The Pilot’s Lounge #8:
Flying for Conservation

When you mention public benefit flying, most pilots immediately think about volunteer pilot groups flying medical missions. But there are other facets, too. AVweb's Rick Durden just returned from two weeks in Belize, flying for LightHawk, a volunteer organization supporting environmental conservation. Rick talks about what this and similar groups are doing and how you can get involved.


The Pilots LoungeIt was one of those goodevenings in the Pilot’s Lounge. Lots of flying during the day, the weather let us knowspring was truly coming and quite a few folks stuck around for coffee as the day wounddown. The conversation worked its way around to volunteer flying as we have a few pilotswho volunteer their time and airplanes for various organizations, and, it turned out,several other pilots were very interested.

Most everyone in the lounge knew about medical mercy flights. There are about 4,000selfless pilots working through some 52 organizations to fly patients for treatmentthroughout the country. The Air Care Alliance, 888-662-6794, operates as a clearinghouseto coordinate flights and place volunteer pilots into organizations functioning near thearea. It is one of those quiet, good things pilots involved in general aviation do.

Lindbergh And Conservation

The Spirit of St. LouisThis evening, however, the interest was in flying forconservation. It turned out that a number of the pilots here had read that very good newbiography of Charles Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg and knew that for the last 20 years of hislife, Lindbergh devoted himself to conservation and environmental matters. He usedaircraft to bring the attacks on our natural resources to the attention of the world. Someof the pilots in the lounge commented on things they had seen while flying and asked ifthere were any organizations that used aircraft to help expose some of the practices theyhad seen from the air. Suddenly everyone had a horror story to share. It seemed everyonein the lounge had had the experience of flying on a lovely day, enjoying the view, only tobe disgusted by some irresponsible use of our land. One remembered a flight hed madeas a relatively new pilot on a spring day. It was one of those calm, brilliantly cleardays where you feel as if you can see all the way to the future. He was returning to hishome in a city of about 350,000 people. About 40 miles out, as he was able to see some ofthe tops of the very tallest buildings, he noticed a yellow dome over the city. As he drewnearer he was appalled to see that his midwestern city, which he thought was free of thesmog of the larger cities, was covered in a yellow haze. Then he considered the fact thathis wife and kids were down there breathing the stuff. It prompted him to do a littleresearch and find out that on light wind days, his community had a problem with automobileexhaust emissions that was aggravating the suffering of those who had asthma. It was alsonot doing anything good for anyone elses health. Because of that experience he hadbecome involved in his states program to identify and get high-polluting junker carsoff the road.

Another pilot spoke of flying over the Pacific Northwest, the checkerboard of denudedhillsides from years of clear-cutting and the research he had done into the effects ofremoving all the trees from steep slopes so that the soil washes into the streams. Itturns out that the practice is a policy of the U.S. Forest Service and is partiallyresponsible for the salmon fishing industry problems. The fish can no longer live in thestreams due to the runoff from the bare hillsides. This pilot vividly described the clearstreams in the area where clear-cutting had not taken place and the muddy, silted-upstreambeds where clear cutting had occurred. He referred to the practice of clear-cuttingas creating a national eyesore.

Flight planning
Planning the day’s flying. Belmopan airstrip, Belize, 1999.

I sat and listened to the examples being given by my friends. It reminded me that wepilots are a terribly small minority of our population, yet, because we fly lightairplanes at modest speeds, we see more of our country than virtually anyone else does.The glorious views are part of the reason most of us fly. Who ever forgets the sight of asunrise while flying over the Smoky Mountains, or the curve of a deserted beach on aremote, deep-blue lake, or a late October afternoon over a Michigan shore with thebrilliantly colored trees framing a lighthouse on a rocky shore? These are sights wetreasure. Forever. We take friends flying and stage-manage the process of showing certainviews to them and revel in the oohs and aahs we hear over the intercom. We dream ofshowing the things we can see from our world aloft to our children and grandchildren andhope that those things will be still there to be seen by their grandchildren.

As pilots, we also see the jarring realities of poor stewardship of our naturalresources. We see the scars on the land from poorly-planned open-pit mining, of illegalsmokestacks far from towns set up by those who are after the quick buck, and we see howfar the smoke drifts downwind. We see streams blackened from waste and file IFR to getthrough the industrial scutch that limits summer visibility over cities to a couple ofmiles.

