Guest Blog: Dream Flying Jobs
When trying to count and classify a group of pronghorn antelope from the air, you deal with lots of factors that aren’t included in most other general aviation flying. Where are the towers or power lines? Where’s the light coming from? Where’s the wind coming from and how strong is it? Where are the fences? We don’t want to run them through a fence. Let’s just direct them back this way. How long have we been making passes on this herd? Any chance they’re dealing with exhaustion? We’ve got a total count, now let’s just get the doe to fawn ratio. Angle of attack, angle of attack, nose down a touch. What’s the CHT of the number two cylinder? It better not sneak up on me again in this 90-degree weather.
We start our days at unholy hours and we live our lives by angle of attack. We fly diminutive airplanes and demand the most out of them. Rather than flying to transport, we fly to simply expand our perspective, to let people look out the window and report what they see. Sometimes there’s also a good helping of antelope wrangling.
When I first heard that people got paid to fly light airplanes low and look at animals, I knew that I needed a career change. I wasn’t even flying for a living and I was a far cry from meeting the minimum requirements. Many departments flying natural resource flights require mountain experience and as Super Cubs and Skywagons are favorites of many operators, tailwheel time is an asset as well. A biology degree is also helpful and it’s required for some federal positions. I was working at a corporate technical job and only flying on the weekends, but I had the benefit of living in Denver and having excellent mountain flying in close proximity and my Champ was allowing me to build lots of tailwheel time.
Flying low-power airplanes at high density altitude would be a skill that I’d be glad that I’d cultivated. Through some twist of fate, my first flying job was for a flying service in Wyoming and among other things, we flew wildlife flights for various biological consultants as well as contract flying for Wyoming Game and Fish. After five years, I moved to the public sector and now work as a full-time pilot for a government wildlife agency.
Perhaps the most attractive facet of wildlife flying is the variety. Each season brings something new, from flying low-altitude aerial counts of game animals like deer, elk and antelope to surveying and checking eagle nests to high-altitude radio tracking of collared wolves. Airplanes are also a vital tool to check the level of remote man-made water catchments in dry areas where surface water isn’t as abundant and available for wildlife as it has been historically. Agencies also use airplanes for fisheries studies and aerial law enforcement.
In most of my experience, I’ve had observers accompany me on wildlife flights, usually biologists working as consultants or government employees. Oftentimes they have the additional role of law enforcement officer. The observer requests the flight, sets the route and has a critical role during the flight. Many of them have taken aviation safety training courses and I view a seasoned observer as flight crew rather than a passenger. They have a good understanding of what the airplane can and can’t do and won’t push a pilot to do the unreasonable. Wildlife biologists are dedicated to their work and that dedication meshes well with pilots. Rather than being a passive passenger on a tight schedule, observers are aerial workers and we’re a team when we’re in the air together.
One might imagine our equipment to be high tech, but much of our hardware is somewhat old fashioned. The latest avionics are eschewed for the bulletproof push-button portable Garmin GPS units, which easily accept waypoints and transect tracks that observers provide, and can mark a new waypoint at the touch of a button, all things that newer units don’t do well. Radio telemetry equipment is more archaic than you might imagine. Animals are equipped with tiny VHF transmitters worn on a collar or backpack. Airplanes have mounts on each wing strut or on the belly for directional antennas and the observer will listen for the frequency of a particular animal and we must maneuver the airplane so that we can hear the animal’s signal or twist the belly antenna in the direction of the creature and then fly to it until the signal is loudest.
It reminds me of some of the early radio navigation described in Fate is the Hunter. New technology is creeping in, however, and many new radio collars will relay GPS positions to communication satellites periodically, meaning less telemetry flying. Tablet apps are also becoming more compatible between pilots and biologists and are becoming more prevalent in the cockpit. Still, biologists like to see the animals they’re studying and one of the best ways to do that is to simply fly low and look out the window.
Each wildlife agency or contractor is different, some relying heavily on aerial telemetry, some fleets include helicopters, some drop fish into high mountain lakes, and some use aerial infrared cameras for locating animals. I’ve been able to work on a variety of projects including sage grouse surveys in Wyoming, flying spotter plane for a helicopter conducting wolf captures in New Mexico and surveying endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope in Mexico near the beaches of the Sea of Cortez.
One of the most memorable flights I’ve flown was telemetry for California condors in the Grand Canyon. With prior clearance, we were able to fly through the canyon, below the rim in airspace off limits to almost every other aircraft. The variety of this type of work is perhaps one of the most attractive aspects of the job, second to the knowledge that this is meaningful flying that helps secure the future for our valuable wildlife resources.
When I talk with other pilots about this type of flying, many are surprised this sort of thing exists at all. It’s a rather small piece of the flying community, but there are dozens of us in the U.S. and Canada. We even have our own organization, The International Association for Natural Resource Pilots, which is a good source of job postings when they come up. Job openings are often competitive, but it’s been harder and harder to find new pilots lately as the airline pilot shortage extends across the industry.
Alhough we fly low for hours on end over some incredible terrain, it takes a level head and professionalism. Keeping the observers’ confidence is key and there’s never a time for reckless or showy flying. Wildlife and natural resource flying is a good fit for pilots who are dedicated to conservation and have cultivated the right set of skills. It’s fulfilling work at the end of the day and I’m grateful to have made a career out of it.
Ryan Lunde is a natural resource pilot who’s worked in both public and private sectors. He currently lives in Phoenix and works for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. He’s also an aerial photographer and a flight instructor specializing in tailwheel instruction and flies his own Aeronca Champ around the American West. If you'd like to write a guest blog about your own dream job, send us an e-mail and tell us about it.