Christmas came early for 15 puppies on December 19 when two local pilots flew round-trip from East Hampton Airport to Camden, South Carolina, to save them from a bleak fate and deliver them to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons for adoption.
Flight instructor Charles Canavan, 23, of Sag Harbor, and Brian LaBelle of East Hampton, 37, who owns Montauk Rumrunners distillery, took off in Mr. LaBelle’s four-seat Cirrus SR22 at about 8 a.m. and returned soon after night had fallen with five crates carrying three pups each from Fostering Foster, an animal rescue organization in Camden that saves dogs and cats from kill shelters.
The East Hampton Community Alliance donated the funds to pay for the flight expenses, but when Mr. LaBelle came forward to offer his speedy airplane for the mission, he covered all the costs, leaving the funds from the Alliance on hand for future missions.
“This isn’t a one-time thing,” Mr. Canavan said. “These trips are going to keep happening. They’re one of the million reasons why we need keep this airport alive.”
Pilots are worried about the airport’s fate. Closing the field is an option the East Hampton Town Board is weighing as it struggles to address thousands of noise complaints, most of them due to helicopters, seaplanes and private jets.
The puppies, stacked in their carriers in the back of the plane, were all fine on the three-and-a-half-hour flight home. “They slept the whole time,” Mr. Canavan said.
“Every 20 minutes they’d look at me then go back to sleep. They’re very mellow puppies.” He said he wanted to adopt a couple himself but already has two dogs.
It was the first time ARF has relied on local pilots based at East Hampton Airport to save its volunteers from the grueling highway journey to one of its far-flung partner shelters — a trip few want to make during the COVID-19 pandemic, noted Jamie Berger, ARF’s director of marketing and communications.
Ms. Berger said on Monday that the puppies will be available for adoption as soon as ARF is sure they are healthy, at which time they will appear on ARF’s website. To adopt one, go to ARF’s adoption link: arfhamptons.org/adoptions/view-our-pets.
Mr. Canavan coordinated the mission, including lining up local pilots Scott Fordham, Jonathan Glynn and David Ryan, but they have slower, less spacious airplanes. When Mr. Canavan realized the logistics just might not work, he asked Kent Feuerring, president of the East Hampton Aviation Association, to email his group’s 95 members. That’s when Mr. LaBelle, whose roomy Cirrus can cruise at more than 200 mph, came forward to offer his services.
Mr. Canavan is a Pierson High School grad whose father is an American Airlines pilot and mother is a lawyer with her own firm in Bridgehampton. A graduate of Liberty College in Virginia, where he studied aviation, he began flight instructing at East Hampton in April 2019.
Nine months later, he was hired by American Airlines affiliate Envoy Air and was training in Dallas, Texas, to fly regional jets. Then the pandemic hit, dropping the bottom out of the airline business. Now furloughed, he has continued to flight instruct for Sound Aircraft Flight Enterprises at East Hampton, where his sister Bridget runs the counter, and for the Mid Island Flight School at Brookhaven and Islip airports. He also teaches flying for BOCES.
The rescue flight was initially the idea of airport veteran Mike Norbeck, Mr. Canavan said, and the two had help from Sound Flight Services employee Hanna Jungck with logistics. Ultimately, it took the whole airport community to make it happen. Mr. Norbeck, 41, is a past Sound employee, an agent with Compass real estate in Sag Harbor and owner of the Hertz franchise at the airport.
He said he could recall other animal rescue flights conducted by corporate aircraft out of the airport over the years, but had noticed they had stopped happening for reasons unknown. That’s when he thought of launching one with local resources.
A co-founder of the East Hampton Community Alliance, which supports preservation of East Hampton airport, Mr. Norbeck asked Mr. Canavan if he was interested in putting a mission together. The next day, Mr. Canavan was meeting with ARF Executive Director Scott Howe outside the ARF headquarters, just across Daniels Hole Road from the airport.
“The details were spotty at first,” Mr. Canavan recalled, with ARF unsure when it would have animals to rescue again and what pilots — and which airplanes — would be available.
Meanwhile, he practiced loading pet carriers into the two Grumman Travelers and the Cessna 172 he had lined up. He also worried about variable winter weather over such a long distance, the ice that had formed on all the planes parked on the ramp, and how many fuel stops would be required each way.
Enter Mr. LaBelle, who uses his Cirrus for quick marketing trips for Montauk Rumrunners across the Tri-State area. He’s instrument rated, his plane is well equipped for instrument flying and it can make the run to South Carolina non-stop.
“It’s a real time machine,” Mr. LaBelle said. It did take him and Mr. Canavan a couple of hours to clean ice of the Cirrus, delaying their scheduled 7 a.m. departure. Luckily, the weather was benign the entire way down and back.
This was Mr. LaBelle’s first run for ARF, but he has conducted animal rescue flights before, including for an organization called The Voiceless Dogs of Nassau, Bahamas, that relied on him to fly 16 dogs in two trips to 2nd Chance Rescue in Manhattan.
“We are willing to help ARF any time,” Mr. LaBelle said of the East Hampton Aviation Association membership.
A volunteer member of the Suffolk County Police Auxiliary, he said has helped support patient transfers at the airport for local ambulances to the Suffolk County Police helicopter.
Offering a plug for KHTO, he commented, “That airport is critical infrastructure for the county and town in times of natural disaster and for emergencies. In so many ways, it is part of the lifeblood of this community.”