Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

LightHawk: The Truth From Above

Making a big difference with little airplanes

Among the earliest things we learned during our initial flying lessons, just after we sorted out the challenge of flying both straight and level at the same time, was that the view of our planet from an aircraft was utterly captivating and that the world was laid open in a fashion we had never imagined. The stunning sights we saw from aloft were the first things we described to our nonflying friends in our excitement at learning to fly.

We also noticed a dark side: For the yang of magical sights, which we delighted in viewing, there were those places that made up the yin, the brooding ugliness of scars on our landscape, the results of poor stewardship of our homeland. Every one of us has, at one time or another, seen something foul on the land or in the water beneath our wings and thought, "If people could just see how this looks, they wouldn't let it happen." Fortunately, there are pilots who are showing others how our world looks.

For the last 29 years, LightHawk, with its dedicated group of volunteer pilots, has been working tirelessly to use the power of the perspective from general aviation airplanes to show the truth about the condition of the land and water on which every one of us depends for survival. Since 1979, pilots have been donating their time and airplanes to make flights, without charge, for groups concerned about the health and well being of natural resources in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Central America.

Those who volunteer to fly for LightHawk indicate that a certain sense of adventure is an asset, as they never know what sort of flight they may be asked to make. From taking researchers over a river to locate a pollution source to spotting illegal incursions in a forest preserve to transporting a sick dolphin for medical care, if it involves conservation, and an airplane (or helicopter) is an appropriate tool, there's a good chance a LightHawk volunteer pilot will be asked to make the flight.

In the Pacific Northwest, dramatic photos from flights made by LightHawk volunteer pilots documented the effects of clear-cutting on steep mountainsides and the resultant mudslides that blocked streams and rivers, badly damaging salmon spawning grounds and drastically reducing the commercial catch. The photos helped launch an effort that stopped clear-cutting on steep slopes, and preserved salmon spawning grounds.

LightHawk volunteer pilots have been called upon to carry scientists to document one of the few remaining, well-managed rain forests in the world, in the country of Belize. Some of the first LightHawk flights in that country had carried politicians who made the decision to set aside the most pristine areas as nature reserves. More recently, LightHawk volunteer pilots have flown forestry officials and media representatives from Belize and Guatemala over the same rain forests to identify illegal incursions into protected areas, leading to joint efforts by Belizean and Guatemalan law enforcement to evict those who were stealing the resources and hunting protected animals.

In 2007, in conjunction with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, volunteer pilots flew scientists, reporters and educators over much of the central and northern California coast as the state had decided to act to protect its coastal waters, following serious pollution events causing frequent beach closings and a serious decline in marine life. The flights allowed detailed documentation of the coastline and inshore areas. Those who eventually made the decisions regarding the nature and extent of coastal protection cited the LightHawk volunteers for playing a large part in providing unbiased information to help make the decisions as accurately as possible.


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