Chief Master Sgt. Tom Bragg, with the 147th Reconnaissance Wing at Ellington Field, Texas, flies Ollie during one of his volunteer flights with Pilots N Paws. (Photo courtesy of Tom Bragg)
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During his favorite flight, former Guardsman Jack Merritt flew Red the Dachshund, who sat on his shoulder majority of a Pilots N Paws flight in 2010. He has flown more than 300 pets since joining the volunteer program. (Courtesy of Jack Merritt)
These service members haven’t piloted in their Air Force careers, but they take to the skies for a mission involving the everyday canine companion.
Chief Master Sgt. Tom Bragg and former Air Guardsman Jack Merritt fly for Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit organization that transports dogs from high-kill shelters to new homes.
“This gives me a purpose for flying,” Bragg said. “And it’s a reason much better than just burning gas. I’m making a difference for one animal, for one family. It’s personally rewarding and rewarding for the animals.”
On the clock, Bragg serves with the 147th Reconnaissance Wing at Ellington Field, Texas. In his spare time he flies his Beechcraft Musketeer Super III over the Gulf Coast area — Louisiana, parts of Florida, and as far south as Brownsville, Texas — carrying mostly dogs.
He started with Pilots N Paws in 2009 and has flown more than 80 animals and 32 rescue flights. He also volunteers with the Animal Rescue and Basenji Rescue and Transport organizations.
“[Pilots N Paws] is purely a volunteer mission,” Merritt said. “The pilots get to know one another, we have profiles on the website, and we get contacted when we’re needed.”
Merritt started flying with the organization in the late 2000s after his wife saw Pilots N Paws on a “Good Morning America” special and knew his plane could be put to better use. Merritt has flown more than 300 pets and 100 missions for the cause.
“I fly twice, maybe sometimes four times a month for these animals,” he said. Merritt, in his 1967 Mooney M20F Executive, cruises along the East Coast on the weekends, from Quakertown, Pa., and anywhere between Norfolk, Va., all the way up to New York.
“Most of the time I am the halfway pilot, taking these dogs from one airport to the next, but then there are those times I take the animals straight to the family waiting for their first pets at the airport. It’s a whole family affair. It’s hard to keep a dry eye,” Merritt said.
Merritt and Bragg said the number of animals killed annually in shelters — between 6 and 8 million, according to the Humane Society of the United States — gives them reason enough to help the cause.
“People need to take better responsibility,” Merritt said. “We hate the idea [people] put millions [of pets] to death every year, and we need to change that.”
If you wish to fly for Pilots N Paws, or to learn more about the organization, visit pilotsnpaws.org.