Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

LightHawk: The Truth From Above

Making a big difference with little airplanes

For nearly three decades, LightHawk has dedicated flights to groups hoping to preserve the fragile natural resources of North and Central America.
LightHawk is a nonprofit organization based in Lander, Wyo. It has a small staff that matches the needs of conservation organizations for flights with its corps of volunteer pilots. Under the FARs, there can be no charge for its flights, so LightHawk is dependent on individual contributions and foundations to pay the salaries of its staff and operate the two airplanes it owns. (All LightHawk flights, even in the airplanes it owns, are by volunteer pilots.) LightHawk program managers coordinate the flights in their geographic areas, with three currently in the United States and one in Central America.

A pilot learns of a needed flight via e-mail or a phone call. The program manager has already researched the issue involved and agreed that a flight would help disclose the true condition of the area. Once a pilot volunteers for a flight, the program manager briefs him or her on the geographic area involved and the conservation issue. The pilot then speaks with the conservation organization, and together, they plan the details of the flight, with the pilot making the final call on the airport of departure, the route to be flown and altitudes, based on his or her evaluation of the safest and best viewing opportunities. The pilot will seek to schedule the flight for a time when the air is expected to be smooth, as an uncomfortable passenger doesn't make a good observer. In addition, good VFR is required so that it's easy to see what's of interest. The pilot's call on all matters is final, and no one at LightHawk will ever second-guess a volunteer pilot who cancels a flight for any reason.

In Mexico and Central America, LightHawk uses a Cessna 206 it owns for most of its program flights. The program manager works with conservation partners well in advance and sets up flights so that the airplane is in a particular country for a matter of weeks for a series of flights. Volunteer pilots agree to donate their time, usually taking a couple of weeks of vacation to do so. They travel to where the 206 is and do a period of intensive flying for a variety of conservation organizations. It may be anything from spotting illegal vacation-home construction in protected areas of coastal Costa Rica to counting sea turtle nesting sites in Panama to doing the annual manatee count in Belize.

A few LightHawk flights have had dramatic impact; a group in Chicago felt that a local politician with a "recycling" contract wasn't recycling the material his trucks were collecting. The group had followed the trucks to his farm, but couldn't see anything past the fences and trees. A half-hour LightHawk flight showed that the trucks were simply dumping everything on the ground, and plows were burying it. The photographs created a stir. On another flight, shots of illegally dumped chemical drums that were leaching heavy metal toxins into the groundwater at a lead mine in the Mark Twain National Forest resulted in a $300,000 fine levied on the mine. Half of the proceeds of the fine went to the rural school district surrounding the mine.

LightHawk requires that its volunteer pilots have a minimum of 1,000 hours of pilot-in-command time, go through an interview with an experienced LightHawk pilot and have liability insurance. The reason for the high time requirement is that LightHawk wants pilots who are willing to cancel a flight when something isn't right and will say no to someone who wants a pilot to do something that may not be safe or legal, such as fly very low or close to something or to take extra passengers or camera equipment that would put the airplane over gross weight. They also want pilots who are in the habit of flying their airplane no faster than the published approach speed and touching down on the runway centerline because it may matter on a short or narrow runway.

For those pilots with a spirit of adventure and a strong desire to preserve the wonders of our planet, contact LightHawk by visiting or calling its Lander, Wyo., headquarters at (307) 322-3242.

As the need for conservation flights has skyrocketed, other organizations have sprung up to assist. In the Southeast, there's SouthWings, (, dedicated to providing skilled pilots and aerial education to enhance conservation efforts across the Southeast, to ensure clear air, healthy forests, clean water and sustainable communities. SouthWings also makes use of volunteer pilots and has a lower experience requirement than LightHawk. In Aspen, Colo., EcoFlight ( uses general aviation aircraft for education and to pursue specific issues affecting public lands in the Rocky Mountains. EcoFlight has a staff pilot who does much of the organization's flying and who is heavily involved in tracking and staying active in specific environmental issues. It does, from time to time, make use of volunteer pilots.

All three organizations cooperate to make sure that needed conservation flights take place. A number of pilots volunteer for more than one organization to make flights to preserve the health of themselves, their families and their neighbors, and to preserve the incredible resources bestowed upon us. You can be a part of it.


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