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Omaha Magazine

Missions of Mercy: Former USAF Navigator Finds Purpose in Flying

Apr 29, 2021 03:45PM ● By Joel Stevens
Jim Arbuckle and his wife by small plane

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Jim Arbuckle is descending to 3,000 feet; the low altitude turbulence and gusty Midwest winds whipping his single engine Beechcraft around like a kite—and his passengers are barking.

Arbuckle, 78, is a decorated former U.S. Air Force navigator who flew reconnaissance missions during the Cold War, yet on this day he is somewhere between Wichita and Nebraska City with a cargo of rescue dogs ear-marked for adoption.

Since last fall, Arbuckle has been volunteering his plane and plethora of pilot experience to fly dogs (and some cats) from animal shelters all over the Midwest and deliver them for adoption. 

The pandemic has been a boon for pet adoptions—more time working from home gives pet owners more time with their four-legged companions—but there are gaps regionally. Funding is short and, while the network of shelters and the work they do is strong, transportation is always an issue.

These flights are often the difference between life or death for some animals. It’s a supply-and-demand math problem and the flights widen the field of where adoptions can take place. 

The mission, a word Arbuckle likes to use, works like this: dogs facing euthanasia are loaded on planes and flown to locations with shortages of adoptable pets. Groups such as California-based Wings of Rescue and Pilots ‘N’ Paws, based in Landrum, South Carolina, lead the effort, recruiting volunteer pilots such as Arbuckle who, at their own expense, ferry dogs to new homes, shelters, and rescues all over the country. PNP has a roster of more than 6,000 registered pilots scattered all over the U.S.

Arbuckle signed on with PNP in October. He’s flown nine missions so far, mostly in Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas—the farthest being Dodge City, Kansas, and the closest Red Oak, Iowa. The missions typically take 90 minutes to two hours, round trip.

That’s about 20 hours less than the missions he undertook as a navigator on the RC-135 reconnaissance plane during active duty.

Arbuckle served with the 55th Wing at Strategic Air Command at Offutt Air Force Base for nearly three decades.
He and his wife retired to Omaha for good in 1993. The RC-135 was the workhorse of Cold War operations for decades with missions flown all around the world, typically in 22 hour sorties.

But it was not a spy plane, Arbuckle insists. “We did not ever use the word ‘spy,’” he said. “We used ‘reconnaissance.’ Spying implies illegal actions. We stayed over international waters at all times. We did not penetrate enemy territory.”

Arbuckle was a pilot long before beginning active duty. He starting flying at age 19, while studying at Penn State, where he would go on to receive his commission and meet his wife, Pam. They’ll celebrate their 53rd anniversary this spring and have two grown children and three grandchildren.

The Arbuckles have spent the majority of their retirement traveling, but a new hobby beckoned.

Arbuckle first heard about the Pilots ‘N’ Paws group on a blog he follows for Beechcraft owners. They were looking for pilots to assist with transportation.

“My eyes had sort of glazed over during COVID,” he said. “So I was looking for an excuse to fly.”

His first mission, should he choose to accept it: fly to Wichita, pick up two rescue dogs that were in danger of being euthanized, and fly them back to Nebraska City.

It wasn’t high-altitude reconnaissance of USSR military operations, but it was exactly what he was looking for.

“They asked me if I was interested, and I gulped,” he said. “But I said yes.” 

The animals fly in kennels, usually two to four per trip. Arbuckle admits rescue dogs are probably the strangest cargo he’s flown in his more than 50 years of flying. The work is entirely volunteer, from the flight time to the maintenance and fuel. Arbuckle covers all costs for the single-engine, Beechcraft Bonanza B35 he’s owned since 2015.

“They take to it a lot better than I do,” Arbuckle said of flying with a planeload of dogs. “Except when we land. They get a little excited.”

And, as it turns out, in the autumn in the Midwest, in that high wind and low altitude turbulence. Thus, the barking.

“We’d come in at about 7,500 feet, high out of the turbulence, and we come down to about 3,000 feet, and it’d get bumpy. It’s a short time but they don’t tend to like that.”

Most trips, though, his passengers are fairly calm. Most dogs curl up and sleep for the duration of the flight. 

Arbuckle’s wife, Pam, is a reluctant flyer but usually accompanies him on his missions. She loves flying with the dogs. Far more than she does flying with just her husband, he said. 

“I wouldn’t mind flying three hours but my wife…” he said, trailing off.

They don’t own a dog. “With all our travels it really wasn’t fair to a dog,” he said—but he and his wife grow attached to the rescues they transport.

Through PNP, Arbuckle has flown mostly for Hearts United for Animals, a no-kill shelter and sanctuary based in Auburn, Nebraska. 

Jill Longshaw, public relations manager with HUA, agrees with Arbuckle’s nomenclature. The work their web of pilots do are indeed “missions”—missions of mercy.  

“Since most of the cats and dogs that are transported are pulled from death row, their only chance for any sort of a good life is through the pilots that get them safely out,” Longshaw said.

Rescues like HUA are part of a network attempting to mitigate the problem of unwanted pets, especially in the South. Where a shelter animal in Georgia or Texas might never find a home locally, if that animal is flown to New Jersey or Nebraska, it could find a home within a matter of days.

HUA’s website features dozens of stories of pets surrendered by or rescued from owners, their journey to shelters, and their many happy endings.

The stories of what many of the pets have gone through before Arbuckle transports them are heartbreaking. The whole experience has been eye-opening.

“I really hadn’t paid much attention to [rescuing animals],” he said. “It’s rewarding.” 

Visit pilotsnpaws.org for more information. 

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.