CHICAGO (WMAQ) - High over central Illinois, a chocolate lab puppy rests its head on the shoulder of pilot Pete Tobin, seemingly lulled to sleep by the hum of the plane's engine.
"On every rescue there's about one dog that stands out," Pete says through the headset, "one that makes it special and makes it all worth it. This little guy is the most special one on this trip."
Just hours ago this special little guy was in line to be euthanized at the Wayne County Humane Society.
Instead he and 16 other dogs, plus six cats, were taken to the Fairfield Municipal Airport, where they were loaded into the back of a small, single-engine Columbia 350.
A plane that normally seats four humans is now flying 22 strayed, orphaned and unwanted animals to Chicago on a flight path towards a brighter future.
Pete and his wife, Karen Johnson, are part of a growing corps of aviators who volunteer their weekends and their personal planes to support rescue flights posted on an Internet forum called Pilots N Paws.
The organization was founded in 2008 and serves as an online meeting place for animal rescue groups to coordinate with more than 2,500 general aviation pilots willing to use their personal airplanes to transport shelter animals to towns where they could be adopted.
According to Pilots N Paws, more than 4 million unwanted pets are euthanized each year because of overcrowded and underfunded shelters in mainly rural locations.
The pilots are able to save these animals by flying them to no-kill shelters or to adoptive families, often located hundreds of miles away.
The pilots spend their own money to pay for the flight, which in the case of a Columbia 350, costs $400-plus for a tank of gas.
"I'll take as many as we can," says Karen, who spends her day job working as the president of a concrete cutting business based out of Morton Grove. "The alternative is they drown them, they take them out back and shoot them if it's a puppy mill, and if it's animal control they just euthanize them."
For many of these animals, a rescue flight is their only chance of survival.
"Once you get in the air they mellow out quite a bit," says Pete as he glances back at two puppies sleeping in the back seat.
The Glenview couple says they stopped counting once they reached 50 animals carried aboard their plane on trips across the Midwest and the East Coast.
But the record for most in one flight was on this day when 22 animals flew from Fairfield to Chicago.
A pair of beagles sit in one crate, while another contains a mother West Highland Terrier and her four babies.
Only one dog was unable to fit safely aboard and had to be left on the ground to wait for a truck to carry him on the five-hour journey north.
"Sometimes it's so stressful," Karen says about carrying the animals by truck. "They've had animals die being transported from Tennessee all the way to Chicago because it's so much stress and so many more hours on the ground."
The rest of the pets enjoyed a smooth one-and-a-half hour flight.
After the Columbia 350 gracefully touches down at Chicago Executive, Pete taxis the aircraft alongside a van marked ARFMOBILE, where volunteers from Animal Rescue Foundation - Illinois are waiting to pick up the precious cargo.
One by one, the cats and dogs emerge from the plane.
Their next stop is the no-kill shelter where they are spayed or neutered before being put up for adoption.
"They don t know that they need to be happy," says ARF Illinois President Ann Persenaire, carrying a crate full of cats off the airplane. "They don't know that life's gotten good."