The Pilot's Lounge #8:
Flying for Conservation

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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 good evenings in the Pilot's Lounge. Lots of flying during the day, the weather let us know spring was truly coming and quite a few folks stuck around for coffee as the day wound down. The conversation worked its way around to volunteer flying as we have a few pilots who 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 4,000 selfless pilots working through some 52 organizations to fly patients for treatment throughout the country. The Air Care Alliance, 888-662-6794, operates as a clearinghouse to coordinate flights and place volunteer pilots into organizations functioning near the area. 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 for conservation. It turned out that a number of the pilots here had read that very good new biography of Charles Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg and knew that for the last 20 years of his life, Lindbergh devoted himself to conservation and environmental matters. He used aircraft to bring the attacks on our natural resources to the attention of the world. Some of the pilots in the lounge commented on things they had seen while flying and asked if there were any organizations that used aircraft to help expose some of the practices they had seen from the air. Suddenly everyone had a horror story to share. It seemed everyone in the lounge had had the experience of flying on a lovely day, enjoying the view, only to be disgusted by some irresponsible use of our land. One remembered a flight heíd made as a relatively new pilot on a spring day. It was one of those calm, brilliantly clear days where you feel as if you can see all the way to the future. He was returning to his home in a city of about 350,000 people. About 40 miles out, as he was able to see some of the tops of the very tallest buildings, he noticed a yellow dome over the city. As he drew nearer he was appalled to see that his midwestern city, which he thought was free of the smog of the larger cities, was covered in a yellow haze. Then he considered the fact that his wife and kids were down there breathing the stuff. It prompted him to do a little research and find out that on light wind days, his community had a problem with automobile exhaust emissions that was aggravating the suffering of those who had asthma. It was also not doing anything good for anyone elseís health. Because of that experience he had become involved in his stateís program to identify and get high-polluting junker cars off the road.

Another pilot spoke of flying over the Pacific Northwest, the checkerboard of denuded hillsides from years of clear-cutting and the research he had done into the effects of removing all the trees from steep slopes so that the soil washes into the streams. It turns out that the practice is a policy of the U.S. Forest Service and is partially responsible for the salmon fishing industry problems. The fish can no longer live in the streams due to the runoff from the bare hillsides. This pilot vividly described the clear streams in the area where clear-cutting had not taken place and the muddy, silted-up streambeds where clear cutting had occurred. He referred to the practice of clear-cutting as 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 we pilots are a terribly small minority of our population, yet, because we fly light airplanes 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 a sunrise while flying over the Smoky Mountains, or the curve of a deserted beach on a remote, deep-blue lake, or a late October afternoon over a Michigan shore with the brilliantly colored trees framing a lighthouse on a rocky shore? These are sights we treasure. Forever. We take friends flying and stage-manage the process of showing certain views to them and revel in the oohs and aahs we hear over the intercom. We dream of showing the things we can see from our world aloft to our children and grandchildren and hope 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 natural resources. We see the scars on the land from poorly-planned open-pit mining, of illegal smokestacks far from towns set up by those who are after the quick buck, and we see how far the smoke drifts downwind. We see streams blackened from waste and file IFR to get through the industrial scutch that limits summer visibility over cities to a couple of miles.

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

Volunteering As A Pilot


In about 1987, I heard about LightHawk, an organization founded in 1979 by Michael Stewartt, a professional pilot who was concerned by the effects of clear-cutting and decided to do something about it. I had read about the flights he and a corps of volunteer pilots had made to attract attention to the manner in which our national forests were being managed. LightHawk pilots had flown photographers, videographers, reporters, politicians and local residents over national forests to show exactly what was being done with the lands we the citizens own. The actions of LightHawk opened the eyes of many to how a significant part of our public lands were being desecrated, some to the point of becoming off-limits to humans for hundreds of years due to contamination from tailing ponds used for mining within national forests. LightHawk also did such things as expose a Forest Service practice of underreporting the extent to which old-growth forest had been logged. Using Forest Service maps of areas, which it said had not been cut, LightHawk flew to 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 "the environmental air force" after receiving a mountain-flying checkout in Aspen, Colo., from LightHawk staffer Bruce Gordon, one of the best backcountry pilots Iíve ever met. Joining LightHawk resulted in having the opportunity to do some of the most challenging 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 not going to fly at 100 feet above the ground up a box canyon to get a particular camera angle and astonishment that my tax money goes to support lead mines in Missouri which threaten rivers I used to canoe and whose tailing ponds make portions of the Mark Twain National Forest 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 the people who were supposed to pick me up didnít show and allowed me to do some flying over some of the most beautiful spots I could ever imagine. I have flown TV and print reporters and members of Congress in my airplane and have had some interesting one-on-one conversations with them. Because of LightHawk, I have worked with professional cameramen and videographers for international magazines and learned that before you allow anyone to take pictures out of the open door of an airplane you wrap a piece of duct tape around that personís 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 that organizations such as LightHawk allow an individual to make a difference. Pilots tend to be goal-directed and opinionated. Too often, I hear pilots complain that they, as individuals, cannot have any effect on things that concern them. They see the filthy stream from above, and see the source of the pollution. They see the clear-cuts on public land, know the owners of the adjacent timber and know that the Forest Service sells public timber 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 or representative or TV reporter aboard while you explain what is going on you, as one person, are having quite an impact.

