Pilot who died in Lake Hickory flew missions for animal rescues

Pilot who died in Lake Hickory flew missions for animal rescues

CALDWELL COUNTY, N.C. — In December, Jeff Cooley was on a tarmac in Covington, Georgia, wrapping up a special mission with precious cargo. Photos from that day show the pilot from Granite Falls seemingly in his perfect element, smiling as he stood in front of a small plane, an Irish Setter dog at his side.

Deborah Hurley, with Tennessee-based dog rescue Save Our Setters, said Cooley had volunteered his plane to fly the dog to a safe foster home, noting “his heart was big for people, too.”

The snapshot is just one of many showing Cooley’s commitment to serving the community, with other rescue groups joining Save Our Setters in lamenting the loss of a man who used his pilot’s skills to help others.

North Carolina State Highway Patrol said the 63-year-old died during a morning flight on Aug. 13, when his single-engine Super Petrel Amphibious Plane hit power lines and crashed just after leaving the Hickory Regional Airport. The plane crashed into Lake Hickory, killing Cooley and his passenger, Brian Frank Miller, 49, of Hickory. There are no reports suggesting the flight was animal rescue-related.

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Judith Texier, founder of CrisisDogs NC, said Cooley first flew a life-saving mission for her animal rescue in 2021 through the South Carolina non-profit Pilots N Paws, which connects volunteer pilots with rescue groups needing transport services. 

She said his passion for planes and pups was apparent.

“You have to be a dog lover to fly what PNP calls these missions because you’re spending a lot of money,” Texier said. “It could be at least $500 in fuel for one trip. So, it’s a big donation on the part of the pilot.”

Credit: Save Our Setters

Pilot Jeff Cooley, with a rescue dog from Save Our Setters, on a freedom flight in December

Since CrisisDogs NC, which pulls dogs from high-risk situations like kill shelters and hoarding homes, heavily relies on fosters, Texier said the group must often reach out of state for suitable homes.

Volunteer pilots, like Cooley was, are essential to getting animals to safety.

“We find the best people, no matter where they are,” Texier said. “So for us, it’s really critical. We are one of the rescues that fly the most.”

Texier said, while she and many others will miss Cooley’s impact on the rescue community, she hopes his legacy inspires others to help, even if they cannot commit to cross-country rescue missions.

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“He really used his plane to do good,” Texier said. “I think people should realize that they can make a difference. No matter what they offer a rescue or a shelter, they’re extending a life and, hopefully, saving a dog.”

Credit: Save Our Setters

An online memorial page for Cooley reflects that same sentiment of inspiring action, with his family asking for donations to Pilots N Paws, in lieu of flowers.

Contact Vanessa Ruffes at vruffes@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

Pilot who died in Lake Hickory flew missions for animal rescues

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