Pilot earns his wings to transport paws

When Air Traffic Control contacts pilot Philip Allen, they might hear some unusual sounds over the radio.

Allen, an Army veteran from Westminster, volunteers with rescue organizations to transport dogs via airplane when they need to travel across several states quickly.

On one recent flight, he recalled, "The dog was quiet — until I get my takeoff clearance and I'm rolling onto the runway. Coon hounds go into a call ... and the dog started howling that long coon dog song all the way down the runway."

So far, Allen has completed three rescues after earning his basic pilot's license last November. Often he transports hound dogs from high-kill shelters in the South to foster homes several states away. On Monday, July 31, he transported an Australian shepherd puppy, Iris from New York to her new home with Paula Lokey, of Sykesville.

"My daughter is autistic and she struggles socially sometimes, so I think this will be a blessing for her," Lokey said. "This was the only way we'd be able to get [Iris]."

Allen works with two organizations to organize the canine transports: Pilots N' Paws, a nonprofit that connects pilots with dogs needing transport, and the American Black & Tan Coonhound Rescue, a rescue through whom he found his own two foster dogs, Bo and Bella.

For each flight, he donates his time as well as the cost to rent the aircraft.

Before Allen earned his license, he and his girlfriend Laura Beck participated in many vehicular dog transports, in which a group of volunteers tag team to drive a canine cross-country.

"The situation hound dogs are in is they're treated more like machinery in the South," Allen explained. "In the culture they're in, they're used for hunting.

"That's what puts a lot of hounds in shelters in the South because they're turned loose or they're given away, and people realize they can't handle them," Allen said.

When Bo came to them, he had several medical problems, and was not able to leash walk. "After we worked with him, a toddler could walk him on a piece of yarn," Allen said.

Then, last November, Allen fulfilled a lifetime dream by getting his basic pilot's license.

"Every few years, the thought of doing flying would come into my mind," he said "I got to point in life where I could afford to do it."

He told himself, "It's now or never, or just quit thinking about it." He began the process in Fredrick and finished at Dream Flight School in Westminster.

Allen spent 10 years in the military, but says he had "zero" aviation experience. Still, he finds that his military background is helpful because he is detail and task-oriented.

"You know when you've got to follow the regulations and that they mean something," he said.

But still, Allen finds that the basic license, which limits him to visual flight rules, can be frustrating when it comes to hound pickups. This certification limits him to flying only when the entire route is clear enough to navigate visually. That can pose a major problem for scheduling, when Allen is trying to plan a pickup on one of his days off that also works for the people at the dog's current location, its destination and the plane rental.

"When you have to stay out of the clouds, it really limits what you can do," he said.

To help reduce this headache, Allen is working toward his instrument rating, which will allow him to navigate using the plane's instruments even when visibility is poor.

"When I first got my [visual rating], I felt like I was 16 with my learner's permit still. So you learn a lot after that."

His July flight to fetch Iris from New York served as a chance to fulfill one of the requirements for instrument certification; a cross-country flight of at least 50 nautical miles round trip relying only on the plane's instruments. Allen and Iris, accompanied by Allen's flight instructor, flew from Carroll Country Regional Airport in Westminster to Canandaigua Airport, located slightly southeast of Rochester, New York.

Allen is on track earn his instrument certification sometime this fall.

For now, one of his favorite parts of flying is when he gets the chance to take one of his two sons, ages 8 and 13, along for the ride. "They love it," he said.

His oldest is interested in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — subjects, and Allen hopes that flying will be a good learning experience as well as a fun adventure.

"There's so much in the aviation industry that's highly science and math-based," he said. "There's a lot of different opportunities out there."

Allen keeps track of his aerial and canine adventures on his website, houndpilot.com. What started as a way to connect with friends and family has now also become a way for the pilot to interact with a larger online community. He said he aims to write the posts so that they're informative enough for fellow pilots, but not so technical that his family and friends can't understand them.

In the next few years, Allen said he will focus on earning further flight certifications, including the one to be an instructor, and becoming a part-time owner in his own plane. This will lower operating costs and improve his scheduling flexibility. He is also looking at registering as a certified nonprofit charity to help with the cost of more dog rescues.

"It's very expensive doing it the way I am now," he said, "which limits the amount of good I am doing for the dollar."

When he retires, he said, he will be able to fly more frequently. "A lot of people get into their late 30s or 40s or whatever and think it's too late to start flying, and it's not," he said.

"It feels good to work so hard at something," he said, "and then to use it for something good."

crighter@baltsun.com

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