It’s the perfect partnership: Student pilots get their flight training hours, and shelter animals find new homes.

As a student pilot at SAMS Academy, 17-year-old Cody Anderson spends hours training both on the ground and high in the sky. SAMS Academy hopes that Anderson is the first of many students to participate in rescue flights transporting dogs from overcrowded New Mexico animal shelters to areas where they have a higher chance of getting adopted.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to go to a new airport, learn cross-country flying, and why not save a dog's life while doing that?" Anderson says.

pilots standing in front of small plane with four puppies
Credit: Melissa J. Koko Documentary Photographer

The opportunity is thanks to a partnership between SAMS (Southwest Aeronautics, Mathematics and Science) Academy and Barkhouse, a New Mexico animal welfare organization focused on rescue flights as well as spaying and neutering and microchipping.

Because of overpopulation, hundreds of animals a year are needlessly killed in municipal shelters all across the region. "The Southwest is notorious for that, and that's an outcome that we can't sit by and watch," Barkhouse Executive Director Koko Dean says. "We began to recognize that local adoption was not meeting the intake at these shelters, and rescues were full."

Thinking outside the box led Barkhouse to develop its Rescue by Relocation program two-and-a-half years ago. It's partnered with Dog Is My CoPilot and Pet Rescue Pilots to transport animals to areas across the Pacific Northwest that have the opposite issue: They have more willing adopters than animals to adopt. 

woman holding brown puppy close up
Credit: Melissa J. Koko Documentary Photographer

When Barkhouse's usual pilot had to bring his plane down for maintenance before Christmas, it had to put out a desperate plea for a pilot that would help transport the 70 animals they had already identified and prepared for the flights. Through Women in Aviation International, Barkhouse contacted Dr. Lauren Chavez, chief flight instructor at SAMS Academy.

"She saw the natural relationship, understanding that the trainees needed the flight time, and we needed ways to get our animals to different places," Dean says. "She thought she could really give those training flights a purpose."

According to Director of Aeronautics Nathan Hardin, SAMS Academy was excited to be part of the effort and bring additional purpose to their students. "The biggest thing is the added value to the training environment," he says. "We talk a lot in training about making smart decisions concerning the safety of a flight. We're really big in risk management and mitigation. We can talk about these things, but it brings a new asset to it when there's a real world consequence on the other end."

Anderson's interest in aviation started after he took a helicopter tour over the Rio Grande. When he attended a fly-in at Double Eagle II Airport—where SAMS Academy is located—he learned that he could get a private pilot's license before graduating with his high school diploma. "I just couldn't pass up an opportunity like that," he says.

Once SAMS Academy had decided to participate in a Barkhouse rescue flight to Roswell, N.M., Chavez asked Anderson if he would like to join. Anderson immediately took her up on the offer. The duo completed their first rescue flight on Dec. 17, 2020.

Anderson, whose family has a Rhodesian ridgeback, was amazed and overwhelmed by the opportunity to be so close to 20 puppies and two mama dogs. While flying, he remembers constantly looking back to make sure everyone was doing OK. "To be able to transport 22 of them in our little Cessna 172 Skyhawk is something I don't think I'll ever forget," he says. "It's something so big that I can do as just one person."

puppies in plane
Credit: Melissa J. Koko Documentary Photographer

Chavez and Anderson have completed two rescue flights in partnership with Barkhouse. Both Dean and Hardin hope the partnership will continue.

"I think it's really good that they're trying to pass this life-saving effort on to a youthful population of up-and-coming pilots," Dean says. He hopes that Barkhouse will continue to grow and expand the success of their rescue flights outside of New Mexico. "We're hopefully going to put ourselves out of a job," he says. "[But] the animal population that exists, it's going to be a long time before that happens."

Hardin thinks a network of pilots, similar to how Angel Flight works, could be developed. "There are so many students that could benefit from this, and there's a whole asset to flight training that's not being explored right now."

As for Anderson, he hopes to be able to do more of these rescue flights and eventually have an aviation career.