Millie, a scruffy black terrier in need of a bath, let out a whine that could barely be heard over the roar of the propeller. Pilot Bill Stigile turned away from a panoramic view of the Central Valley to reassure the dog serving as his co-pilot on this critical journey.
"It's OK, girl," he said. "We're nearly there."
During the week, Stigile is an insurance salesman who lives in Woodbridge. But on the weekends, he saves lives.
Stigile was one of 29 pilots flying a mission of mercy earlier this month in the California skies to save dozens of dogs from being put to sleep in a South Los Angeles animal shelter.
They are all members of Pilots N Paws, a national organization dedicated to transporting rescued animals by air.
Last weekend, 68 dogs needed a lift from Long Beach to Seattle. Homeless animals were relying on strangers with planes and vans to rescue them.
The mission: Rescued dogs would be transported from Southern California to the Fresno-Yosemite airport, where Stigile and others would swoop down, pick them up and take them to Redding. From Redding, the animals would be driven to Washington and dispersed to new homes. The 1,160-mile passage would take long hours, a logistical scramble and confident flying. Stigile and his fellow pilots were ready.
Pilots saving lives
Pilots N Paws started in 2008 when animal lover Debi Boies of South Carolina convinced her pilot friend Jon Wehrenberg to help her rescue a Doberman. The dog was set to be euthanized in Florida, but an animal shelter in South Carolina had room. Wehrenberg flew to Florida, picked up the Dobie and took him up north to a new home.
Boies knew spay and neuter programs were working well in many parts of the country, but in some states, homeless pets were dying needlessly.
Pilots N Paws connects volunteer private pilots with rescue groups and animal shelters to saves dogs, cats, and any other animal that can be transported by air.
The Unites States Humane Society estimates that at least 3 million cats and dogs were euthanized in 2012. Volunteer pilots like Stigile saved 12,000 animals from near-certain death.
Sometimes, the animal-loving pilots respond to a major emergency.
Hundreds of people lost their jobs and homes when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the Gulf Coast in 2010. Pilots N Paws converged and saved 171 animals when their families had to give them up.
Most rescues are simple: one or two dogs from a crowded shelter, a rescue group with room to spare, and a pilot willing to spend the time and gas money.
Dream job turns to volunteer work
When Stigile first earned his pilot's license, he had no plans of transporting shelter dogs.
Stigile left his three-year service in the Army in 1965, just before his unit was deployed to Vietnam. He had dreams of being a military pilot, but his security clearance was too high. His superiors would not risk having someone with delicate information shot down in enemy territory.
Ten years later, he got a pilot's license on his own. His instructor helped him use money from Veteran's Assistance to get a commercial rating.
But by then, pilots with combat experience were returning from Vietnam, and Stigile couldn't get a job with an airline.
Today, he works for Colonial Life selling insurance, and takes his 1976 Grumman American four-seater plane out for joyrides. It's an agile, light aircraft, capable of higher speeds than a Cessna or Piper due to its construction.
Bold red stripes run down each side, flanked by black-and-white checkered wings. Stigile keeps it at the Lodi Airport and has flown as far as Brownsville, Texas.
Two years ago, a friend told him about Pilots N Paws. Stigile instantly thought of the two rescued dogs waiting for him at his home in the Wine Country neighborhood of Woodbridge: Cody, a border collie adopted from the Stockton Animal Shelter, and Miles, a Labrador-dachshund mix Stigile and his wife Jo Ann adopted through People Assisting the Lodi Shelter.
Flying around the state and saving dogs? Stigile signed up.
"He loves to fly. This is a good opportunity to use his flying skills for a good cause," said Jo Ann Stigile. "Having the rescued dogs in our family is one of the best things we've ever done."
He has piloted five dogs to safety. Last summer, a French bulldog from Paso Robles needed transport to Walla Walla, Wash., and Stigile signed on to take one leg of the trip. The pup sat happily in Jo Ann Stigile's lap as the plane taxied along the runway. But at takeoff, the dog grew skittish.
"She looked out the window and watched the ground go away. She looked at my wife, then back at the ground, and bolted into her cage in back," said Stigile, laughing. The dog was lulled to sleep by the plane's vibrations until landing.
Getting the cargo
Stigile never knows what to expect. Some dogs fall right to sleep, while others will yap nervously throughout the flight. There might be vomit, or messes, or barking. It doesn't matter. Stigile doesn't ask for obedience-school standouts.
Just dogs that need help.
Stigile pilots his plane with a quiet confidence, as naturally as most adults drive a Toyota Camry.
With one hand steady on the steering column, he checked temperature gauges and the altimeter, adjusted some knobs and took note of a sophisticated GPS mounted to the left of the cockpit.
Cruising altitude is about 8,000 feet. That's above crop-duster planes, but well under the jumbo jets flying into Sacramento International Airport.
Stigile prefers the calm, independent vibe at Lodi Airport, with no central tower demanding reports. But heading into Fresno, he had no choice but to check in with ground control.
"This is Grumman 1540 Romeo coming in for a landing," he barked into a small microphone plugged into a bulky headset.
"1540 Romeo, you are cleared for landing. Follow the Cessna in," said the voice from the ground.
Stigile eased up on the throttle and gently coasted down to the runway at 11 a.m., taxiing to a hangar resounding with barks.
Several other pilots had already checked in and were waiting inside for their furry cargo. But each dog coming in from Southern California needed food, water and a chance to water some bushes before curling back up in their crates.
The pilots waiting to fly to Redding watched the chaotic scene and swapped stories.
Bruce Hedlund is among the more experienced pilots, as an American Airlines retiree from San Andreas.