Having An Impact

The children of Missouri suffer the highest rate of lead poisoning in the country. It is not due to gnawing on lead-based paint in old houses, it is because lead mines are located in an area of karst limestone. Lead mines are deep. Most lead is extracted over 1,000 feet underground. Flooding is a constant problem, so the pumps in lead mines run all of the time. The water pumped out of the mines does not go into any sort of holding facility; it runs into local creeks. That part of the state is a land of springs. Rivers and creeks flow along the surface of the ground, then suddenly disappear underground, to reappear as a spring a dozen miles away. Once lead gets into any groundwater it rapidly goes everywhere, contaminating the drinking water. The major effect of lead on children is diminished intelligence.

LightHawk worked with groups of homeowners, parents and teachers to show that the water pumped out of the lead mines contained lead in concentrations approximately four times the maximum allowed and was part of the reason local children were having learning difficulties. Pictures taken from LightHawk aircraft revealed empty 55-gallon drums strewn atop a hill on mine property. There was no vegetation left on the hill. The Missouri Department of Natural Resources saw the pictures and investigated. The mining company was fined $300,000. Half the money went to local schools. Sometimes flying little airplanes leads 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 Ď90s, 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 the problems they face, conservation flying can be the perfect way to volunteer and fill that deep-seated need to do something positive. LightHawk, and some of the other aviation conservation organizations such as Wings of Change, also have projects in Central and South 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 to that country. I originally went because LightHawk was then using a Cessna Skymaster and needed pilots with experience in the type. So, I got lucky. Despite the fact that sleeping accommodations were often under mosquito netting and the shower was sometimes a water tank that caught water off the roof, I was hooked.

Flying outside of the United States gives one a great deal of appreciation for how good we 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. There is 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 make some money in the very short run, but thatís 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 so are the tourists. Belize is about as beautiful as any place on earth. The reef is the longest in the Western Hemisphere. The rivers are reasonably clean, so the reef hasnít been killed from river pollution as has happened elsewhere. The Belizeans have not 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, the plants still thrive. Of course, all of the delicate balance is under pressure from development as the country is "discovered."

In the winter months, LightHawk works with the Belizean government, conservation groups and 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 Cessna 206 has only five seats because a 100-pound survival kit and at least 30 pounds of water is always on board. No day is typical. It may involve flying villagers the length of their river so that they can figure out where fertilizer runoff is coming from; or carrying a government minister over proposed biological corridors designed to allow jungle animals to move the length of the country so the gene pool does not become too fragmented; or taking Ph.D. candidates over a river delta as they photomap it. It may be a day of flying for the citrus research group from an airstrip that is only four feet wider than the main landing gear on the Cessna 206. It means landing at Belize City Municipal for fuel where the runway is 1,700 feet long and surrounded on three sides by water. It may mean chasing cows off a runway before you can land. Or take off.

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

Care To Volunteer?

If you think volunteer flying for conservation is something that sounds interesting, Iíll tell you who to contact in just a moment. Before you go any further I will also tell you that it is not something to do to build flying time. Most of the organizations require about 1,000 hours pilot-in-command time to be a volunteer pilot. They are looking for good pilots who can use short, unimproved airstrips and who have developed the judgment to tell an airplane load of passengers that the flight cannot take place because conditions just arenít right. They want a pilot who can position an airplane so a very aggressive photographer is in exactly the right spot for the magazine cover shot, but can also tell that same photographer that there are certain limits to what an airplane can safely do.

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

Still interested? Good. The oldest of the organizations is LightHawk, based in San Francisco. Call the volunteer pilot coordinator at 415-561-6250. For more information on what LightHawk does and has done, visit its Web site at In addition, SouthWings, based in Jasper, Tenn., can be reached at 800-640-1131, while Wings 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 not currently know how to reach them. If they will contact me, then Iíll publish the information in next monthís column.

A Good Read

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

Young LindberghCharles Lindbergh was a complex, brilliant man. How many know he invented 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 biographies of the man Iíve read. The author takes full advantage of recently released archives and family papers to paint a picture of this fascinating soul. His isolationist stand prior to World War II angered many, as did some of his writings and statements, which seem, at first glance, bigoted. A close look at the writings themselves and the precise wording of his speeches as well as the person reveals that Lindbergh was too deep to pigeonhole. For example, Lindbergh was so opposed to the actions of the U.S. government prior to World War II that he resigned his commission as a Colonel in the U.S. Army yet he was so devoted to his country that he helped Army and Marine pilots in the Pacific greatly extend the range of their airplanes. That he flew at least fifty combat missions as a civilian, which included shooting down one Japanese fighter, was kept from the public for years. 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 of technology in aviation and medicine and then devoted himself to the environment and protecting 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 our population and read Amelia Earhartís Daughters, by Leslie Haynsworth and David Toomey. While the technical terms are sometimes more than a little shaky as the result of incomplete research (e.g., "tarmac" is the British nickname for asphalt, not the place where airplanes park), the story of the struggle for women to fly in the military is eye-watering. Women flying in the WAFS and WASP (there were two separate 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 Corps inventory (including jets), yet when a woman pilot died in a crash, her male co-pilot got a full military funeral. There was no money to even transport the womanís body home.

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

That's it for this month's "Pilot's Lounge." See you next time.