As a member of the equestrian team, Samantha Bledsoe ’19 has a real love of animals, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. What is unusual is that she’s also a pilot who volunteers with Pilots N Paws, helping to fly rescued dogs to new homes. After earning her private pilot’s license in 2018, the exercise science major was looking to build up hours in the cockpit so she can pursue her dream of flying C-17s for the Air Force, but in the process, she found a whole new calling. Her first flight was with a husky and her 10 puppies.

“I was unsure as to how she would react to being airborne in a small plane, but flying seems to be soothing to these animals,” says Bledsoe. “It almost seems that the animals know they are being given a second chance, a flight into a new life.”

Since then, Bledsoe has ferried more than 30 dogs to new homes or no-kill shelters, which are typically made up of three, two-hour legs (pickup, delivery to the next pilot and back home). She now has logged about 270 hours behind the yoke.

“Flying provides a sense of freedom that nothing else can, one that is humbling and empowering at the same time,” she says. “Whenever I take my friends flying for the first time, I can see the look of awe on their faces. That continues to remind me of how incredible it is to fly. The option to do this for a living? A no-brainer in my opinion.”

As the daughter of an American Airlines pilot growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Bledsoe has long had an interest in flight. The family would go to air shows all over the Midwest and traveled frequently to see relatives down South. But after discovering a love of horses, flying took a back seat. Representing the College at 2017 and 2018 IHSA Nationals was the highlight of her equestrian career, which has now come to an end. Bledsoe graduated a semester early in December so she could join the Air Force Reserves and start her training to fly C-17s, the squadron for which is based in Charleston.

While her new career will take her all over the world delivering supplies to troops, she plans on continuing with her canine rescue missions at home.

“Some of these animals have had difficult lives prior to the flight, and their time in the air can symbolize a breath of fresh air before a transition into a new life,” she says. “This is now a passion of mine that I will continue throughout my life.”

Featured image of Samantha Bledsoe by Mike Ledford