It took some tugging for pilot Bob DeLong of San Clemente to pull one hairy passenger aboard a flight from Van Nuys to Bellingham, Wash.
But once seated, Rhino the pit bull and his rescued cabin mates could look forward to the trip of a lifetime.
“They're all flying first class,” said DeLong's wife and co-pilot, Barbara, while packing their Beechcraft King Air propeller plane with up to 30 dogs in crates. “But no in-flight service.
“(And) hopefully, no bathroom stops.”
The flight joined a flotilla of wagging tails taking off from Van Nuys Aircraft on Friday for what might be the largest dog airlift in the West.
The Wings of Rescue 3rd Annual Holiday Airlift whisked 500 shelter pooches aboard 14 flights to 11 cities up to the Pacific Northwest, saving each from near-certain euthanasia.
“We're loading to Helena, (Montana) now,” barked Woodland Hills real-estate developer Yehuda Netanel, a native of Israel and cofounder of Wings of Rescue, which since 2009 has flown more than 5,000 Southern California shelter dogs to safety. “We either do it or the dogs die, so the choice is clear.”
As the sun rose above runway One-Six-Right, an army of volunteers from more than 120 rescue groups across the region waited in near-freezing temperatures.
Each comforted the largely Chihuahuas, terriers and other small dogs that have overrun Southern California shelters. All were saved in the 11th hour before being put down, organizers say.
And all were destined to board one of more than a dozen private planes lined up on the future Van Nuys Airport Propeller Park, with support donated by Pacific Aviation Development.
“I'm a dog lover, an aviation lover,” said Pacific owner Steve Argubright. “This is one of those things that general aviation (pilots) do.”
Unable to find “fur-ever” families in Southern California, these last-chance animals were being airlifted to Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, where they would be met by loving rescue groups, humane societies, foster parents and new owners.
For Netanel and his squadron of volunteer dog-flighters, each nine-hour round-trip could cost upwards of $10,000. But for the hundreds of barking homeless dogs, it meant “flying home,” according to airport banners.
And for new doggie owners across the windswept north, it possibly meant new fashion bragging rights at the nearest mall.
“They're all purse dogs for the Pacific Northwest,” said Trixi Hodges of Taft, whose Unity Thrift and Animal Outreach awaited the planes that carried 55 dogs rescued across Kern County. “And thanks to Yehuda, they'll all have pocket pooches for Christmas.
“Without Wings of Rescue, this wouldn't be possible.”
It sure wouldn't be possible for Roxy, a thin, shy and scared pit bull saved from a Camarillo shelter by All for the Love of Animals. Or Bingling, a Shih Tzu mix rescued from the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter by Saving K9 Lives Plus. Or Smiley, a purebred Dachshund found tied to a pole without food and water and saved by a Kern County sheriff's deputy.
And it wouldn't be possible without the dog collars, harnesses, crates and blankets furnished by Operation Blankets of Love in Granada Hills.
“It's bittersweet,” said Wings of Rescue cofounder Cindy Smith watching Rhino, whom she rescued from a Tracy shelter, get loaded into the DeLong plane. “I saved her. I already miss her. She's a real sweet dog. But she's going to a good home.”