Paula Sayer alongside her Cesna 182 at Bishop Airport. Photo: Gigi de Jong
Paula Sayer is a private pilot from Bishop California who is using her flying skills to make a difference in the lives of shelter dogs. She is a woman of talent and courage but above all she is a woman of compassion. With the ability to soar over the Sierra Nevada, Paula is making long-distance rescue missions possible for dogs in need.
She has been flying hang gliders and paragliders for over 25-years and these days she flies a Cesna 182, 4-seater. She is a member of Pilots N Paws (PNP) a national organization that connects volunteer private pilots with shelters and dog rescue organizations to move dogs around the country. Many of these abandoned animals are ill or injured and in need of specialized care to save their lives and facilitate adoption. PNP hosts an online message board that pilots check regularly for postings about animals needing transport.
“It’s important to me to volunteer for rescues where the sender and receiver are non-profits.”
All the groups involved with the specific flights Paula chooses are registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations. “It’s important to me to volunteer for rescues where the sender and receiver are non-profits,” says Paula. “Adoptions of healthy animals can be done locally, but many at-risk dogs must be transported quickly if they are to survive.”
It’s a big undertaking for any pilot to make these trips. There are fuel costs, airplane hours to rack up, personal time to be given, and the assumption of risk to fly a small plane for the sake of a dog’s life. Paula does it willingly and with great attention to detail regarding weather conditions, flight durations, and coordination at pickup and drop-off points.
Flying over the Sierra Nevada
Volunteering for missions in California has an added challenge for Paula. Many of the shelter and dog rescue organizations that participate in this program are in the Central Valley and near the Bay Area, all on the western side of the massive Sierra Nevada. Paula’s home airfield is in Bishop, on the eastern side of the range.
More than 400-miles of this huge range that separates the Eastern Sierra from the Central Valley is well over 10,000 feet above sea level. Numerous peaks rise over 14,000 ft, including Mt. Whitney the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.A. To undertake these mercy flights, Paula’s flight path takes her over one of biggest and most remote ranges in the country—twice!
One day in October last year Paula invited me to accompany her on a series of flights. We would pick up a large, pregnant Anatolian Shepherd and an old, ill Chihuahua at Visalia Municipal Airport and fly them to Buchanan Field Airport in Concord near the Bay Area. From there we’d load a young Doberman that was experiencing depression from months in a shelter and fly him to Bakersfield Municipal Airport. Volunteers there, from a dedicated ‘dobie’ rescue facility, would give him breed-specific attention and work at finding him a forever home.
This double mission would require four flights from our start at Bishop Airport, which has recently been developed into a commercial airport to improve access for tourism in the region and serve the local community.
I met Paula at Bishop Airport at 7 a.m. on a brisk fall morning. We proceeded through the security gates to the private pilots’ hangars where we pulled the small plane from its hanger and Paula did her preflight check of the aircraft. She had fueled up and installed the dog crates the day before and within a half hour we were strapped in and taxiing to the runway. By now the sun was fully up; the pink dawn alpenglow on the mountains giving way to bright sunshine bathing the valley floor in golden light as we soared up into a bright, blue sky.
Weather is often entirely different on each side of the range. Storms rolling in from the Pacific are frequently trapped against this gargantuan range, shrouding the Central Valley under brooding clouds with low visibility. At times isolated conditions above the Sierra’s peaks and valleys create turbulence above the range, and wind is always a factor to be considered. But for this late fall day the forecast showed near-perfect conditions for the whole state all day.
Picking up passengers
We arrived at Visalia airport in the hazy morning light and soon after touchdown we had the big mama-dog in the crate behind our seats and the little old Chihuahua swaddled in blankets on my lap and we were airborne again. An hour and twenty-five minutes later we landed at Buchanan Field in Concord.
Our two passengers were gently lifted from the plane and given into the care of a waiting volunteer. A 2-year-old Doberman named Vinnie was placed into the crate where he seemed unfazed by the strange surroundings and any lingering smells from the previous occupant. There was no lively tail-wagging or playfulness one would expect of a physically healthy, young adult dog. It made us sad to see him look so sad.
A graceful take-off and we were lifting into smooth, if slightly smoggy, mid-morning air. We climbed to 5,500ft and set a southeasterly course for touchdown about 2-hours later in Bakersfield. After a little coaxing Vinnie jumped down from the plane and was placed in a waiting SUV and whisked off to a breed-specific care facility.
Three successful flights. Three dogs rescued, possibly 8 or 9 depending on the size and outcome of the Anatolian’s litter, all assured of good medical care and the prospect of adoption.
After fueling the plane and a break for food and coffee we were taking off and turning west to climb, once again, over the magnificent Sierra Nevada.
We followed the Kern River Canyon toward Lake Isabella rising to our highest altitude of the flight at 12,500-feet, enough to cross the steep eastern crest of the range over to the Owens Valley. Paula put the plane down effortlessly on the runway of Bishop Airport as the mountains cast long hazy shadows in the late afternoon sun. Mission accomplished.
Coordinating pilots and pups
Paula has flown many more flights to rescue at-risk dogs. Recently a group of puppies was flown from a shelter in the Central Valley to a rescue organization in Sonoma County where they are cared for by volunteers in foster homes to prepare them for successful adoptions. Another more complicated rescue involved a rendezvous in Tulare, CA to pick up one dog from that local area and another flown in from Orange County. From there Paula flew the two dogs to Reno, Nevada to rendezvous with a pilot, from San Francisco, who delivered a third dog. A 4th volunteer pilot flew all three dogs from Reno to a breed-specific rescue facility in Boise, Idaho. Timing is everything.
The pilots who volunteer to fly these missions never know if their efforts will result in success for every animal, but they seldom make their decisions based on potential long-term outcomes. If there is an immediate need and flying a safe mission can fulfill that need, they answer the call.
The dedication by this Bishop-based private pilot, Paula Sayer, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The challenges of animal welfare, especially when it comes to shelter dogs, are significant, but Paula’s dedication, skill, and love for animals have enabled her to make a real difference.