Jack Merritt is a man who treats himself well. Stop by the Quakertown Airport early enough on a Saturday morning and he'll whiz out to meet you on his Segway scooter, a gift from his mother.
Back at his hangar, the affable 60-year-old is apt to light up a cigar and offer you a seat in his makeshift man cave, a cluster of overstuffed leather chairs circled around a coffee table, a Persian rug softening the concrete. "The Clubhouse," Merritt called it last week, firing up an iPad.
"When I say I'm working from my home office," said the graying Quest Diagnostics executive, his eyes lively behind his glasses, "this is it."
Off in the distance, a truck engine roared. Merritt perked up. It was his cargo for the day.
Fortunately for the four-legged passengers of the modified bread truck trundling over the airport's access road, Merritt's generosity matches his taste for luxury. A licensed pilot, he's become a stop in an unusual bucket brigade running through the country, all the way from Alabama to upstate New York and beyond.
They don't pass along pails of water. They pass along puppies.
Merritt volunteers for Pilots N Paws, a nationwide network seeking to clear out crowded shelters by moving dogs to foster homes. Most journeys run from south to north, where stricter spay/neuter policies have limited over-breeding and adoptive homes are easier to find.
By truck or by plane, the dogs leapfrog to their destination in short hops, passed from volunteer to volunteer until they find their new home.
Since September 2009, the Milford Township man has flown 23 missions, transporting 69 dogs — and one cat.
"My wife said, 'If you're going to fly every weekend, you might as well do good,' " he said.
Pulling to a stop, a weary Lisa Whippler of Alabama climbed out of the bread truck, which bore the emblem "Semper Fi Rescue." She hugged Merritt but quickly moved to unload his cargo for the day: two Chihuahuas, a miniature pinscher and a 10-year-old dachshund with her eight puppies.
The sheer amount of unwanted pets stuffed in shelters in Alabama is astounding, she said, the product of unchecked breeding and the South's strong anti-authority streak.
"It's ingrained in the culture: 'It's my dog; you can't tell me what to do with it,' " she said, trundling cages from the packed truck. "If you go to a Walmart on a Saturday, people are giving away puppies for free. People turn them in Monday because they decide they don't want them."
The dog cages fit snugly in the back of Merritt's single-engine 1967 Mooney Executive. Climbing into the cockpit, he said the dogs won't ever know they're off the ground — it's that smooth of a ride.
And with a roar and a rush and a wave below, he was off.
Merritt loves his plane. For a time, he'd fly to work in Madison, N.J., pulling in a half-hour earlier than he would have by car. On weekends, he'd fly hundreds of miles with his friends, land for lunch, then fly back. Some call that "the $100 hamburger," he said, but it's really more like $500.
Now, he's found a charitable use for all his time in the air.
First stop was Penn Yan, N.Y., a small town nestled in the Finger Lakes region that inexplicably has a runway big enough for a private jet. Someone made a big donation, Merritt winked. Four-year foster parent Lois Klapp was waiting on the tarmac with her granddaughter, Harmony.
They scooped up the pinscher, which looked glad to be on the ground.
"We don't have any trouble finding homes for small dogs," Klapp said, holding the frightened dog gingerly as Harmony cooed.
With an eye on his watch — he promised to take his mother shopping — Merritt bade the pair farewell and throttled back up into the sky. He landed in Fulton, N.Y., and taxied to a stop in front of an SUV bearing a telltale bumper sticker: a cartoon of a dog urinating on the words "puppy mill." Linda Fadden jumped out, collecting the dachshund mother and her pups.
A rescuer for three years, she tore out all the carpet in her ranch home to accommodate the 21 dogs she's fostering. The hardest part of being a doggie dowager?
"Giving them all names," she said, laughing.
Reluctantly waving off lunch invitations, Merritt waited just long enough to refuel the Mooney before getting back in the air. On the ride home, he waxed nostalgic.
He's just a guy who likes to fly his airplane, he said. To him, the real heroes are the folks who stay on the ground, the Lisas and Loises and Lindas, volunteers who find dogs in distress and find them a new home.
For his part, he's just happy he has a role to serve.
"It gives you the opportunity to get the message out: Don't buy from a pet store," he said. "If you're buying from a pet store, you're killing a dog somewhere."