Pilots N Paws® is a non-profit organization that connects volunteers involved in rescuing, sheltering, and adopting animals, with volunteer pilots and plane owners willing to assist with animal transportation. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), many animals in shelters are at risk of euthanasia simply due to shelter overcrowding and a lack of resources, and situations such as natural disasters or economic hardships such as the Covid pandemic can worsen the situation by leaving more animals homeless. Pilots N Paws helps adoptable pets find homes by transporting the animals to areas where adoptable animals are in high demand. They provide an online environment in which volunteers can come together and coordinate rescue flights, overnight foster care or shelter, ground transportation, and other related activities needed to relocate animals safely.
Jennifer Iiams is a pilot, a cat-lover, and in her spare time, she flies for Pilots N Paws. Iiams was born and raised in north Idaho. She flew occasionally growing up, and as she was becoming more interested in aviation in her late teens, a local college was starting an aviation composite program. She had decided to enroll when the funding for the local program fell through. An older sister was living in Kentucky, so she decided to moved there just to experience living in a new place. At the same time, her interest in aviation was growing. “I decided that either I was going to school to study aviation or I needed a way to get my foot in the door of the industry.”
Iiams looked at some college programs but wasn’t sure where to specialize, so she got a job with a contract airline as a ground employee. “The work was throwing bags and moving airplanes. But that was the first time I became immersed into aviation, and it lit up my world. I had flown a couple times a year growing up, but you only see the airplanes through the window. To be out on the tarmac, to actually walk up and put my hand on the fuselage was eye-opening.” She worked her way up in a couple of contract aviation companies, then landed a job for United Airlines in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While there, she enrolled at Oklahoma State University, and in 2022 she completed her bachelor’s degree in aviation management and operations with the help of an EAA scholarship. One of the scholarship requirements is to do flight training, so in December 2020, Iiams was finally able to get her long-awaited pilot’s license. She says, “That scholarship, finally being able to fly, it completely changed my life in so many ways.” She relocated to Seattle, Washington with United, and in early 2022 she was hired by Boeing at their Everett, Washington, facility.
Iiams first learned of Pilots N Paws during her time in Tulsa. She knew people who were volunteering, but you needed your own airplane. Then she joined a flying club and found out that they allowed Pilots N Paws flights with their planes. “I had my license and suddenly I was in a club where I could do these flights, and I thought, ‘I want to do this!’ As someone who loves animals it was a no-brainer. Not only that, but I needed to get in a lot of cross-country hours for my instrument rating. I realized I could fly those cross-country hours looking at the landscape or I could become a volunteer, grab a buddy to be my safety pilot [for the instrument training], and fly a mission. All of a sudden, you’re not only building hours toward your next rating, you’re also doing a good deed.”
Iiams says that volunteering with Pilots N Paws is easy. All you need is a plane, yours or one you can use, and a pilot’s license. You sign up on the website, and you can start flying animals. Pilots N Paws has some mission coordinators, but mostly volunteers connect and coordinate directly with other volunteers via the organization’s website. Each pilot typically flies one leg of what is often a four-leg mission. People can also volunteer to provide ground transportation or be an overnight host for an animal in transit.
Iiams says no two missions are alike. “Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it can be challenging. Different animals have different natures. On one flight you might get a cute, cuddly dog that’s perfectly happy and on another you might get one that’s scared of flying and stressed. For me, that keeps it interesting. You’re always testing your skills and what you’re comfortable with.
One of Iiams’ most memorable missions was helping transport nine kittens from Texas to Chicago. She signed up for the leg from Tulsa to Topeka, Kansas. She’s a cat-lover, and most missions are for dogs, so this was a special one for her. “These were very young kittens, and a vet had certified them healthy enough to fly. Unfortunately, one took a turn for the worse and died during its stay overnight in Tulsa. But we flew the eight kittens up to Topeka the next day, and at one point during the mission my co-pilot flew for a while, so I took one of the kittens and held it. My co-pilot took a photo that’s one of my favorites to this day, with that tiny kitten perched in my hand and looking like it’s the captain of the craft, just confident about everything.
Like many volunteer pilots, she sees donating flights as a win-win. “At the end of the day, you’re flying a mission that’s not for you, it’s for these animals, for the other rescue volunteers, and for the future adopter. You’re helping them while building your flying skills. And it’s a service not only to the animal rescue community but to the aviation community because you have the chance to expose others to aviation. Just like Young Eagle flights, you can invite people to come on a mission with you.” Best of all, Iiams says volunteering is fun: “Working with the animals is fun. The people you meet are fun. People love you for being a pilot who would do this, and you feel so much better at the end of the day. It’s just such a special opportunity.”