BENNER TOWNSHIP — All they needed was a red carpet.
Few planes touch down at University Park Airport to the same excitement that a Piper Cherokee received Friday.
Eyes glistened. Cameras clicked and video rolled. Among the dozen people standing outside the General Aviation Terminal in blowing snow, some hugged and others rushed toward the aircraft as the propeller spun to a halt.
The VIP passengers peered out. A couple twisted around, their tails thumping against the fogged windows.
Six greyhounds, muzzled but otherwise riding freely, had arrived to a foreign land.
“Look at all the little babies,” said Susan DelPonte, a dog owner from State College. “They’re like people. They’re so cute.”
She and the rest of the welcoming reception celebrated the end of a historic 5-hour trip.
Nittany Greyhounds, a local nonprofit organization that finds homes for former racing dogs, arranged the flight from Orlando, Fla., with the help of the Pottstown-based Brave Tide Foundation.
The foundation, a nonprofit charity whose humanitarian efforts include rescuing and relocating animals in need, flew the greyhounds gathered from several Florida racing tracks.
Toni Duchi, who runs Nittany Greyhounds’ all-breed canine kennel, said the flight marked the first of its kind for the group — and perhaps the first instance of racing greyhounds being flown directly to an adoption organization.
“We’re so excited,” Duchi said while waiting for the plane. “We can’t stand still. We’re buzzing.”
The flight saved Nittany Greyhounds volunteers and the dogs a 22-hour drive to reach the group’s kennel near Stormstown.
“It’s easier for them,” Duchi said. “It’s easier for us.”
Jason Hilt, the president of Brave Tide Foundation, flew the greyhound charter, dubbed the “The Greyt Flight” by Duchi. Except for a bit of bad weather toward the end, he said, the flight went smoothly.
Nobody asked for snacks or drinks, and everyone behaved themselves.
“They were the best passengers we ever had,” Hilt said. “They didn’t make a peep.”
Friday’s flight cost about $1,800, most of which the foundation covered through donations, Hilt said. Nittany Greyhounds paid only $300 — the approximate gas expense for a road trip to Orlando and back.
Hilt said the foundation was glad to assist Nittany Greyhounds with its plane, bought last month with a grant from Petco.
“I think it’s wonderful for the group, because it allows them to transport more dogs,” he said, adding, “Every dog that’s adopted leaves a place for another dog to come in.”
Since 1997, Nittany Greyhounds has placed more than 2,000 greyhounds with new owners.
President Ellen Aschenbrenner said the group “re-homes” rather than “rescues” greyhounds considered unfit for racing.
“They’re not in danger,” she said. “They’re just done working.”
According to the Humane Society of the United States, 46 greyhound tracks — more than half year-round — operate in 15 states. Racing is banned in Idaho, Maine, North Carolina, Nevada, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.
Unlike in the past, when old or injured dogs routinely were euthanized, most tracks today include adoption facilities that work with nonprofit groups such as Nittany Greyhounds, Aschenbrenner said.
“That’s been a good development over the past five years,” she said. “The tracks are aware that people want the dogs and allow us to take them.”
Her group’s latest batch, split evenly by sex, ranged in age from 2 to 4. They came with professional monikers, but Nittany Greyhounds, as it usually does when it accepts racing dogs, renamed them according to a theme commemorating their arrival.
In honor of their flight, Friday’s travelers include Flyer, Pilot and Cherokee. Another time, after taking in several dogs on Presidents’ Day, Nittany Greyhounds boarded Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy and Nixon.
“It reminds us when they came in, and who they came in with,” Aschenbrenner said. “It’s just something fun we do.”
After the dogs were led off the plane to a van waiting nearby, volunteers whisked them to the Nittany Greyhounds kennel and fresh food, warm coats and thick beds.
Two of the flying greyhounds are being adopted immediately. On Saturday, Duchi said, she’ll begin to observe the rest, evaluating their tendencies and personalities to match them with the right homes.
She’ll also start training them.
“They know nothing,” she said. “They know how to eat, sleep and run. That’s all they do. We have to teach them to be a dog. That’s my favorite thing.”
Aschenbrenner said that once dogs are in homes, some require only a day or two to get settled. Others may need weeks as they adjust to such oddities as glass and screen doors and tile floors, and learn not to jump on tables to scarf food.
“It’s like getting a 2-year-old puppy,” Aschenbrenner said.
Duchi said it’s an exciting time for Nittany Greyhounds and local greyhound owners. The Brave Tide Foundation expects to make more greyhound deliveries to State College, perhaps as soon as next month.
And, she said, Metzger Animal Hospital in Benner Township now will offer the services of one of the nation’s premier greyhound specialists, Dr. Guillermor Couto, the former executive director of the Ohio State Greyhound Health and Wellness Program.
“I couldn’t be more thrilled about it,” Duchi said. “He has a big heart for greyhounds.”
Her own love was apparent as she, like others on the runway, gushed at the sleek greyhounds emerging into the alien cold.
“Oh, they look so beautiful,” she said.
After the dogs climbed into the van, ready for their new lives, Aschenbrenner saved a bit of affection for the hero of the moment.
“Are you going to take the dogs back to the kennel now?” Duchi said.
“No,” Aschenbrenner replied. “First, I’m going to give Jason a big hug.”
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter@CRosenblumNews.