By Michael Johnson
GALLIPOLIS, Ohio — Dan Drennan’s voice crackles over the outdoor public address system at the Gallia-Meigs Regional Airport as he gives his flight ID and location. It’s a heavy overcast day, with a slight breeze drifting in from the north that made the day seem more fall-like than winter. It’s the kind of weather that may make some pilots think twice about taking to the friendly skies.
It’s 11 a.m. and suddenly, a pair of lights breaks through the heavy cloud cover just north of the airport. It’s Drennan’s red and white Piper PA-28 Cherokee, which had departed Buffalo-Lancaster (N.Y.) Regional Airport three hours earlier.
This is no pleasure flight. Drennan arrived in southeastern Ohio specifically to pick up a few important passengers.
The passengers on this late November day included a boxer and several of her pups, a basset hound and a poodle mix. If Drennan had not flown down to pick them up, the dogs would have been destined for euthanization.
Drennan flies recreationally with the Western New York Pilots Club, but when he’s making rescue flights like this to southeastern Ohio, it’s as a representative of Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit group that matches private pilots to rescues that need a hand in transporting animals from high-kill facilities to “forever” homes in the Buffalo area.
“I saw (an advertisement for Pilots N Paws) in a flight publication and it gave me a place to go, a reason for flying,” Drennan said during a recent flight to Gallipolis. “It just grew. I started off flying one dog here, one dog there. The requests became more frequent and I starting flying more passengers. I fly however many passengers I can fit in my plane.”
Drennan emphasized that he only flies for rescues, not dog breeders or “anything to do with profit.”
In August 2015, Drennan transported a personal flying record of 27 animals at one time to western New York. Since becoming a pilot with Pilots N Paws, Drennan has rescued an estimated 400 to 500 animals from many different areas.
Before each rescue flight, Drennan removes the rear seats to accommodate his canine passengers’ kennels, or crates as he calls them.
In southeastern Ohio, Drennan usually receives his passengers via members of Friends of Gallia County’s Animals, a local volunteer animal rescue group that works to prevent “unnecessary euthanasia of homeless animals and promote responsible animal care,” according to its Facebook page.
He communicates with the group, as well as other rescues, via the Internet and his Facebook page, which contains hundreds of photos from his various flights around the region. The furthest he’s flown, he said, was to Richmond, Va., and Norfolk, Va. He also makes frequent flights to various locations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, as well as Gallipolis and southeastern Ohio.
“The range of the airplane is five hours of fuel, and we don’t want to get to our destination on empty tanks, so I limit flights to three or 3 1/2 hours,” Drennan said.
“I’ve driven (to Gallipolis) for dogs in the winter when I couldn’t make it by flight,” he said. “It’s an eight- or nine-hour drive from my house, so flying cuts it down significantly for myself and the dogs.”
Drennan said rescuing dogs that are destined for death makes it all worthwhile.
“Most of the dogs I come to Ohio to get are … their situation is dire. They’re going to be put down, so I’m willing to take them up to Buffalo,” he said. “The rescues are the ones that do all the work; we (pilots) have all the fun.”
Drennan said adopting dogs is much easier in western New York. Buffalo’s metropolitan population is 1.14 million people — more than enough to find good homes for southeastern Ohio’s wayward dogs.
When Drennan isn’t flying, he operates and performs repairs on an unmanned power plant in Lancaster, N.Y.
“There are days when I must be there, but I have a lot of flexibility in my schedule (to fly for Pilots N Paws),” he said.
Drennan said he has little problem with the animals. Once they get into their kennels and settle in, they’ll sleep for most of the flight.
While in flight, Drennan is constantly cognizant of his passengers’ welfare.
“I try to fly between cloud layers because the air is a little smoother. I stay out of the clouds when I can because clouds always have bumps to them,” he said.
Drennan said none of his passengers has ever tried to bite him, but almost all of them experience in-flight digestive issues.
“We just want to get them to a safe place. The dogs are all scared because they’ve come from a bad situation. They don’t know where they’re going, what’s happening,” he said. “They’re sometimes reluctant to go into the crate. Then, when you get them up (to New York), they’re reluctant to get out of the crate.”
Drennan has flown brain-damaged dogs to a sanctuary in Vermont, and he once visited Gallipolis on Mother’s Day 2013 to rescue a blind female dog and her pups.
“How can you say ‘no’ to that on Mother’s Day?”
That’s what motivates Drennan to do what he does — being a humanitarian and rescuing animals that otherwise have no chance.
“The beautiful thing about dogs … if they’re missing a leg or eyes or whatever, they don’t care. They still do what they do,” he said. “They’re incredibly loyal. I’d trust a dog before I’d trust a person. I can’t say enough about dogs.”