Written By Sara Wright
Judging by the airplane charm that Michele McGuire wears on a necklace and the enthusiasm she displays when she talks about flying, it’s easy to see how much she loves being a pilot.
After earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do at age 30 (she is now 47), the veteran Random House computer programmer wanted excitement and a new hobby. She said she wanted “something to keep [life] interestingÉAnd once I start something, I have to continue it.”
Not only did she earn her pilot’s license in 2002, but she also quickly earned certification to fly her Cessna 172 Skyhawk at night or in conditions of no visibility.
But flying is not her only love. McGuire has a husband, Art, two adult daughters, Mandy and Mimi, and two granddaughters, Emily and Alex. They do not fly much with her, so Cooper, a 7-year-old, mixed breed black dog, is her copilot. Little did she know that the combination of a hobby and a furry best friend would evolve into a life-changing business venture and involvement in a nationwide animal rescue effort.
McGuire used to take Cooper on joyrides, but was always concerned about his hearing inside the loud plane. She noticed that soon after takeoff, he curled up in a ball and fell asleep. It was plain that she had to do something to help her pal.
First she bought human ear plugs and headsets from a home improvement store, but neither worked. Besides, Cooper rejected them immediately. McGuire knew she had to do something creative. She collaborated with a friend in North Carolina, a retired engineer, to invent airplane headsets for dogs.
After several attempts, the team worked out the logistics and aesthetics of “Mutt Muffs,” hearing protection that fits perfectly on a canine head. McGuire says it takes only one ride without the headset for a dog to figure out how much more comfortable the trip is with Mutt Muffs. On the first leg of the Mutt Muff test flight, Cooper ended up wearing the headset like a necklace. But on the return flight he left them on and has not removed them on subsequent trips.
News of Mutt Muffs spread across the private aviation world, and soon led to other furry passengers sporting the new look and enjoying their flights. Now, recreational fliers and small plane owners are the typical buyers of Mutt Muffs, but they are not the only ones. The valuable hearing protection is also being used by military and law enforcement canines, even internationally. Military dogs being deployed oversees may soon be outfitted with Mutt Muffs, too.
Dogs are not the only four legged creatures wearing Mutt Muffs. Feline customers also enjoy them, according to photographs that customers send McGuire. And some also tell her that Mutt Muffs help their dogs during firework displays and thunderstorms.
McGuire’s invention has led her to other, allied, pursuits. Through it, she discovered organizations that assist with transporting animals for rescue groups or adoptive families. Today, pets can be adopted from anywhere. Networks of volunteers have developed to help coordinate transportation needed to unite the dogs with their new caretakers. Typically, a team of drivers will organize a “relay rescue,” handing off an animal to each other at one-hour intervals until it is finally home.
In order to cover greater distances in less time, easing the stress on already traumatized animals, pilots volunteer through organizations like Pilots-N-Paws and ARF (Animal Rescue Flights) to assist with the transportation.
McGuire volunteers on the weekends, flying out of Carroll County Regional Airport in Westminster, transporting dogs across several states.
For example, during a recent rescue, she was one of four pilots who helped transport Dublin, a brown Irish Setter, from a pound in Tennessee to his new home in Maine. McGuire flew Dublin from Huntington, WV to Westminster, MD where he was picked up for the last two flights of his journey.
It takes McGuire about eight hours to assist in dog rescue but sometimes the runs last as long as 12 hours. She has transported approximately 34 dogs and does not plan to stop any time soon.
Although her plane is small, she usually ferries more than one dog at a time. Sometimes the dogs are transported in carriers, but usually McGuire finds it easier to run her aircraft’s seatbelt through a pooch’s harness. The most she flew during a single trip was 16 puppies that were rescued from a puppy mill in Ohio. McGuire flew the entire trip in one day, leaving from Westminster and flying the dogs from Ohio to Pennsylvania before returning back to Westminster.
McGuire is very comfortable in the cockpit when joy riding and remains focused and confident even when her canine passengers are sometimes vocal or restless. She says she has not had trouble with unruly dogs, but once had to keep two antagonists apart by hooking one of them up to a tiedown in the rear of her plane.
“It’s just as dangerous for me to parallel park my mini van in the parking lot,” she said, “As it is to fly my plane.” But she admits that flying at 125 miles per hour while transporting animals takes more concentration. “I’m a cautious flier,” she said, “And flying a lot keeps my skills sharp.”
Besides, she said, “It is so rewarding,” she said, “We’re saving doggies!”