Appeal: Wings of Rescue is looking for pilots to fly pets to a new life. Contact [email protected] for more details. Pilots need to have access to a pressurized cabin for transportation.

After a lifetime in the cut-throat Los Angeles record industry, Ric Browde volunteered at a local animal shelter before deciding that flying at-risk dogs to a new life seemed like a good way to make a difference in the world. And there is no doubt that the shelter dogs are tamer than some of the bands he worked with during his record-producing days.

“I fly joy. That’s my job and I love it,” Ric says. “When you load up that aircraft and you know you’re taking those pets to a new life and a second chance, it makes all the work worthwhile.

Wings of Rescue Ric handles a crate

“It’s about supply and demand. Like in any business you have a glut in one market and a paucity in another. This weekend we will fly from Puerto Rico, where there are more pets than people, to Maine where there are people waiting to adopt these pets.

“I was lucky to have success in the record industry, but after that I was speaking to my wife and I said, ‘We really haven’t done anything to make the world any better’ and she got me to volunteer in animal rescue and it all started from there.”

There are signs of his former life dotted throughout his beautiful home. A collection of nine pinball machines stand proudly alongside an array of Platinum and Gold records hanging on the wall, with more still neatly leaning along a bereft-looking wall clearly waiting to be hung. But there is no doubt that today Ric is 100% focused on the aircraft and logistics needed to deliver hundreds of lifesaving missions each year – and adopting some of the pets himself.

“Today I have five dogs. They are all my pride and joy and I love them. I tend to bring home the dogs that might not get adopted by others” he says proudly. “There is no cherry picking; all of these dogs need a good home with good people.” It’s clear that Ric would have 100 dogs, or more, if he could. But it is not just him. “I don’t think we have a single pilot who has not adopted one of the dogs!” he tells me with a wry smile.

Wings of Rescue, a charity based in north America, flies hundreds of rescue missions each year using its own Pilatus PC-12, aircraft belonging to its network of volunteer pilots and through wet leasing arrangements, mostly chartering Embraer 120 Brazilia. “Last year we had around 75 Brazilia flights and we have nine of those aircraft available to us. This week we will have four of them operating for us. We have used a C130 Hercules for one mission.”

“Our average flight is around four or five hours in duration,” Ric explains, “so it is not long, but we have done 10 to 12 hours flights sometimes.”

Wings of Rescue Ric carrying a dog

Since launching in 2012, Wings of Rescue has flown more than 64,000 pets. “We have over 400 pets in the air this week,” Ric tells me as he does some quick mental arithmetic counting all the flights operating within the coming days.

In 2021, the charity flew 104 missions, transporting almost 9,000 pets (that’s 6200 dogs, over 2300 cats, 16 rabbits and seven guinea pigs – not to mention the three-legged mouse!) to safe havens. It also delivered more than 67,000 pounds of humanitarian aid and pet supplies to tornado-ravaged Alabama, to St Vincent after a devastating volcanic eruption, and to the aftermath of Hurricane Ida.

“When we first started, we had a bunch of private pilots with very small planes. In a Piper Cub, it is non-pressurized flying over mountains, and you can only take two or three pets. When you add it all up with the fuel bills it would be much easier to have a bigger plane and would only need one tank of gas.”

So why the PC-12? “We acquired it following a tragedy,” Ric tells me. “We were using a Malibu as our primary plane, and it went in for its annual check and the mechanic made a terrible mistake and plugged the rudder in backwards. He went up for a test run with the test pilot and the Malibu crashed and, unfortunately, they both died. After much soul searching, we decided to carry on and so we put the insurance money toward the Pilatus, which is a great size for us and a very reliable and versatile aircraft.” 

Charities sometimes find it difficult to rebound from such a significant and tragic event. But in the shadows of disaster, Ric and his team were determined to restart the operations.

The charity has a number of animal-loving private pilots who fly for it. “We still have a few private pilots who fly for us, and we are always looking for volunteer pilots with their own pressurized plane. We have one Beechcraft Duke that’s coming online next month based in Florida. It will be perfect for flying pets over from the Bahamas up to the east coast. We have a pilot with his own Citation based in California who will do some missions here and there for us.”

So where do the pilots come from? “Quite often we land in an airport and other pilots are saying ‘what is that noise?’ coming from all the barking dogs. They see it and are animal lovers and they ask ‘wait, how can I help?’ and those are the best pilots as they enjoy it the most. It is not just another flight for them, but it is kind of a thrill. I have probably done over 500 flights and when that door closes and you know those pets are safe, there is nothing like it.”

