WESTMINSTER (AP) — Diggs, a retriever mix, was able to relax in his back seat on board Michele McGuire’s Cessna 172 Skyhawk.

Diggs was one of 48 dogs rescued recently as part of The Great Escape II. It was set up by Animal Rescue Flights, and is a collaboration of shelters and pilots to save the lives of death-row dogs.

Volunteer pilots like McGuire of Westminster make the operation feasible. Because they love animals and flying, the pilots take on gusting winds and part with countless dollars to find the puppies a happy home.

“It keeps you sharp, you network with some pilots and get to save some fur balls in the process,” McGuire said. “There are enough requests that I could fly everyday. But most pilots are weekend warriors and weather permitting, we fly as much as we can.”

Diggs began his week at the Anderson County Animal Shelter in South Carolina. Then, he hopped aboard Matt Paxton’s plane in Salisbury, N.C., and flew in to Frederick, where he met up with McGuire.

She flew diggs to Montgomery, N.Y., where he was greeted by people from Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary.

McGuire bonded with Diggs and perhaps she would have loved to take him home herself. But her part of the mission was finished.

Since September, she’s been flying dogs rescued from shelters that put down unwanted pets.

She’s flown 16 missions. “My record is 16 puppies (at once),” she said. “We had crates and things all stacked up in here.”

Despite months of loading dozens of puppies on flights, animal lovers say more needs to be done.

Law Wright of West Chester, Pa., met McGuire in New York. Wright said the dogs rescued that day came from a shelter that will get about 16,000 dogs per year; only 5,000 of those are adopted. “The rest are euthanized and it is awful,” Wright said. “And that’s typical of counties in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.”

Chatting over lunch with McGuire, Lori and Joe Bisnov of Gaylordsville, Conn., discussed the number of dogs being put to sleep at animal shelters. “In the South, they’re not as educated about spaying and neutering their pets,” Lori Bisnov said. “So it’s just a really good feeling knowing that you did something to (save) a dog.”

Jerry and Leslie Smith of Waynesville, N.C., spent time in the fields at Frederick Municipal Airport walking the dogs and wondering how so many good dogs could be euthanized.

“It’s our first rescue flight and I just want to take them all home,” Leslie said. “As many as 400 per week get put to sleep (at Anderson) and it’s just terrible. They’re so trusting and all of them are adoptable. But it is nice to know there are areas in the country where the spay and neuter (mentality) is working and you can move these dogs around to where they’re wanted.”

Kerry Clair of Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary in Middletown, N.Y., came running out to greet Diggs when he landed in Montgomery, her arms out to embrace the 6-month-old pup. “Diggs, you are just so precious,” she said. “You’re going to get a good home. And Michele, thank you so much for doing this.”

Before McGuire took off from the Orange County airport, Julia Ryan gave her a big hug and thanked her again for her repeated efforts.

Ryan is co-founder of Animal Rescue Flights and she coordinates rescues across the region. “A little bit more than a year ago this started ... and now we have about 300 pilots and 100 ground volunteers helping us move animals every weekend,” Ryan said. “We’re trying to save as many dogs as possible, but in some areas there’s just a huge overpopulation problem.”

McGuire flew one leg of the rescue, but it was a long one. An 11 a.m. takeoff time from Carroll County Regional Airport meant she was prepping her Cessna before 10 o’clock. Once she landed in Frederick and had lunch at the Airways Inn Restaurant with some other pilots, she was headed to the tarmac to wait for the incoming dogs.

By 1 p.m., about 10 dogs from the Anderson Shelter had flown into Frederick and were exercising after the flight. McGuire greeted the dogs with treats and co-pilot bandanas.

After enticing Diggs into her plane, a 2 p.m. takeoff into a 15 mph headwind put McGuire and Diggs on track for New York at 4 p.m.

Diggs dozed off and on after crossing the Susquehanna River over Columbia, Pa., until the plane neared Middletown, when it started its descent from 5,000 feet to land at the Orange County Airport in Montgomery.

As the pup was playing with folks from Pets Alive, McGuire waited on the winds. The 20 mph gusts subsided, she fueled up and was off for Carroll County again by about 5:15 p.m. She landed in Carroll shortly before 7 p.m.

“I hope Diggs has a happy home,” she said. “And it’s a shame we can’t rescue more, too, because they’re all lovable dogs.”

Information from: Carroll County Times of Westminster, Md., http://www.carrollcounty.com/

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