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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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The View from Above
By Fletcher Anderson

Michael Stewartt is not exactly a counter culture hippie. However, back in 1975 he became concerned about the potential impacts of a proposed coal-fired power plant on Kaiparowits Plateau in Utah. He was also frustrated. the site wasn’t exactly in a remote location, but it was a hard one to visit. On paper, the issues were complex and information contradictory. From the air, however, the whole thing became easy to see and understand. Using a borrowed plane, he flew legislators over the proposed site. They saw what was going on, they made up their own minds, and today the power plant has not been built.

Michael Stewartt had just become the environmental movement’s one-man Air Force.

Soon thereafter, Stewartt incorporates his "Project Lighthawk" as "LightHawk," a non-profit corporation flying missions for environmental organizations. With the help and promotion of singer/songwriter John Denver, bit by bit, sometimes easily and sometimes with considerable difficulty, the movement expanded to where it is today.

Last year, LightHawk flew missions for over 125 environmental organizations, carrying more than 1300 passengers. Those numbers should grow next year, in part because LightHawk has taken over management of similar programs in the Northeast United States.

With this growth, the organization has been forced to change. Long gone are the days when corporate headquarters were in the baggage compartment of the LightHawk Cessna 210. Headquarters today is in Lander, Wyoming, with additional staff based in Washington State, Colorado, California, and Central America. Missions encompass all 50 states; the Mexican and Canadian border areas, the Caribbean, and Central America. For that matter, the original 210 itself is gone as well, and with it staff pilots. As of 2002, LightHawk’s only company aircraft is a Central America-based Cessna 206. All other missions are flown by volunteer pilots in their own aircraft. A couple of staff and board members still fly missions, but as volunteers. Stewartt’s one-man Air Force has grown to include a base of over 120 volunteer pilots and a professional staff of 8 full time and 6 part-time or seasonal employees. (Professional in this case refers to their skill and diligence, not their salaries, which are very small.)

Some of the staff are experienced pilots, but their tasks vary greatly by project and region as they attempt to achieve a balance of managers, environmental partners, and volunteer pilots. At the moment, they are in need of more pilots in the Pacific Northwest. The pilot and aircraft supply in the Rockies is pretty good, so staff are recruiting more environmental partners. LightHawk is in the process of taking over management of similar programs in the Northeast. More donations are needed everywhere. Despite a crushing workload, the emphasis is not on increasing staff. Not that they wouldn’t like the help, but budget is limited and the emphasis is on environmental results first. There is a core group not particularly afraid of hard work.

Who are the pilots?
Is there really a huge force of stark raving crazy environmental zealot pilots out flying around? Not likely. A typical LightHawk pilot, if there is such a thing, is really pretty much like a typical Southwest Aviator reader. They are doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, active airline captains, and corporate pilots. At least one is a crop duster, another worked as a helicopter coordinator in Antarctica, and a few are bush pilots or small charter operators. They are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Greens. The common thread is a shared view of the earth from the sky — the sight of a veil of morning fog deep in the valleys, fuchsia colored Alpenglow seared into the collective memory, a sunrise over the desert — and a desire to share those sensations with others. From that perspective comes a heightened awareness of the environment and the threats to it, and with that an ability to make a difference. This is not really a new phenomenon — Charles Lindbergh was one of the first environmentalists to make extensive use of an airplane.

Standards for LightHawk volunteer pilots are tougher than for other volunteer groups. Volunteers must have flown a minimum of 1000 hours, have an excellent safety record, professional demeanor, and a commitment to the environment. Volunteer pilots carry their own $1,000,000 worth of liability insurance. They also must complete an orientation flight with another LightHawk volunteer pilot to learn the ropes.

These requirements are far beyond those of most charitable organizations, and are in fact much closer to those of a professional charter company, despite their non-commercial status. Most volunteer pilots exceed those minimums by a substantial margin. Experience has dictated these requirements. While LightHawk flights are deliberately flown as conservatively as possible, they still involve some lower altitude work over rugged terrain, maneuvering into position for photographs and views of things sometimes tucked away out of view. A normal altitude is 1,000 feet AGL. Even things like wildlife or livestock spotting are best flown at or above 500 feet. Lower than that might be more heroic, but seldom — if ever — provides as good a view. LightHawk achieves heroism by influencing issues, not by heroic flying. This disciplined flight profile requires experience, a willingness to say no, and excellent pilot technique in flight profiles quite different from point-to-point people transport.

What are the missions?
The James Bond style spy in the sky missions detecting violators are the exception rather than the norm. Many of the first flights looked at clear-cut logging and erosion problems in the Northwest and Alaska, where cutting left a screen of trees by the road, hiding the erosion problems from view. More recent flights include timber sales, proposed dams, counting sea turtles in Meso-America, looking for solutions to urban sprawl along the West Coast, getting an air view of oil and gas exploration, looking at potential wilderness areas, tracking plumes of pollution in rivers, checking uranium mines and dumps in the Southwest, and a great deal more. I stopped typing here because the sentence got too long, not because they ran out of missions. Virtually any environmental issue can be understood much more clearly with an airborne view. It is very difficult to hide things from a low flying aircraft. You just can’t lock out a plane with a chain link fence.

Obviously not everyone being monitored from the air likes the idea and pressure is sometimes put on government entities to crack down on LightHawk. Some suspect logging interests have influenced the Canadian Government, who now restrict LightHawk flights to carrying only one passenger when using a U.S. pilot. Logging interests might well be behind pressuring the Government of Honduras to make life more difficult there as well, by treating LightHawk more like an airline than a non-profit. Volunteers or not, no glamorous missions can happen unless huge amounts of more mundane, less glamorous staff time and expertise are devoted to addressing that kind of issue.

Who flies with LightHawk?
A normal load of passengers is a representative of a partner environmental group who acts as a guide, and a group of legislators or members of the press. Other people flown have been local stakeholders such as ranchers whose grazing leases might be affected by proposed roadless areas, documentary filmmakers, and scientists. There is not really much need for a sales pitch. The view from the air speaks eloquently for itself. Too zealous a guide would be counterproductive. On those rare occasions when the view from above is not clear enough, chances are the issues involved were not that clearly stated either.

Think about this — on your last flight, were you able to observe some form of environmental impact you wished was different? Did you have to be indoctrinated about it ahead of time, or did you just discover it?
I need to add for an aviation audience that there is another useful synergy here. Occasionally in the past members, of some of the environmental partner organizations have been pretty vocally anti-airplane. LightHawk flights produce plenty of goodwill flowing both ways.

For more information, contact LightHawk, PO Box 653, Lander, Wyoming 82520. Their office phone is 307-332-3242.

Fletcher Anderson is a flight instructor, corporate and charter pilot who takes considerable personal pride in his occasional flights as a LightHawk volunteer. He has worked for large corporations whose officers have become LightHawk donors.
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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibility for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising fom it
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