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Puppies on a plane? How a Manatee High grad is helping rescue dozens of dogs through the sky

Rachel Bassett, a graduate of Manatee High School, was a regular volunteer with Orange County Animal Services when she was invited aboard a puppy rescue flight. Although she was nervous at first, the pilot let her take control of the plane for a short time. The flight brought 24 dogs to Florida from various rescue shelters in Alabama over the weekend.
Rachel Bassett, a graduate of Manatee High School, was a regular volunteer with Orange County Animal Services when she was invited aboard a puppy rescue flight. Although she was nervous at first, the pilot let her take control of the plane for a short time. The flight brought 24 dogs to Florida from various rescue shelters in Alabama over the weekend. Provided photo

A Manatee High School graduate and a private pilot from Orlando gave a new meaning to the phrase "precious cargo."

That's because their plane wasn't carrying the usual people or baggage. Instead, it was 24 sets of whiskers, wagging tails and wet noses.

Around 9 a.m. on most Saturdays, a private, 4-seat Columbia 400 plane departs from Orlando Apopka Airport to Enterprise, Alabama.

The three-hour round-trip flight is piloted by Mike Young, an electrical engineering adjunct professor at the University of Central Florida who volunteers his free time with Orange County Animal Services.

Since 2011, Young estimates he's transported more than 3,600 puppies to various rescues in the Greater Orlando Area.

However, he likes to make one thing very clear.

"I transport, not rescue," he said. "I'm just the bus driver."

Once the plane lands in Alabama, the crew meets with rescuers bringing puppies from high kill- and low adoption-rate shelters in the area. According to Rachel Bassett, a volunteer who graduated from Manatee High School in 2008, Alabama faces an overpopulation of strays due to its low spay and neuter rates.

The rescue flight brings in anywhere between 25 and 30 dogs, with the most at one time being 37. The puppies are "piled into our laps in the backseat," Bassett says, and sometimes Young will hold one or two while he flies the plane.

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Rachel Bassett, a graduate of Manatee High School, was volunteering with Orange County Animal Services when she was invited aboard a puppy rescue flight that brought 24 dogs to Florida from various rescues in Alabama over the weekend. Mike Young Provided photo

"It's a little chaotic in the beginning," Bassett said.

The puppies are most energetic at the beginning of the flight but tend to fall asleep shortly after takeoff.

Bassett also says the bigger puppies will sometimes bully the smaller ones to get up front.

With cramped quarters and bumpy roads making car rides unpleasant for the puppies, Bassett says the flights are a better travel alternative. The puppies are allowed to roam free, and with such a small flight crew, there's no shortage of love to go around.

As the summer months bring unpredictable weather, sometimes Young will have to go off course to avoid thunderstorms.

"It's like running through a soccer field full of snapping turtles," he said.

He always goes around them — never through. And if it's storming at the airport, he has to land at another one. Not all airports allow pets, but he said he's only had to do it twice.

Weather permitting, the plane arrives back in Apopka between 3 and 4 p.m., and the crew is greeted by eager volunteers at a "puppy party." The new furry arrivals are given food and water — and honey, if they're anemic.

Then the puppies are picked up by local pet rescues, where they'll hopefully find their "furever" homes.

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The flight between Orlando Apopka Airport and Enterprise, AL, usually takes about three hours round-trip. However, sometimes pilot Mike Young has to change course for thunderstorms, delaying the plane's arrival time. Mike Young

It was at one such puppy party months ago where Bassett realized her passion for helping animals.

Bassett lives near downtown Orlando with her fiancé and their rescue dog, Penny. She has three degrees from UCF and is working on her PhD in clinical psychology. Her area of interest is older adults with dementia and their caregivers.

As her workload began to slow in the spring, she thought, "What better way to give back than this?"

She was trained by Young at Orange County Animal Services before she started regularly attending the puppy parties with other volunteers.

Then Young invited her to join him on the July 7 puppy rescue flight.

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Rachel Bassett (left) was a regular volunteer at Orange County Animal Services' "puppy parties" when pilot Mike Young (right) invited her aboard her first puppy rescue flight on July 7. The flight brought 24 dogs to Florida from Alabama. Mike Young Provided photo

Once a "nervous flier," Bassett said she was able to fight her fear for the puppies' sake — calling them a "good distraction from flying itself."

At one point, she said, Young even let her take control of the plane for a short period of time.

"She was very gentle," Young said. "But she was done after about 5-10 minutes."

Before each trip, Young prepares a detailed itinerary, including how many puppies he will transport from each rescue. The puppies who aren't given names are usually grouped together by their litter.

The usual itinerary cautions rescuers to walk the pups before Young lands.

"Do not go from crate-to-plane," Saturday's read. "They will only pee/poop in his plane."

Fortunately, Young said there were no "accidents" reported on Saturday's trip.

Young also documents each flight through photos, which include the day's puppies, volunteers and weather conditions.

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Flight and ground crew volunteers each get a shirt that reads "The puppies are calling and I must go." Mike Young Provided photo

Aside from the thunderstorms, Young's biggest concern is finding available flight crew members. He selects "two experienced volunteers and one newbie" from a list of 30-40 for every flight.

However, as most are college students, they almost always have prior commitments — or even cancel at the last minute — much to Young's frustration.

Despite the stress, Young never loses sight of his motivation.

"If I don't transport them, some of them will be put to sleep," he said. "Puppies! I can understand 8-year-old dogs, but puppies?"

Young funds his own flights and says he does not accept cash donations. However, he said those wishing to support the cause can donate dog food, toys and other pet supplies to his hangar at Orlando Apopka Airport.

Bassett encourages everyone to get involved at their local animal shelter, citing her mom, an employee of Manatee County who occassionally visits the adoption center to play with cats on her lunch break.

Follow Emily Wunderlich on Twitter @EmilyWunderlich.

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