KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A white Piper Cherokee drifts to earth like a paper airplane in the bright twilight, the buzz of its single engine only slightly louder than the chirp of grasshoppers in the surrounding farmland.
On the ground, the plane noses down deserted runways and taxiways toward the padlocked terminal building. The propeller coughs to a stop, and the pilot unfolds his body backward through the passenger-side door.
He turns to his passenger, "Honey Bee, do you want to get out?"
A 2-year-old bluetick coonhound, raises her head and cocks her floppy velvet ears. But Honey Bee remains rooted to the backseat where she has slept most of the two hours since the gentle-voiced stranger picked her up and loaded her into this strange vehicle that vibrates like a pickup but is much louder.
Sam Taylor has the squared shoulders and stick-straight posture of military servicemen. He is a retired Navy helicopter pilot who flew search-and-rescue missions during the Vietnam War. Now he flies animal rescue missions in his plane for a nationwide network called Pilots N Paws.
Taylor averages one to three rescue flights per week. Most flights are within a 150-mile range, but he has flown much farther. In September 2010, he was part of a mission that rescued 171 dogs from Louisiana after the gulf oil spill.
Taylor would go more often if he could afford it. But Pilots N Paws pilots pay for their own gas, which averages $48 per hour. Last year, Taylor spent $3,255 on gas for rescue flights. This year he's up to $2,400 already.
Taylor has transported 279 dogs and one cat, and he has pictures of every one. The bottom drawer of a metal file cabinet in the upstairs office of his Kansas City, Mo., home is filled with manila folders labeled in a neat cursive hand: "Tuff the Weimaraner," "Pippen the Italian greyhound," "Layla the English pointer." And now "Honey Bee, the bluetick coonhound."
Honey Bee was rescued from a farm in rural Kentucky where a once-respected breeder descended into ill health and hoarding behavior and ultimately abandoned his property, leaving behind 29 coonhounds.
Honey Bee's story is typical of animal rescues nowadays. Over the next five days, she will be handed off 21 more times in a relay stretching 2,150 miles from Excelsior Springs to Reseda, Calif., near Los Angeles.
Joan Nickum, a transport coordinator from Kansas City, Kan., met Taylor at a Platte Woods, Mo., gas station to take Honey Bee to a foster in Kansas City, Kan., for two nights until a driver was available to take her to Emporia, Kan., the next leg of her journey.
Short-term fosters are different from long-term fosters. They are often the unsung heroes supporting the more-heralded pilots, drivers and long-term foster farms.
Along-the-route fosters often prefer to remain anonymous because they live in towns and cities with codes limiting the number of animals allowed under one roof. Being animal lovers, they usually already have the maximum allowable number of pets, so by sheltering rescue animals, even for a night or two, they are exposing themselves to the risk of neighbor complaints or fines.
Because of Kansas City's central location in the north-south and east-west interstate highway system, certain Walmart parking lots and gas stations around the Interstate 435 loop are frequent handoff stations.
Pilots N Paws was co-founded in 2008 by Debi Boies of Landrum, S.C., and her pilot friend Jon Wehrenberg, after Wehrenberg offered to fly a dog Boies had adopted from Florida. Today the network has 2,700 volunteer pilots in all 50 states and has flown more than 10,000 animals.
Taylor is respected and beloved by rescue groups for his precise communications, paperwork and scheduling. He says his military experience gave him organizational skills and a love of problem-solving that he applies to Pilots N Paws missions.
"If I see two dogs coming in I try to combine them into one trip. The last thing I do before every flight is look online to see if any other dogs have popped up. It's a resource management instinct."
Early this year, Taylor's plane was out for maintenance. After he got it back he flew four rescue missions before spending 11 days in Guatemala with his church group installing a water purification system.
Since getting his plane back in mid-April, he has rescued 30 dogs in 10 flights.
Taylor was not a dog person growing up in Flint, Mich. When he married in 2005, his wife Wanda's deep love of dogs began to rub off on him.
In 2009, a co-worker told Wanda about a friend who flew rescue missions for Pilots N Paws. Wanda told Sam, "You should do this," she recalls.
"When your wife is telling you to go fly, that is as good as it gets," Taylor says with a wide smile.
Wanda enjoys flying, but she has accompanied Taylor on only one rescue mission. There was a scheduled pickup of a Labradoodle in Pryor, Okla., coming back to Olathe to an adoptive home. Wanda had heard Labradoodles were good dogs - gentle like Labs and non-shedding like poodles (not true).
She wanted to see one in person. When the Taylors got to Pryor, they took possession of a stately curly haired blond dog with soulful eyes and a gimpy leg.
Just prior to takeoff, Taylor called the new owner in Olathe to give her their expected arrival time. He learned the adoption had fallen through but Taylor hadn't been notified.
"We looked up and the animal control lady from Pryor was driving away," Wanda recalls. "I said, 'We can't leave her here.'"
The blond Labradoodle resides with the Taylors now. They call her Pryor. Wanda is "banned" from riding co-pilot on any more rescues, she says, eyeing her husband.
Taylor nods in agreement: "Banned."
"Foster failure" is the term rescuers use when they fall too hard for a dog they are supposed to be only temporarily in charge of. Pryor was a "foster failure," and Taylor feels he has to limit the couple's exposure until the day when, if Wanda gets her wish, they move out to the country with acreage where she would like to have "tons of dogs and two donkeys."