I was pulled out of my muse when Hack said he knew that I sometimes did volunteerflying for a conservation group and didnt I just go to Belize and do someconservation flying there? I admitted I did and wound up talking about the conservationflying Id done.

Volunteering As A Pilot


In about 1987, I heard about LightHawk, an organization founded in 1979 by MichaelStewartt, a professional pilot who was concerned by the effects of clear-cutting anddecided to do something about it. I had read about the flights he and a corps of volunteerpilots had made to attract attention to the manner in which our national forests werebeing managed. LightHawk pilots had flown photographers, videographers, reporters,politicians and local residents over national forests to show exactly what was being donewith the lands we the citizens own. The actions of LightHawk opened the eyes of many tohow a significant part of our public lands were being desecrated, some to the point ofbecoming off-limits to humans for hundreds of years due to contamination from tailingponds used for mining within national forests. LightHawk also did such things as expose aForest Service practice of underreporting the extent to which old-growth forest had beenlogged. Using Forest Service maps of areas, which it said had not been cut, LightHawk flewto random locations and showed that the trees were gone.

Spectacular scenery.
The “Thumb:” Rain forest and karst limestone, Belize.

I was able to join LightHawk in 1990 and started doing volunteer flights for “theenvironmental air force” after receiving a mountain-flying checkout in Aspen, Colo.,from LightHawk staffer Bruce Gordon, one of the best backcountry pilots Ive evermet. Joining LightHawk resulted in having the opportunity to do some of the mostchallenging and rewarding flying I have ever done. It has lead to some”interesting” takeoffs and landings from very short or narrow (or both) runways,”discussions” with photographers as to how airplanes work and why we are notgoing to fly at 100 feet above the ground up a box canyon to get a particular camera angleand astonishment that my tax money goes to support lead mines in Missouri which threatenrivers I used to canoe and whose tailing ponds make portions of the Mark Twain NationalForest a toxic waste dump. LightHawk has allowed me to make friends I will keep for life,given me the “opportunity” to try and sleep in my airplane one night because thepeople who were supposed to pick me up didnt show and allowed me to do some flyingover some of the most beautiful spots I could ever imagine. I have flown TV and printreporters and members of Congress in my airplane and have had some interesting one-on-oneconversations with them. Because of LightHawk, I have worked with professional cameramenand videographers for international magazines and learned that before you allow anyone totake pictures out of the open door of an airplane you wrap a piece of duct tape aroundthat persons seat belt buckle as the first step is a long one.

As I talked with my friends at the lounge, the thing that came to mind was thatorganizations such as LightHawk allow an individual to make a difference. Pilots tend tobe goal-directed and opinionated. Too often, I hear pilots complain that they, asindividuals, cannot have any effect on things that concern them. They see the filthystream from above, and see the source of the pollution. They see the clear-cuts on publicland, know the owners of the adjacent timber and know that the Forest Service sells publictimber for less than the going rate locally. And they want to do something about it.

When you volunteer your time and airplane for conservation and have a senator orrepresentative or TV reporter aboard while you explain what is going on you, as oneperson, are having quite an impact.

Having An Impact

The children of Missouri suffer the highest rate of lead poisoning in the country. Itis not due to gnawing on lead-based paint in old houses, it is because lead mines arelocated in an area of karst limestone. Lead mines are deep. Most lead is extracted over1,000 feet underground. Flooding is a constant problem, so the pumps in lead mines run allof the time. The water pumped out of the mines does not go into any sort of holdingfacility; it runs into local creeks. That part of the state is a land of springs. Riversand creeks flow along the surface of the ground, then suddenly disappear underground, toreappear as a spring a dozen miles away. Once lead gets into any groundwater it rapidlygoes everywhere, contaminating the drinking water. The major effect of lead on children isdiminished intelligence.

LightHawk worked with groups of homeowners, parents and teachers to show that the waterpumped out of the lead mines contained lead in concentrations approximately four times themaximum allowed and was part of the reason local children were having learningdifficulties. Pictures taken from LightHawk aircraft revealed empty 55-gallon drums strewnatop a hill on mine property. There was no vegetation left on the hill. The MissouriDepartment of Natural Resources saw the pictures and investigated. The mining company wasfined $300,000. Half the money went to local schools. Sometimes flying little airplanesleads to a certain feeling of accomplishment.

