots, including co-founders Plesset and Childs, transport animals in their mostly single-engine planes like Cessnas. They usually fly hundreds of miles outside of Pittsburgh to and from places like West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia and New York City. The pilots pick up pets — mostly dogs, but also the occasional cat or other animal — and transport them to shelters that can take them.

“We'll get a call that there are seven to 10 dogs that someone pulled from a rural area ... and will be euthanized, and a ground crew isn't available on time,” Plesset says. “It's really for the convenience of being able to mobilize quickly and get in and out quickly.”

Some of the organization's nearly 40 volunteers also work as “ground pilots,” driving large vehicles to transport 40 to 60 animals in one shot.

Shelters usually contact the organization, which acts as a go-between. Many shelters are overwhelmed and just don't have the space or resources to deal with the volume of animals they get, and they have no choice but to euthanize pets — unless they get either adopted or rescued and moved elsewhere, which is where the rescue team comes in, Plesset says.

“Our mission ... is, we want to prevent that problem,” he says. Often, “all dogs need is a lift to another place.”

The team has saved 1,594 animals, and Plesset hopes that by the end of next year, the group will have saved more than 5,000 animals.

The volunteers are very devoted, he says.

“People take vacation time to go drive 1,200 miles over two days to do these missions,” Plesset says. “These people are beyond dedicated.”

The Aug. 22 event is a key fundraiser in its second year. Last year, it drew 500 people — more than organizers expected — and this year, they are hoping to break 1,000 attendees. Held in the Allegheny County Airport's Main Terminal, the event will include entertainment, an auction and pets available for adoption from the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society.

“We are proud to have Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team as our partner in saving lives and are excited to have our animals at the Dog Days of Summer event,” says Joy Braunstein, executive director of the North Side group. The shelter also will recognize Childs and Plesset at its Best Friends Ball on Sept. 13.

Cindy Szczudlo — manager of rescue services for North Shore Animal League America in Port Washington, Long Island, N.Y. — said the people of the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team are amazing. She recalls a time when they flew six puppies and six dogs to the no-kill shelter.

“It was just such a wonderful experience,” she says. “We knew right away we had to start working with these guys. They are really great guys who truly do care about animals.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kgormly@tribweb.com or 412-320-7824.

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