(PNJ.com) - You could tell the boys had never flown before, because two minutes after we took off from Pensacola Aviation Center they had broken out of their cages and were roaming nervously through the small, cramped Piper Saratoga passenger plane.
The boys are brothers. Two beautiful, yet too-thin, Weimaraner dogs that had been recently abandoned in a Pensacola garage. But on Wednesday, they were heading to a new home at the Weimaraners Rescue and Adoption of Florida, a no-kill shelter in Eustis.
But first they had to get a ride. That's when Eric Kline, a 50-year-old pilot and Pensacola businessman, came to the rescue.
Kline is a volunteer pilot for Pilots N Paws, a national organization that delivers dogs to no-kill shelters throughout the South. The Escambia County Animal Shelter does kill unwanted and unadopted animals, while the Pensacola Humane Society, a no-kill shelter, is at capacity.
So on Wednesday, Kline delivered the wide-eyed boys to Orlando, where they were met by a volunteer from the Weimaraner Rescue organization. But before touching down in Orlando, Kline made a stopover in Montgomery, Ala., where he picked up an additional eight dogs that were also going to new homes and no-kill shelters.
"Aren't dogs great?" Kline asked, after originally leading the excited Weimaraners into one of five dog crates stored aboard the six-passenger plane — the back seats had been removed to make room for the dogs.
Heading south after takeoff, Kline heard a commotion from the back. The boys had broken the hinges of the plastic crate with metal gratings and were soon tromping all over the packed plane. They pressed wet noses to the windows, watching the ground grow smaller and smaller, and left dog snot smudges on the glass. And other places.
"I got spooged!" Kline said through his headset, after one of the sleek gray dogs pressed a wet, runny nose against his neck while he piloted the plane toward Montgomery. A few seconds later, the same dog was trying to squeeze onto Kline's lap from the left shoulder, while the other dog tried to climb into the pilot and passenger seat from the other side. He petted them both at the same time — the plane was on autopilot — but the dogs wanted to be a little closer to the action and tried to get in our laps.
"Dog is my co-pilot," Kline said, before one of the dogs nearly commandeered the plane.
Kline needed help.
"Hey, can you help me turn these dogs around?" Kline asked me.
I unbuckled my seat belt and turned and wrestled the dogs off Kline, pushing them to the backseat, where they ended up resting on the tops of the scattered dog crates and computer bags packed into the back. We didn't have to worry about them, you know, doing their business. They left their business cards on the tarmac at Pensacola Aviation Center.
The brothers spent most of the hourlong flight to Montgomery staring out the window, only occasionally letting out a inquisitive bark.
We arrived in Montgomery, where we removed the dogs from the plane and let them drink a little water on the tarmac, where two vehicles had been awaiting our arrival. The vehicles were packed with the eight more dogs we would transport to Orlando — four puppies, a hound dog, a Labrador retriever, a goldendoodle and a beagle.
Most of the dogs had been rescued or abandoned in the Selma, Ala., area and Jennifer Saylors and other volunteers delivered them to Montgomery so Kline could transport them south.
"It's not about me," Kline said about the rescue earlier. "There's a whole network of people who work to take care of these animals."
He's right. In Pensacola, mother-and-daughter volunteers Priscilla and Jimmie Lynn Parker delivered the Weimaraners to Pensacola International Airport, after being contacted by the Big Dog Ranch in Wellington, which is a partner with the Weimaraner Rescue organization.
In Montgomery, Saylors and others had driven for hours to get the Selma dogs to Kline.
In Orlando, hours later, volunteers from three different organizations came to pick up the dogs, many of which had promissory adoptions lined up on arrival.
"How was the trip?" asked Robert Smallwood, a volunteer with the Second Chance Puppies and Kittens Rescue in Palm Beach, where all but the Wiemaraners and the hound dog would go.
"It was great," said the jovial Kline. "They barely even barked."
He unloaded the dogs from their crates — Kline had fixed the broken crate with zip ties in Montgomery — and one-by-one, the dogs jumped from the plane onto the tarmac, tails-a-wagging, their big, bubble eyes wide with uncertainty.
We led them by leashes to the awaiting vehicles, and within minutes they were whisked away to new lives.
"What makes people abandon two beautiful dogs like this?" Kline asked, while giving the boys a tarmac treat and a few hugs before sending them off. "They're beautiful animals."
Kline, a married father of two daughters, has two dogs of his own. The Air Force veteran began flying 10 years ago. He purchased the 1982 Piper Saratoga three years ago. He became a Pilot N Paws rescue pilot about a year ago and has made about a dozen trips to various regions to deliver dogs — paying for fuel and all associated costs himself.
He is also a pilot for Angel Flight, flying sick and injured people from Pensacola to various medical facilities.
"I had been looking for a way to do more with my life," Kline said. "And these programs are something I can do to help."
Animal advocates say transportation is always an issue when trying to get at-risk dogs to a safe haven.
"The cost makes it hard for a lot of people and organizations," said Sarah Humlie, managing director of the Pensacola Humane Society. "One reason they might transport dogs to other areas is there might be more of a demand."
She said the Humane Society currently has about 70 animals, and only has room for one more — a medium to large dog.
So many local dogs that are to be saved must be transported to other no-kill shelters with vacancies.
"There's a whole network of people who are dedicated to these dogs," Priscilla Parker said in Pensacola. "People on Facebook, all these animal organizations. We all work together for these beautiful animals."
She stared at the gray brothers, who were climbing onto her lap, tails-a-wagging.
"They're a little hyper," she said. "But they probably haven't had attention in so long. They're dying for attention."
And now they have plenty. And they have a future, too.
What to know
Pilots N Paws
Pilots N Paws is a national organization that uses volunteer pilots to transport at-risk animals to no-kill shelters and new homes throughout the nation. The organization has a website with a forum where pilots can connect with animal welfare organizations to help transport the animals.
Pensacola Human Society
The Pensacola Human Society is a no-kill shelter with limited occupancy. Currently, there are about 70 animals at the shelter, which is about capacity.
» Details: www.pensacolahumane.org