With the help of Lassie, a faithful Piper Saratoga, Matt Kiener and FlyPups, Inc. transport at-risk dogs to animal shelters where they can be adopted into permanent homes.
How many dogs can you fit in an airplane?”
It sounds like the start of a corny joke, doesn’t it?
Well, at Sky Manor Airport (N40) in New Jersey, the answer is 40.
No, seriously, 40 dogs. Just ask Matt Kiener.
He’s the founder of FlyPups Inc., an organization that uses General Aviation aircraft—primarily, his own Piper Saratoga—to relocate dogs in danger of being euthanized. Kiener and volunteer pilots fly these endangered pets from “kill shelters” to doggy foster homes where they’ll live until they are adopted.
At first there was just one dog, not 40. Squire, a 17-year-old beagle, was the longtime companion of Kiener, a property manager from Pottersville, New Jersey, who also happens to be a pilot and CFII.
Kiener was satisfied with just one dog until a summer day in 2011 when a friend asked him to fly five dogs to a shelter. He said he couldn’t carry five dogs, as he only owned a Cessna 150 Aerobat. Assured that they were puppies, Kiener accepted the mission.
He now says, “It was a pivotal moment for me; a day when you know your life just changed. That flight opened my eyes to how many dogs were being destroyed.”
“I say ‘destroyed,’ not ‘euthanized;’ that’s a term for dogs that are sick or dying,” Kiener explained. “These animals could be saved by the simple act of moving them from overcrowded shelters to ‘no-kill’ shelters and foster homes.”
“Anyone who owns a dog knows how special a dog can be,” he added.
Every year 670,000 shelter dogs are destroyed in America. Although 1.6 million dogs are also adopted each year, to FlyPups’ volunteers, that isn’t nearly good enough. Every good dog should have a good home.
Six years of saving lives
Kiener returned from that first flight with one of the puppies for himself, which he named “Piper” to remind himself to focus on his new mission of saving at-risk dogs.
In 2012, he purchased a 1996 Piper PA-32R-301 Saratoga specifically for the task. Developed from the Piper Cherokee Six, the six-seat Saratoga design underwent many modifications and upgrades throughout its 34-year production run. One important thing that carried over to the Saratoga from the Cherokee Six was the ability to haul a large useful load.
Kiener went into debt to buy his Saratoga. “It’s essentially another mortgage payment for me,” he said. Yet the utility of the aircraft is exceptional. “It was as if Piper designed the Saratoga with this purpose in mind. It’s truly ideal for my mission.”
“The back seats and console can be removed in less than three minutes, providing almost 90 pounds more useful load and an incredible amount of space for crates. The large double doors of the Saratoga allow loading of crates big enough to hold a Great Dane,” Kiener noted.
With the seats removed, there’s cargo space for as many as 20 pet carriers. Each carrier can hold multiple dogs (depending on the dog’s size). With an allowance for one pilot, one passenger and full fuel, this single-engine retractable airplane can carry a full cabin of dogs up to 1,100 nm without refueling.
As always, weight and balance needs to considered. “The vet weighs the dogs and notes it on their health certificates before they leave, and I know the weight of the crates,” said Kiener. “But the dogs and cages are not so much heavy as bulky.”
“The record number of passengers on one flight was 40—but they were small dogs and puppies.”
A more typical mission is the one Matt flew April 12, 2018, from Greenville, Mississippi (KGLH), to Sky Manor. On that day, Kiener flew 10 carriers filled with 29 dogs and puppies just over 1,000 miles.
The larger dogs rode first-class, one to a carrier; but the puppies were in economy, with up to six in a carrier. “The dogs must have given me good karma, as I had a 58-knot tailwind and arrived more than an hour earlier than planned,” said Kiener.
The flying dog pound
“The Saratoga is the perfect plane for this mission because it’s reliable, has good speed and range, and the passenger door opens wide, which makes it easy to load the pet carriers,” said Kiener.
“I wanted an airplane with good cabin ventilation, so the dogs wouldn’t get overheated, especially while on the ground before takeoff. The Saratoga, which is equipped with air conditioning, has two large vents on the passenger cabin floor and a row of vents running along the cabin ceiling, so I’m not afraid to stack the pet carriers up to the ceiling. Everyone gets enough fresh air.”
“The altitude doesn’t bother the dogs,” he continued. “A vet told me their ears are built in a way that the changing air pressure doesn’t affect them. Generally, they go to sleep by the time I get to cruising altitude. But, once I transported 24 Chihuahuas, and 23 slept while one yapped the whole way.”
