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Canine Companions

May 12, 2020

Visitors to the lobby of Sonoma Jet Center were greeted by an unusual sight Tuesday morning: two dozen Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers and crosses of the two breeds. Squirming, frolicking, yapping — and in a few cases, zonked out for an early nap — the pups gave new meaning to the expression “precious cargo.”

Tuesday’s puppy airlift was organized by Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that places assistance dogs with children, adults and veterans with disabilities.

In ordinary times, the pups would be flown to Canine Companion’s far-flung network of trainers, and training centers, on commercial airlines. With the coronavirus severely curtailing flights, said Paige Mazzoni, the nonprofit’s CEO, the supply chain of puppies had been “disrupted.”

To rescue came Josh Hochberg, Jeff Stewart and Martyn Lewis, pilots who live in the area and agreed to fly the puppies on their own private aircraft. Thus was the tarmac at the Sonoma Jet Center transformed, for a half hour or so, into what looked like a Hallmark commercial.

The dogs were then placed in crates — two per container, so they didn’t get lonely — on the planes. Hochberg, owner of the jet center, adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport, would be dropping dogs in Portland and Seattle in his sleek Cessna 340.

In his King Air B200 turboprop, Stewart was delivering puppies to Boise, Idaho, Spokane, Washington, then Great Falls, Montana. While he’d be cruising at 28,000 feet, the cabin would be pressurized to 6,000 feet — “like going to Tahoe,” he said.

With snow forecast in Great Falls Tuesday and inclement weather expected throughout the Northwest, Stewart said he needed to make sure the crates were secure. “It’ll be bumpy on the takeoffs and landings,” he said.

Stewart, who has over 30 years of experience, is also president of Blue Star Gas, a propane distribution company in Santa Rosa. Like all the pilots working with Canine Companions, he’s donating his time and paying for the plane fuel to get the pups to their trainers.

“Having an opportunity like this,” he said, “to make sure that people who need these animals are able to have them, when they need them — it feels wonderful.”

Visitors to the lobby of Sonoma Jet Center were greeted by an unusual sight Tuesday morning: two dozen Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers and crosses of the two breeds. Squirming, frolicking, yapping — and in a few cases, zonked out for an early nap — the pups gave new meaning to the expression “precious cargo.”

Tuesday’s puppy airlift was organized by Santa Rosa-based Canine Companions for Independence, a national nonprofit that places assistance dogs with children, adults and veterans with disabilities.

In ordinary times, the pups would be flown to Canine Companion’s far-flung network of trainers, and training centers, on commercial airlines. With the coronavirus severely curtailing flights, said Paige Mazzoni, the nonprofit’s CEO, the supply chain of puppies had been “disrupted.”

To rescue came Josh Hochberg, Jeff Stewart and Martyn Lewis, pilots who live in the area and agreed to fly the puppies on their own private aircraft. Thus was the tarmac at the Sonoma Jet Center transformed, for a half hour or so, into what looked like a Hallmark commercial.

The dogs were then placed in crates — two per container, so they didn’t get lonely — on the planes. Hochberg, owner of the jet center, adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport, would be dropping dogs in Portland and Seattle in his sleek Cessna 340.

In his King Air B200 turboprop, Stewart was delivering puppies to Boise, Idaho, Spokane, Washington, then Great Falls, Montana. While he’d be cruising at 28,000 feet, the cabin would be pressurized to 6,000 feet — “like going to Tahoe,” he said.

With snow forecast in Great Falls Tuesday and inclement weather expected throughout the Northwest, Stewart said he needed to make sure the crates were secure. “It’ll be bumpy on the takeoffs and landings,” he said.

Stewart, who has over 30 years of experience, is also president of Blue Star Gas, a propane distribution company in Santa Rosa. Like all the pilots working with Canine Companions, he’s donating his time and paying for the plane fuel to get the pups to their trainers.

“Having an opportunity like this,” he said, “to make sure that people who need these animals are able to have them, when they need them — it feels wonderful.”

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