SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KRON) – A young California pilot has stepped forward to help transport much-needed service animals to their new, temporary homes.
It’s a particularly special mission because, despite his young age, the pilot has a life long history with these remarkable dogs.
Owen Leipelt taxied into the Santa Rosa Airport to pick up his passengers.
Three rambunctious and adorable labrador retriever puppies who have to get to Southern California where they’ll begin the process to be trained as service animals.
“It’s just such a cool story of someone who’s, you know, been involved with the organization for a long time and now giving back in a really cool and unique way,” Michelle Williams, with Canine Companions, said.
Owen’s family has hosted puppies like these for Canine Companions International since before he was born.
“My mom just has a heart for animals and, you know, she’s been involved for a very long time and decided to bring me on board. So here we are,” Owen said.
At the Sonoma Jet Center, Owen loads these little ones for his first flight as a puppy pilot.
At 21 years of age, he already has 3,000 hours of flying in a variety of planes but this is his first flight with these little passengers.
“Since I’ve been involved with Canine Companions for a long time being able to, you know, make a difference really means a lot to me. And combine that with flying. And what more can you ask for?” Owen said.
The dogs will learn how to assist people with special needs.
Canine Companions says private volunteer pilots have filled the gap after commercial airlines restricted flights for animals during COVID.
The change over has been so successful, Canine Companions says they’d like to make it permanent.
“Not only is it a cost-saving for us, but it’s wonderful for the puppies so we’re looking at expanding this program and continuing it far beyond the pandemic,” Williams said.
Owens says he and other pilots often have a little extra space on their flights and whenever possible they like to help as much as they can.
“In terms of volunteer work, I fly kids. Introduce kids to flying ages 8 to 17. That’s always rewarding but this is the first time flying puppies. Very excited,” Owen said.