On the ramp...

Don’t expect long runways with an ILS at each end. C.R.E.I. airstrip, Belize, 1999.

Other LightHawk achievements include:

  • Conservationists in Montana lost track of some wolves they were monitoring. LightHawk was able to find the pack.
  • A group of people in Chicago believed that a local politician had fraudulently obtained a contract under which he was paid to recycle glass, plastic and cardboard. A LightHawk flight demonstrated that he was simply dumping it on two of his farms southwest of the city. The fields were surrounded by trees and impossible to see from the ground without trespassing.
  • An environmental group in Chicago wanted to come up with a map of “brownfields,” or lots where industry had once stood in the hardscrabble south side. Their dual goals were determining whether there were toxics which threatened neighboring homes and seeing if the land could be cleaned up and sold for new industry to help the neighborhoods and to fight urban sprawl. A LightHawk flight made with the cooperation of air traffic control allowed the entire area to be photomapped with still and video cameras in one morning.
  • On the north side of Chicago, engineers proposed to straighten a creek and “clean it out.” Two LightHawk flights helped local property owners show that the action, which would include draining some swamps, would cause flooding in a populated area because the swamps and twists of the creek contained runoff.
  • During the severe flooding of the Mississippi River in the early 90s, a daylong LightHawk flight helped film the ten-mile-wide moving lake that was the Mississippi from Keokuk, Iowa to St. Louis. The purpose was to identify what was getting into the river due to the flooding. It located propane tanks about to be pushed off their bases, chemical storage tanks that had fractured and flooded chemical storage warehouses. The information allowed hard-pressed disaster officials to identify high-risk areas and deal with them and helped to warn people about toxics that had gotten into the river. The pilot involved commented that he had never spent a full day at 500 feet over the Midwest under circumstances in which he could not have made a forced landing on dry ground.

For the pilot who likes a challenge and is interested in getting to know people and theproblems they face, conservation flying can be the perfect way to volunteer and fill thatdeep-seated need to do something positive. LightHawk, and some of the other aviationconservation organizations such as Wings of Change, also have projects in Central andSouth America.

Conservation Flying In Belize

In the flare.
In the flare, just prior to the threshold, C.R.E.I. airstrip, Belize. Operations with the aft door removed.

I just finished two weeks of flying in Belize with LightHawk. It was my third time tothat country. I originally went because LightHawk was then using a Cessna Skymaster andneeded pilots with experience in the type. So, I got lucky. Despite the fact that sleepingaccommodations were often under mosquito netting and the shower was sometimes a water tankthat caught water off the roof, I was hooked.

Flying outside of the United States gives one a great deal of appreciation for how goodwe have it here. Fuel was close to $4.00 per gallon. Because of the ongoing war on drugs,avgas may only be purchased at one airport in a country the size of Massachusetts. Thereis no night VFR. It is, however, a learning experience that one carries home.

The Belizeans long ago realized that if they destroy their natural resources they makesome money in the very short run, but thats it. The tourists come to see the reef,the islands and the jungle. Once they are ruined for short-term gain, they are gone and soare the tourists. Belize is about as beautiful as any place on earth. The reef is thelongest in the Western Hemisphere. The rivers are reasonably clean, so the reefhasnt been killed from river pollution as has happened elsewhere. The Belizeans havenot chopped down their jungle. They selectively cut for the species of wood they need.Goodly portions of the medicines we use come from rain forest plants. In Belize, theplants still thrive. Of course, all of the delicate balance is under pressure fromdevelopment as the country is “discovered.”

In the winter months, LightHawk works with the Belizean government, conservation groupsand individuals to fight for the health of the islands, the reef and the rain forest.

You Have To Be Ready For Anything

Short final at Belize City Muni
On final approach to Belize City Municipal.

For the average LightHawk pilot, the flying in Belize means being flexible. The Cessna206 has only five seats because a 100-pound survival kit and at least 30 pounds of wateris always on board. No day is typical. It may involve flying villagers the length of theirriver so that they can figure out where fertilizer runoff is coming from; or carrying agovernment minister over proposed biological corridors designed to allow jungle animals tomove the length of the country so the gene pool does not become too fragmented; or takingPh.D. candidates over a river delta as they photomap it. It may be a day of flying for thecitrus research group from an airstrip that is only four feet wider than the main landinggear on the Cessna 206. It means landing at Belize City Municipal for fuel where therunway is 1,700 feet long and surrounded on three sides by water. It may mean chasing cowsoff a runway before you can land. Or take off.

