Pilot uses ‘compassion flights’ to save the lives of homeless cats and kittens

Pilot Larry Erdman with Pilots N Paws flies cats and kittens from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to shelters in other states where they'll be adopted.
By Christelle L. Del Prete

As a young boy, Larry Erdman always dreamed of flying. In those dreams, he would run with his arms out and soar into the sky. So, when he got the opportunity a few years ago to start training to get a private pilot's license (PPL), he was determined to make it happen. In early 2019, he earned his license, found the perfect airplane to buy, and flew it from the Midwest to its new home in Kanab, Utah.

Larry’s dream had come true, but there was something missing. “Owning and flying a plane is an expensive hobby if you don't have a purpose,” he says. So, Larry decided to combine his love for flying with his love of animals and saving lives by transporting animals to and from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

Flying kittens to where the adopters are

Animals being transported in kennels on the Pilots N Paws flightHaving worked as a Best Friends adoption specialist at the Sanctuary before he retired, Larry knew where he could be of help. “The Sanctuary takes in many more kittens than can be placed locally through adoption events, so one solution is to transport them to areas with fewer kittens available for adoption,” he says.

Larry’s maiden transport flight took place in late August. That’s when he flew 19 kittens and one adult cat to Colorado where they were transferred to a pair of Best Friends Network partner organizations, Colorado Animal Rescue and the Rifle Animal Shelter. From there, the kittens quickly moved on to new homes.

Larry didn’t return to Kanab empty-handed. When he landed, his precious cargo included five cats and one dog, all of whom have special needs and would have better odds of finding new homes from the Sanctuary.

“Using a plane, we were able to transport all these animals before lunch,” Larry says. “That is the key thing. What would take almost 20 hours of driving was cut to just four hours of flying, and that includes a rest-and-refueling stop at the drop-off point.”

Joining Pilots N Paws

Although animal rescue flights are much shorter than ground transports, they are much more complicated, and it took months for Larry to get ready for them. To prepare, he joined Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit group whose mission is “saving the lives of innocent animals.”

Through Pilots N Paws, Larry learned what he needed to know to safely transport pets — things that his PPL didn't teach him. For example, he says, “While my plane can climb almost 1,000 feet a minute, it is important to keep climbs (and descents) to around one-third of that, to prevent any pressure discomfort to those furry ears. You see, people know how to swallow and clear the pressure differential in their ears during air travel, but pets do not. That requires some careful planning when you're dealing with the mountains here in southern Utah and western Colorado.”

Cat in a carrier on a compassion flight through Pilots N Paws, with other carriers with animals surrounding her

‘Compassion flights’ help cats with special needs

Happily, Larry’s first mission went off perfectly, and he began looking forward to the next one in late October when he would transport 19 cats to the same two Colorado organizations. From that trip, he returned with four cats: one very senior cat with urinary issues, two partially blind kittens, a blind adult cat and another cat with special needs.

Calling his transport missions “compassion flights,” Larry is the kind of volunteer who can take a little turbulence when things don’t go according to plan. Recently, he was scheduled to fly down to Flagstaff, Arizona, to pick up a couple of kittens who needed to come to the Sanctuary. But when the day came, it was too windy to fly. Determined to help the kittens anyway, Larry got into his car, made the seven-hour round-trip drive to pick up the tiny fuzzballs, and delivered them safely to the Sanctuary.

While this was a time when the wheels worked and the wings didn’t, this pilot and lifesaving volunteer will be flying many more furry passengers over the coming months and years. It’s just one example of how when everyone pitches in, we can Save Them All. And it’s how we’ll reach the goal of getting to no-kill by 2025.

How you can help homeless pets this holiday season.

Woman at airport waiting to pick up transported animals with a sign that says, "Welcome Best Friends kittens"

Photos by Pat Banman