‘I’d rather be flying dogs’

Middleton’s David Tan used to fly a military rescue helicopter. Now the retired pilot spends his free time (and his own dime) flying rescue animals to their new homes.
David Tan with a dog in a plane
Courtesy of David Tan

Since retiring from a 40-year career as a military, professional and private pilot, Middleton’s David Tan has flown more than 360 rescue dogs to safety. He’s also helped rescue 23 skeptical cats, three frostbitten goats, one scruffy potbelly pig and even a bat destined for a nature preserve in Ohio. “Naturally, we named him Bruce,” Tan says, poker-faced — a reference to Batman’s true identity, Bruce Wayne.

And then there was Buddy, as well as Frankie, Ziva, Chaos, Lester and Oreo — all dogs. If you’re connected with Tan on social media, you’re treated to a near-weekly dose of selfies with cute animals. Most feature Tan looking serious in the cockpit of his Aermacchi SF-260 — a two-person Italian military aircraft like the one he trained on at the start of his previous 15-year career as a rescue helicopter pilot with the Republic of Singapore Air Force — with at least one rescue dog in the tiny seat behind him having the ride of their lives, whether they know it or not.

“There are just some terrible stories out there [about] how cruel people can be to animals, especially down south; the abandonments are horrible,” says Tan. “A family would just leave them, discard them like a piece of old furniture or something. So that kind of gets me. I feel good when at least … I can contribute toward where they go.”

dog standing with david on the wing of a plane

Volunteer pilot David Tan flew Genevieve in May 2019 three separate times as she moved between foster families before she finally found a forever home. (Courtesy of David Tan)

Tan first learned about flying rescue animals after reading an aviation trade magazine article about Pilots N Paws, a 501(c)(3) organization that serves as a virtual hub connecting rescue organizations and volunteer pilots. Animal rescues sign up on the site (there are currently more than 12,800 registered users) and put out a call when they have an animal in need of transport. Tan flew his first rescues in 2012 and is one of the group’s 6,000 volunteer pilots flying more than 15,500 rescue animals across the country each year at their own expense, typically splitting legs of a journey into flights of about 250 miles each and creating a sort of animal relay of the best kind.

Even more frequently, Tan works independently with a handful of rescuers — people he’s gotten to know over the years who run streamlined rescue missions and text him directly. Thankfully, several other volunteer pilots in the Madison area also fly dogs, though they rarely have occasion to cross paths. Multiple local pilots work with numerous local rescue groups such as Fetch Wisconsin, Albert’s Dog Lounge and Underdog Pet Rescue and Veterinary Services. The Dane County Humane Society has also occasionally worked with Bissell Pet Foundation to facilitate larger flights of more than 100 animals at a time, including as recently as March 2022.

“Most of our transports do come via van, but we do have cases where there’s a pregnant mom dog or cat where time is of the essence and we don’t want to add to the stress,” says Lauren Brinkman, executive director of Underdog Pet Rescue. “It’s just amazing, the guys and gals who do this. … I’ve met them at the Dane County Airport before and there were like 10 different animals that came within a few hours. They just magically arrived, as far as we were concerned. These people are just really kindhearted.”

Brinkman says her organization makes about 10 flight requests each year, and one of Underdog’s board members is married to a pilot who volunteers as well. Another Underdog volunteer is a pilot who also fosters some of the rescue dogs. There’s plenty of need for pilots. Tan manages about one rescue flight per week, but there is more demand than he could ever keep up with.

“There’s never enough,” he says. “There’s just a lot of dogs that need to be moved.”

Flying Dogs2

Courtesy of David Tan

Most of the rescues come from Southern states, where there are more abandonments and strays, fewer spays and neuters, and decreased access to veterinary care in rural areas — and so the need is greater. In March, for example, Tan picked up a rescue named April whose owners had grown frustrated with the pup’s accidents in the house — so they brought her to the vet requesting she be euthanized. The vet instead contacted a rescue group, which got the dog as far north as Indiana. From there, Tan scooped her up and delivered her to another rescue in Iowa.

“You sort of say, ‘Hope you have a great rest of your life,’ you know?” he says. “ ‘Hope these people love you forever.’ ”

Tan and his wife travel too much to be responsible dog owners themselves — they currently own four rescue cats, three of which have flown in Tan’s plane — but he’s certainly been tempted to add a tail-wagger to the family. Some dogs endear themselves to Tan by climbing into the cockpit, and on one particularly memorable flight he carried a mom and her eight pups. Then there was the instant, intense connection he made with Frankie, a female German shepherd who was found tied to a tree in Alabama. Tan was able to fly her to a rescue in Wisconsin, then pick her up again later to deliver her to Michigan.

“Frankie, what a wonderful dog. I think she went to a man with a very sad story. He had lost his family,” Tan says — and that helps, knowing that two sentient beings in need found each other for a second chance.

Most of the time, Tan’s role is limited to a quiet flight between airports, with the dogs snoozing in the back seat or up on the hatrack. But on his favorite days, he gets to see the dogs happily meeting their new families. Sometimes they give him thank-you notes with cash inside — “but I’ve never kept a cent,” says Tan. He gives it all to the rescues, because rescue organizations typically cover all medical and food costs for the animals they save. “They’re always short, especially when it comes to medical care for the animals. It just costs so much nowadays.”

dog sitting on David's lap in the cockpit

Some pups, like Oreo in June 2021 like to climb in David Tan’s lap in the cockpit, or peer out over his shoulder at the world below. (Courtesy of David Tan)

Tan is quick to shake off any praise. “The people who really pull the weight are the rescues,” he says. Besides that, it’s a tax benefit. Last year alone, Tan wrote off $23,000 worth of flight expenses. And as any experienced pilot will tell you, flying requires consistent practice and regular hours spent in the sky. Tan would be up there anyway, he says, so rescuing animals is an excellent use of that flight time.

“If you fly, it’s a perishable skill and you must keep current,” he says. “So rather than take a flight and go somewhere for what we call the proverbial $200 hamburger, I’d rather be flying dogs.”

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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