Ric admits that since he joined Wings of Rescue, he has been bitten by the aviation bug, but he has no plans to become a pilot. “Unfortunately, I am old! I am 68 so I don’t think I will be flying as a pilot. I’ve gotten that horrible disease that people who own planes have – plane envy! I see a new PC-24 next to me and I think ‘Oh, I love that, how many pets can I put on that?’ I am constantly looking at planes and thinking ‘oh if I had one of those what could I do with it?’ But I have trouble parallel parking sometimes so I don’t think anyone would trust me as a pilot!

“My job is to load the plane and to look after the pets. I’m really good at loading a plane and I have been offered jobs as a load master! I am there to take care of the pets if there is a medical emergency or something like that and we need someone on each flight who has that experience,” he says, recalling the more than 500 missions he has personally flown on.

Ric has so many stories of hope. He tells one story about an animal control officer who was thought to ‘enjoy killing pets’ and ‘nobody liked him’ because of this reputation. However, Ric saw a different side to the officer who helped him to load 40 pets onto the aircraft one day and then explained that it was his daughter’s 14th birthday and had he not been able to get the pets on the aircraft he would have to go back to the shelter and kill them all before going to his daughter’s birthday party. “I just want to thank you for making my daughters’ birthday a happy occasion,” he told Ric as they finished loading.

“Everyone was crying, and we are friends to this day,” Ric tells me, and I can feel the real emotion coming through.

On another occasion, Ric flew a rescue mission to reunite pets with their owners after a hurricane hit Puerto Rico.

“After Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico about 30% of the population moved stateside. A lot of these people were having to leave their pets behind and move to Florida. So, I said ‘why don’t we do a reunion flight and bring these pets back to their owners?’  We took the PC-12 down. We landed with the pets, and everybody was there, and it was like a whole family event. Every pet was claimed.

“A mother approached me and said ‘my son is fundamentally challenged and is in a wheelchair and has been catatonic since he was separated from his dog. He hasn’t said a word in two months. Would you bring the dog to him?’ About 15 meters from the airplane, I am carrying the crate and the dog starts moving around in this crate. About a meter away from the kid and he sees the dog and he suddenly gets really animated and starts speaking. He reaches out for the dog with one hand and to his mother with the other hand. Everyone is crying!” Ric’s emotion shows. His voice just slightly breaks.

“Animals have a profound effect on human beings, and this is why we fly,” he proudly tells me. The lump in my own throat is growing, but I just about manage to control the emotion.

“What I have the honor and privilege of doing is that I fly joy and I fly hope,” Ric says. “The only thing that is irritating is that our team and I cannot save them all. But it is not just me and our small staff doing it, it is the 30 or 40,000 donors that we have. I am their representative on the flight.  It is for all of us making the world a better place 100 or 200 pets at a time.”

Ric with a dog in flight

So, are cats and dogs good aviation passengers? “First of all, they are all in crates and so you have to think about it from their perspective – I am being piled into this tube and I can smell all these other dogs and cats around me. It has got to be a little bit stressful. They all have water and blankets and room to turn around.  For the first 10,000 feet there is a bit of noise and barking but after 10,000 feet they all go to sleep, except for beagles! Beagles howl, so they all have to go at the back of the plane. You have this quiet, and then we start descending and we get to 10,000 feet again and the only way I can describe it is that we have a plane load of three-year-olds asking ‘are we there yet?’.”

Ric’s message is clear. “You can make a difference,” he says. “Everyone has the power to make a difference in their life. Don’t be afraid to take chances and do something good as it really will enrich your life.”

Ric has a passion for his role that you rarely find. Based on our conversations, I doubt he ever plays poker as his face finds it impossible to hide his joy. And it’s infectious. If Ric Browde wanted to find a way to make a difference in the world, he stumbled into the right place as his love for dogs in unquestioned and his passion and enthusiasm for Wings of Rescue is absolute.  In his previous music career, he may well have recorded 36 albums and sold over 27 million records earning eight platinum and 11 gold records, but my bet is that all of that gave him the opportunity to focus on making his mark in the world by flying thousands of pets to safety and to a new life. And I bet he wouldn’t sacrifice a single animal flight to be back in LA.

How can the AeroTime community help?

  • Most of our money comes from the kindness of strangers – you can donate here:  wingsofrescue.org/donate
  • If you have access to a pressurized plane, please volunteer to join us – just email us at [email protected] (the charity will speak to you about how they look after your aircraft and make sure everything is right after each flight)
  • Please spay and neuter your pet
  • Hug your pet
  • Treat your pet kindly

You can watch the full interview here: