This dramatic footage shows the moment a hero pilot was forced to take off from a burning airport – to save a plane full of PUPPIES.
Quick-thinking Paul Steklenski, 45, saved nine dogs when he hurriedly taxied down the runway as flames roared around him.
The US Army veteran rescues homeless dogs in his spare time and had flown 300 miles from his home in Pennsylvania to North Carolina to save the pooches from kill shelters.
But moments after he loaded the animals onto his five-seater plane he noticed patches of grass either side of the runway at Wilson Industrial Airport were on FIRE.
The panicked pilot got into gear and managed to take off within the space of a few minutes on Sunday rather than risk being stranded on the runway – or worse.
Paul feared that if the fire spread from the dry grass around the edges and came close enough to his fuel-laden aircraft, the whole thing could explode.
Former tank trainer Paul of Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, who now works as an IT expert, said: “We were about halfway through getting the dogs loaded when I saw smoke.
“This guy had been mowing the lawn and something must have sparked because there were four or five smouldering patches either side of the runway.
“Then a gust of wind came and the panic set it. Everything happened very quickly.
“I knew that if we got stuck we would have had to stay there for hours, which would have completely screwed up the rescue.
“I don’t know how close the fire could have got but if the wind started to pick up it might have turned into a bush fire.
“It was smouldering on the left and fire burning on the right. It was insanity. I have never seen anything like it before.
“Once I realized the situation was getting critical and there were open flames I thought, ‘We have got to get out of here.’
“I jumped in the plane and quickly taxied down to the end of the runway.
“For all I knew the fire was going to spread. All it needed to do was come a couple of feet closer to me and I had 80 gallons of highly-flammable fuel.
“Fortunately I was able to get off the ground.”
He managed to take off successfully and flew 400 miles to Morristown, New Jersey, where non-kill shelters took the pups off his hands.
Paul, who is married to fellow IT expert Michelle, 46, says he thinks they may have been stranded for hours had he not left then.
The puppies could have been cramped in the plane for hours while firefighters battled to put out the blaze, and they might have had to send them back to kill shelters.
He added: “I was just in disbelief at what was happening and it could have derailed the entire rescue.
“I had just saved all these dogs from death row and they hadn’t even left the airport and there was this huge problem.
“It was fight or flight. I just did what I had to do to save the animals.”
Wilson Fire and Rescue Service, North Carolina, said there was a grass fire the airport.
A spokesperson said: “The airport was closed briefly during the fire. It reopened shortly after the fire units cleared the area.
“The fire was caused by a overheated bearing on a lawnmower. The lawnmower was being used to cut the high grass around the airport runways.”
Dog lover Paul set up Flying Fur Animal Rescue, a non-profit, in 2015 and has single-handedly saved over 800 dogs from euthanasia in that time.
He began by driving animals from southern states where there is an overpopulation problem further north, where it’s easier for them to find new homes.
Then, with the help of donations, he forked out $65,000 for a Beechcraft Bonanza which he fills with crates of unloved pups facing euthanasia.
He then flies to states including New York and New Jersey where dogs are in higher demand and rescue centers help adopt them out.
To find out more about Paul’s rescue efforts and donate, visit flyingfuranimalrescue.org