"I have two passions in life: flying and dogs. What better way to take a day to go flying (than to) get a dog that was probably going to be euthanized and take it to a forever home?" he said.
Single-prop planes weren't the only aircraft coming in for a landing.
Evan Graham and Liz DeStaffany piloted a helicopter to bring in two dogs from Los Angeles.
"They were really well-behaved," DeStaffany said. "There's so many small dogs in the L.A. area. We wanted to help bring them north."
Only nine or 10 pilots had volunteered for the second leg of the day, from Fresno to Redding. But 50 dogs needed to get there.
A kind of triage unit formed in clusters. Dogs were carried in crates or walked on leashes and led to the staging area. Rows of plastic water bowls lined the floor, interspersed with small cups of kibble. Volunteers in pink Pilots N Paws T-shirts took turns leading dogs outside to relieve themselves, with each rescued canine's papers in a back pocket.
When a dog was ready to go, his crate was moved near the door where outgoing pilots could scoop them up and start loading the planes. Nervous yelps echoed through the airy hangar as they waited.
Volunteer Betty Cochran was charged with getting the dogs back in their crates. After the freedom to stretch their legs, going back into the cramped, dark box wasn't easy.
"They're squished to live. That's what we say," she said.
Would there be enough pilots?
Pam and Mike Zimmering are volunteer pilots from a rescue group called Border Collies in Need, based in San Pedro. The couple refused to leave until the dogs they flew in were spoken for.
Pam Zimmering held a speckled French bulldog mix and asked pilots if they had room left.
"Can you take her? We want to make sure all our dogs have a place to go," she said.
Stigile sized up the dog and another fuzzy brown mutt in the next crate, and figured they would fit together in his plane.
He stepped forward and took their leashes.
"We'll take him. Just give him to us," he said.
Lexus, a furry little terrier, licked Stigile's hand. Bebe Rocket, the bulldog mix, skittered around in a circle and tangled her leash.
A young girl walked by, cradling an older, scruffy black dog. The animal didn't like the other dogs, and snapped when they got too close.
Where would this dog go? Stigile had just one crate in the plane, big enough for the two little pooches he'd just accepted.
But he took a quick look at the black dog, and made up his mind.
"She can ride up front with me," he said.
Millie was in.
"Yes! Our mission is done!" said Pam Zimmering. She and her husband handed over each dog's papers, and Stigile led the tangled mass of dogs out to the loading ramp.
Loading up, taking off
In Stigile's Grumman American, there is not a lot of room for cargo. To get the dog kennel inside, he took it apart and jammed in each piece. There was no easy way to load up dogs, or anything else.
At the Fresno airport, there was just one way in for Lexus and Bebe Rocket — stuffed in through a cargo door about the size of a computer screen.
Stigile scooped up Lexus and hefted him into the plane. He scooted the little dog into the kennel, where Lexus sniffed around and sat down.
Next was Bebe Rocket. Stigile squished her in with Lexus. The kennel clicked shut, the door slammed, and Millie was left looking for her seat.
"Come on up here, girl," said Stigile. He picked her up, climbed over the left wing and stepped into the cockpit with the dog in his arms. She was deposited in the front passenger seat, where she took stock of the surroundings with uneasy eyes.
Stigile settled in his seat and prepared to take to the skies again, this time with the day's cargo on board.
"Clear prop," he shouted. The propeller spun to life, the engine blasted on, and Stigile rumbled down the runway. Next stop, Redding.
All three dogs were silent as the plane gained altitude. Lexus and Bebe Rocket were busy sniffing one another. Millie watched the ground fall away below her through the window.
Stigile pointed out the cities as he flew over them, giving the dogs a short lesson in California geography.
Mariposa is off to the right. Wait just a minute, and you can see Half Dome.
Sonora, Copperopolis, Columbia, Angels Camp.
See that series of reservoirs? Might be fun to go swimming.
San Andreas, Valley Springs, Jackson.
"Are you all still awake?" he said.
Nope. Millie was tuckered out and had fallen asleep on the seat. Bebe Rocket and Lexus napped in the back, curled up on top of one another.
The vibration of the plane puts dogs to sleep, Stigile said.
"They're easy passengers. I've never had to clean up a mess," he said.
The flight took two hours. Stigile touched down at 3 p.m., ready to hand off his charges.
Lexus and Bebe Rocket stormed out of the cargo hold as soon as Stigile opened the door. Millie's leash was already hooked to his wrist. They made a beeline for the bushes, dragging their pilot along behind on all three leashes.
"OK, alright. I hear you," Stigile told them.
Inside the airport lobby at Redding, crates took over the tiled floor. Volunteers took each dog out back as they arrived to walk them around a bit and get them settled with food.
Millie, Lexus and Bebe Rocket occupied one section of a makeshift kennel, where they enjoyed dishes of kibble and bowls of water. The dogs were more interested in sniffing their new surroundings and begging for ear scratches.
The next round of helpers was already at work loading dogs into a shipping truck packed with dog crates that had been strapped in with bungee cords.
Margi Moore, director of Kitsap Humane Society in Silverdell, Wash., was preparing for a 12-hour drive back up to Seattle.
Fifteen dogs would go to her animal shelter, while 40 would travel on to the Seattle Humane Society in Bellevue.
Another 13 would be transported through other connections.
But Stigile's job was done. He saw Millie, Lexus and Bebe Rocket loaded up into the truck, and turned away.
Stigile doesn't know exactly where his charges will find a forever home. He doesn't know if the dogs will remember him. What he does know is that they are safe now.
"Every animal I've ever taken has shown gratitude in some way," he said. "They came out of the plane at Redding and they looked so happy. I got a deep feeling that these animals appreciate the help."
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.