By Andrea Bosco / Photographs by Michael Fornataro
“Passion” is defined as “a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything.” Oftentimes, our passions can take a lifetime to be discovered. For friends and pilots Brad Childs and Jonathan Plesset, a shared interest was unexpectedly brought to light in 2006. Six years later, they co-founded Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team (PAART) with the mission of rescuing animals, by land or air, and taking them from danger to safety.
Childs, the executive vice president and COO of Eyetique, and Plesset, the president and CEO of Shadyside Inn All Suites Hotel, started flying planes for fun in 2002. They stored their aircraft in a hanger at the Allegheny County Airport and would head to the clouds for simple missions or a quick bite — “the $100 hamburger,” laughs Childs. It wasn’t until one of the plane’s partners at the time, who was sick with the flu, asked Childs to pick up a 90-pound, 9-month-old American bull dog, named Monti, that his life was changed. He accepted the challenge and nearly died doing so.
“I had no rescue experience,” Childs says. “I tied him to the seatbelt and before I knew it, the dog was leaning on the controls and the plane was doing a nose dive. We were plummeting to the earth, falling out of the sky. Our chief pilot, Pete, told me to pull the dog toward me and that he would recover the plane.” It took Childs two days to get over that emotional adventure — not only because of the frightening experience, but also because he saved Monti’s life and witnessed how much he was loved once adopted. In fact, he still keeps in touch with the pup and his family 12 years later.
From there, PAART took off, and on May 5, 2015, the group rescued its 1,000th animal! “These are perfectly healthy, perfectly adoptable dogs that, because of a lack of funding or a lack of education, are euthanized,” Childs says.
The pair’s rescue team has evolved with the addition of pilots; their wives, Linda [Childs] and Megan [Plesset], as flight coordinator and community relations and outreach manager, respectively; an executive director; an intern; and an army of ground volunteers, or “land pilots.” In February, Rachael Ray donated $25,000 to help fund the nonprofit’s mission. Without hesitation, they purchased a large rescue vehicle and are now able to save up to 75 dogs in one day. “We never set out to be these animal rescue people,” Childs says. “People have labeled us all kinds of names and we don’t like any of them. We are just two guys that fly a plane and get dogs. We have learned a lot about the industry, dog fighting, and bad rescues. We will kick your door down!”
Focused on the future and the tasks at hand, Childs, Plesset, and their team aim to fix a serious problem nationwide. “Our group is so desperately needed by thousands of rescues across the country,” Childs says. “We’ve expanded our reach to the entire Eastern seaboard,” adds Plesset. “This year, we’ve hit our peak, our stride.We’re growing very quickly, especially now that we have more resources to do it.”
For 2016, PAART has set a goal of rescuing 5,000 animals, utilizing multiple rescue vans and planes. “We’ll probably stretch into Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and westward,” Plesset says. “We realize that we’ve gained a lot of knowledge doing this, and we want to be the best at this. The most important thing for us is that we want to be an open book for other shelters.”
Childs says he’s proud of the group’s Pittsburgh roots. “I think PAART is a good thing for the city and the city is a good place for us to be able to do what we do. We have amazing support here from the Allegheny County Airport Authority and from the airport itself. Everyone here rolls out the red carpet for our team. It’s really quite unbelievable how far they go just to help us save a dog.”
Or a cat! PAART works closely with the North Shore Animal Rescue League in New York, as well as the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, to execute kitten missions, too. The latter is even honoring both men at its gala, The Best Friends Ball, on September 12.
The positive attitudes of Childs and Plesset are contagious, and their devotion to animal welfare is encouraging and promising. While chatting about rescue trips, their faces light up like those of the comforted puppies they’ve rescued.
“On one of my first missions early on, a husband, wife, and their son adopted the dog immediately after we unloaded the plane,” Plesset says. “They were crying. I thought, ‘This family is going to have this dog for 10-plus years of happiness and that was it for me. I’m hooked. This is what I want to do. It’s at a point now where it’s all I want to do. I want to retire just to do this.”
“It’s the emotions,” Childs adds. “We do it because Jon and I are both in business — we thankfully have successful businesses — and I’ll look over and see him crying, or laughing, or angry. We run this whole emotional roller coaster every day. This has evolved into something serious, and this is where we are.”
> Pittsburgh Aviation Animal Rescue Team, nodogleftbehind.org.