“The Saratoga is also very well soundproofed, so much so that some of my human passengers will remove their headsets during a flight. I’m certainly not worried about the dogs’ hearing after one flight—not in this Saratoga,” said Kiener.
“For myself, I use a Bose A20 noise-canceling headset, which is put to the test during taxi and takeoff when the dogs are really howling. It works great. I can hear the radio clearly but only catch a few of the barks and growls.”
“Now, if Bose made a smell-canceling headset,” he joked, “I’d pay for that. A cabin full of dogs can get pretty ripe sometimes.”
Like an airline pilot, Kiener considers the comfort of his passengers. He accelerates slowly, flies gently and makes shallow turns. He also seeks the best altitude to avoid turbulence and plans for a gradual descent. And as on today’s airlines, these are no-meal-provided flights.
“Our flight legs are not that long, four or five hours at the most, so we don’t give the dogs any food or water in their crates; we don’t want to increase the chance of them getting airsick. And, we keep the air moving—fresh air is vital for a pleasant flight.”
“I usually put one crate on top and just behind me, so I can let one or two lucky dogs out during a flight,” said Kiener. “I put the airplane on autopilot and hold a dog so we can watch the scenery go past together. They seem to enjoy that.”
Kiener flies as many rescue missions as he can, primarily transporting dogs from shelters in southern states where overcrowding is an ongoing issue. These shelters often are forced to euthanize dogs because of a lack of space.
Dog advocates—that’s human advocates for dogs, not advocates with wagging tails—spend their time matching dogs from overpopulated shelters with no-kill shelters that have vacancies. Once a match is found, the advocates contact Kiener.
Kiener works out the scheduling and other logistics and launches a rescue flight. To help ease the transition between shelters, volunteer foster families often take in arriving dogs until they find new long-term loving homes.
Unfortunately, the appreciation and thanks of dog lovers don’t pay the bill at the fuel pump, and many missions are unable to be completed due to lack of funds.
However, Kiener’s efforts to save these dogs were noticed by other pilots around the airport and he soon had plenty of volunteers looking to help out. In order to raise funds and act in a businesslike fashion, FlyPups Inc. was formed.
During the past six years, Matt Kiener and volunteer pilots—most from Sky Manor Airport—have transported about 1,000 dogs of all ages. Like the airlines, FlyPups needs to fill the plane for a flight to make economic sense, so he must wait for a full load of animals to transport.
“The exception to this rule,” said Kiener, “is when a veteran wants a dog. FlyPups has partnered with veterans’ associations to deliver service and companion dogs. These trips are special, emotional, and while they don’t meet the ‘cost-per-dog ratio’ we aim for, they are quite necessary.”
In August 2017, when Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana, many people were forced to leave their pets at a shelter or abandon them in the midst of the storm. Overwhelmed by the influx of dogs, local shelters quickly became overcrowded.
FlyPups flew in to help. They assisted by delivering donated supplies and flying out dogs that were known to be homeless, so recently-displaced dogs could occupy the limited shelter space. Human flood victims needed time to find their canine friends and be reunited; that couldn’t be done if their dogs were flown to another state.
Flights with a purpose
Airplanes greatly decrease the travel time in rescuing and rehoming dogs, sometimes from days to hours. Some of the dogs were previously abused; one dog on the aforementioned flight from Greenville had been shot in the head, but is recovering nicely.
And while they are typically healthy, shelter dogs are often in a fragile mental state, so a short flight is better than a more stressful long drive.
Loading and unloading the dogs takes very little time. Once the dogs are in the aircraft, Kiener said, “the soundproofing, ventilation system, big windows and shades work together to provide a relaxing space for the dogs.”
The 300 hp fuel-injected engine pulls the Saratoga along at a cruise speed of 162 knots at 65 percent power. You may think that the dogs would be stressed by the engine noise and vibration of the flight, but Kiener says they seem to be oblivious that they’re hurtling through the air.
“The Saratoga’s speed and stability provide a most comfortable ride for all on board. As a pilot, the Saratoga—or Lassie, as we call her—is a dream to fly. She’s truly honest; no surprises, no trickiness. She’s a very generous, stable and predictable plane,” said Kiener.
“I’m most grateful for all that she allows us to accomplish.”
“I don’t begrudge anyone the $100 hamburger, I’ve done that myself and will do it again, but when there’s a chance to put real meaning into a flight, it makes the years of study and training to become a pilot all worthwhile.”
Dennis K. Johnson is a writer and a New York City-based travel photographer, shooting primarily for Getty Images and select clients. He spends months each year traveling, flies sailplanes whenever possible and is the owner of N105T, a newly-restored Piper Super Cub Special. Send questions or comments to .