Up above the clouds in a small airline carrier, a voice breaks up the sounds from the engine.
“Animal rescue team flight No. 920,” an air traffic controller announced over a two-way radio. Another flight from the Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team is coming in for landing.
Known by its acronym PAART, the team has saved around 800 animals from situations of distress, said co-founder Brad Childs, including from dog-fighting clubs and shelters that would otherwise euthanize puppies and other small animals. Their stock and trade is flying to hard-to-get-to areas in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“When you have dogs and puppies out there,” people tend to tune in, Childs said of the large national media attention the 501(c)(3) has been getting, including a recent campaign to participate in a multiepisode reality TV series. The 41-year-old said the team’s commitment to telling PAART’s positive news and stories — leaving out some of the muddier, murky details — also makes them a great candidate for stories that tug on the heartstrings of those who read or watch pieces about the organization: “They laugh; they cry.”
Childs said that while his is not a Jewish charity, his Jewish identity has helped inform his social justice spirit.
“I think our family does what they can do,” Childs, a Community Day School alumnus, said of his family’s involvement in the Jewish Community of Pittsburgh. As an adult, he isn’t religious, but he is “very proud to be Jewish.”
Still, he added, when you are 7,000 feet above solid ground, faith kicks in.
On his very first dog rescue mission, Childs said less-than-favorable conditions knocked his spirit down while boosting his spiritual attention to his faith.
“When things go wrong, they go really wrong,” he said of the dangers of flying. You can’t pull over to the side of the road like in a car; wings have gotten icy, strong turbulence has taken over flights, dogs have gotten loose from their crates.
But flying in general is something of a spiritual journey for him.
As the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Pittsburgh’s Eyetique — his brother, Norman Childs, founded the regional eyewear and eye-care company — Childs was responsible for traveling the globe in search of unique and luxury eyewear designs.
He would load up on traveling medications to sooth his severe flying anxiety, knocking himself out so that he would make it to his destinations comfortably. In 2002, while driving, he noticed a sign on the side of the road that advertised flying lessons. Childs immediately called his friend and now PAART co-founder Jonathan Plesset, who Childs said also holds the same religious and spiritual feelings around flying and mission work, and booked the lessons. Six months later, the duo had pilot licenses and a plane of their own.
When you have a plane, you have to go somewhere, Childs said. In the world of private plane ownership, this usually looks like what the insiders call “the $100 hamburger,” an outing to a far-away brunch like at Farmington, Pa.’s Nemacolin.
When he wasn’t doing brunch, Childs used his plane to transport out-of-town medical emergency patients to Pittsburgh.
Soon, however, Childs wasn’t into brunch anymore. It was 2006, and Childs was just about to quit flying, when an associate asked him for a favor. He was sick with the flu and needed Childs to pick up a dog.
“The phone went silent for a minute,” Childs said. He told him, “This isn’t your Subaru Outback.” As it turned out, the 9-month-old, 90-pound rescue was a dog who was in immediate danger. Childs saved its life; nine years later, the animal’s adopted family still sends Childs photos of the dog.
PAART became an official nonprofit in 2013, formalizing its missions and using donations to pay for gas, equipment and food for mission trips completed weekend after weekend.
“We are fighting for animals who don’t have a voice,” Childs said. And while he hasn’t personally adopted any of the hundreds of rescued pets, Childs said his fellow pilots and organizational staff have.
Bee Schindler can be reached at email@example.com.