Feel-good flight: This pilot uses his '66 Piper Cherokee to rescue dogs
If you follow the Chicago food scene, you may know restaurateur and sommelier Eduard Seitan from his contributions to popular local restaurants such as Blackbird, avec and The Publican.
You're less likely to know that Seitan is also a serious AvGeek. "I've been a private pilot for 12, 13 years," Seitan told TPG. "I own a 1966 Piper Cherokee, which I bought before I had my pilot's license. I saw this plane for sale by owner at Lansing Municipal Airport. The paint job was military green, and I thought, 'Oh my god, I have to have this plane.' So I bought it when I had just six flight hours under my belt."
Seitan's other major passion in life? Animals. "We're big dog fanatics" in the One Off Hospitality Group offices, Seitan said, referencing the parent company of the 12 restaurants he co-owns. "Every time someone brings their pets in, the dogs get so much love."
A wise man once said that a person's calling occurs when one's greatest joy meets the world's greatest need. Seitan found his calling by using his pilot skills to rescue dogs through an organization called Pilots N Paws, which connects private pilots with animal rescue organizations across the nation.
"Flying was a pure hobby until a year ago," Seitan said, "when an employee of mine saw my two rescue dogs in the office and asked me, 'Have you ever heard of Pilots N Paws?'" Since late 2018, Seitan has been able to rescue between 15 to 20 dogs that would otherwise have been put down.
Seitan's first rescue mission with Pilots N Paws took place on New Year's Eve 2018, when he picked up Phoebe, a beautiful boxer whose owner had to give her up for adoption. "I took Phoebe to St. Louis and dropped her off at the shelter there," Seitan said.
But he ran into a complication almost immediately: Phoebe was so cute, he almost couldn't bear to let her go. "It's so hard to not take these dogs home," Seitan said. "I don't know how I'm going to say no to not bringing them home."
Rescue missions are a labor of love for private pilots who partner with Pilots N Paws, all of whom donate their time and expenses. Seitan estimated that the average pick-up and drop-off takes six hours round-trip and approximately 40 gallons of fuel worth around $200.
Sometimes for the sake of efficiency, Seitan picks up more than one animal at a time; he's had up to five dogs in his plane at once. All of the pilots communicate with the organization through the Pilots N Paws online forum, which serves as a bulletin board for requests and responses.
"I volunteer as often as I am available," Seitan told TPG, "which can be tough since we have 12 restaurants right now. But whenever I have a few hours free, I volunteer. I think I have some time Saturday, and I'm already looking at a mission for that day."
The animals primarily come from kill shelters in the South, and go to no-kill shelters in the North. Sometimes Seitan flies rescue missions solo, but his girlfriend, who is an animal lover as well, usually accompanies him to help out on the way.
"Sometimes the dogs are terrified when we first meet them on the ground," Seitan told TPG. "So we take our time walking them to get the jitters out. But so far, every single one of them has seemed really happy to be in the plane." There's something soothing about the rumble of the engine and the movement of the plane, Seitan surmises.
Seitan's feistiest rescue was the time he ended up with five dogs in one mission. "It was actually supposed to be six dogs," he said — "A mother and five mangy pups. Mom was a flight risk and everyone knew it, but she still somehow escaped at the airport in Kentucky. They found her a couple of days later, chasing birds at the airport." She was carefully rounded up, and safely transported to her forever home.
Not content to have found the perfect niche for his two greatest passions, Seitan has implemented the #WeFoster initiative within his company, the One Off Hospitality Group, to serve dogs in need. "We have about 1,200 employees, and we're positioning ourselves to help," he told TPG. "Even if just a few of our staff members foster or adopt dogs each year, that would be immensely helpful."