TAMPA — Thick, dark clouds surround the Tampa Executive Airport on this rainy Wednesday afternoon. Three hours ago, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning.
But by 1 p.m., Jeff Bennett is revving up the propeller of his single-engine plane. Three rescued dogs from Missouri await him in Georgia, and they can't stay overnight.
Bennett, a 50-year-old pilot from the Florida Keys, has spent the past few days coordinating with two other pilots for this mission. Here's the plan:
Jim Carney from Germantown, Tenn., will fly to southeastern Missouri, load the dogs and head to Decatur, Ala. David Olivares from Madison, Ala., will meet him in Decatur and fly the dogs to Bainbridge.
Bennett, getting an oil change in Tampa, will fly up to Georgia, load the three Missouri dogs plus five others, and take the eight to the Humane Society of Sarasota County, which is in need of adoptable pups.
These pilots, flying on their own dime and time, found each other on a message board for Pilots N Paws, a nationwide organization that plucks dogs out of overcrowded, high-kill shelters and flies them to smaller ones for adoption.
As the Missouri Three fly high over Georgia, Bennett finds a small patch of blue in Tampa and takes off.
You can't separate Bennett's life story from the dogs that have stood by his side. In his five decades, he counts about 20.
There was Zippy the boxer, who let him teethe on her ears when he was a baby.
And Avogadro the standard-sized cockapoo, big enough to tow him on a skateboard as a kid.
And Rosie the Labrador, who taught him a valuable lesson just four years ago.
As a pup, you couldn't keep Rosie from jumping in the canal for a swim. But by her 14th birthday, he had to carry her into the bathtub, where she slept.
Bennett knew what had to happen. He had taken old dogs in to the vet for the last time, but couldn't bear to stay.
This time felt different. He couldn't imagine letting a stranger walk Rosie into that room. This time, he had to stay.
As he held Rosie for the last time, his wife and daughter by his side, he thought of all his other dogs who had died alone.
"I knew that I would never not be there again," he said.
That resolution took on a bigger meaning in October 2008, when he began flying with Pilots N Paws.
He had sold four companies he had accumulated through the years and bought a plane. Rescuing dogs seemed like a lot better idea than flying in circles.
Each trip costs him a few hundred dollars in fuel. Up until this trip, he has saved 86 dogs.
That number seems huge to people when he tells them, but to him, it's dwarfed by the average number of dogs euthanized every week in this country:
Bennett touches down in the tiny Bainbridge airport. The puppies await. A van with the local Humane Society drives onto the tarmac, for Bennett's favorite part. "Like Christmas morning," he says.
The van doors open.
There's Suzuki, a long-haired terrier whose owners were ready to throw her onto the street when she was 2 months old. And Oscar, a 6-week-old Catahoula mix found in a Georgia parking lot. In some spots, he has been scabbed bald by fleas.
Q.T.'s owner died. Barney, Bart and Tulip were the last of their litters to get adopted. Simon and Orchid came to the Bainbridge Humane Society from animal services, and they were lucky.
The Bainbridge Humane Society has to euthanize 30 to 40 dogs every week. But those numbers are even higher at a nearby shelter, known to kill full litters of puppies younger than 6 weeks.
The states where Bennett flies — Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina — have serious dog overpopulation problems. He remembers one dog he rescued in Alabama was saved only because the shelter's freezer already was full of bodies.
Bennett doesn't understand why people don't neuter their pets.
He holds each dog while a photo is taken for his album. (He would take home some actual dogs, but he already has three.) Then he begins to load them, two to a crate when possible, stacked double-decker in the small cabin.
He keeps little Oscar close.
At 7,500 feet in the air, Bennett smells something.
"Who was that?" he hollers. Then he laughs. Bennett's smelled it all. He has rescued cats, lizards, snakes, a chicken and a pig. On Saturday, he planned to transport nine beagles.
You would think the cabin would be a zoo, but on this trip, only Oscar is restless. He keeps rubbing his ears on the sides of the cardboard carrier. He's too fat to scratch. When his head pops out, Bennett strokes him.
The pilot navigates the clouds with his left hand and lets Oscar teethe on the right as the engine's hum rocks the others to sleep.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.