Conservation flying in Belize always means talking with widely-varied people about whatthe airplane does and what they are going to see. Sometimes it means having lunch withthem and discovering that cow foot soup really is very good. And yes, it really does havea cows foot in each bowl.

Care To Volunteer?

If you think volunteer flying for conservation is something that sounds interesting,Ill tell you who to contact in just a moment. Before you go any further I will alsotell you that it is not something to do to build flying time. Most of the organizationsrequire about 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time to be a volunteer pilot. They are lookingfor good pilots who can use short, unimproved airstrips and who have developed thejudgment to tell an airplane load of passengers that the flight cannot take place becauseconditions just arent right. They want a pilot who can position an airplane so avery aggressive photographer is in exactly the right spot for the magazine cover shot, butcan also tell that same photographer that there are certain limits to what an airplane cansafely do.

Some of the organizations can reimburse a pilot for fuel and oil for making volunteerflights. Some cannot. So, you are truly donating your time and efforts for a worthwhilecause.

Still interested? Good. The oldest of the organizations is LightHawk, based in SanFrancisco. Call the volunteer pilot coordinator at 415-561-6250. For more information onwhat LightHawk does and has done, visit its Web site at addition, SouthWings, based in Jasper, Tenn., can be reached at 800-640-1131, whileWings of Change, based in Colorado Springs may be reached at 719-477-1556.

I know there are some other organizations flying for conservation out there, but do notcurrently know how to reach them. If they will contact me, then Ill publish theinformation in next months column.

A Good Read

By the way, there are two recent books that make a very nice addition to anypilots library.

Young LindberghCharles Lindbergh was a complex, brilliant man. How many know heinvented what became the first mechanical heart? The new biography mentioned above, by A.Scott Berg and simply titled Lindbergh, is probably the best of the biographiesof the man Ive read. The author takes full advantage of recently released archivesand family papers to paint a picture of this fascinating soul. His isolationist standprior to World War II angered many, as did some of his writings and statements, whichseem, at first glance, bigoted. A close look at the writings themselves and the precisewording of his speeches as well as the person reveals that Lindbergh was too deep topigeonhole. For example, Lindbergh was so opposed to the actions of the U.S. governmentprior to World War II that he resigned his commission as a Colonel in the U.S. Army yet hewas so devoted to his country that he helped Army and Marine pilots in the Pacific greatlyextend the range of their airplanes. That he flew at least fifty combat missions as acivilian, which included shooting down one Japanese fighter, was kept from the public foryears. Lindbergh’s life reminds us today that, despite the rhetoric of the far right,patriotism is not limited to either political party. He worked at the cutting edge oftechnology in aviation and medicine and then devoted himself to the environment andprotecting it as he felt it gave us our humanity. You will be glad you picked up this one.

Also, keep alive your righteous indignation over the treatment of the majority of ourpopulation and read Amelia Earharts Daughters, by Leslie Haynsworth andDavid Toomey. While the technical terms are sometimes more than a little shaky as theresult of incomplete research (e.g., “tarmac” is the British nickname forasphalt, not the place where airplanes park), the story of the struggle for women to flyin the military is eye-watering. Women flying in the WAFS and WASP (there were twoseparate groups; the WASP was much larger) in World War II were considered civil service,not military. The women flew absolutely everything in the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corpsinventory (including jets), yet when a woman pilot died in a crash, her male co-pilot gota full military funeral. There was no money to even transport the womans body home.

As the first seven male astronauts were selected, women were given precisely the sameselection tests. Twelve women passed all of the astronaut selection tests, some outscoringthe men. Yet, those women never became astronauts despite the fact that it was repeatedlypointed out to NASA the women weighed less (on the average 30 pounds less at a time NASAwas fighting for ounces of weight), used less oxygen and handled isolation better than themen. It was not until 1978 that women were even added to the selection pool. For ataxpayer who wants the very best representing our country, not even looking at over halfof the potential pilots and astronauts over the years is aggravating. This book will notmake you feel any better, but you will be impressed with what the women who weredetermined to fly did accomplish.

That’s it for this month’s “Pilot’s Lounge.” See you next time.