Eco-Air Force Takes to the Skies With Volunteer Pilots

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 19, 2006

Soaring above the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, Steve Parker dipped the wing of his Cessna so his passenger could snap a few unobstructed pictures of the rugged terrain below.

"Steel towers would transform this landscape," said the rider, Carl Zichella of the Sierra Club, over the crackling intercom of the small airplane (watch video from the aerial desert survey).

Zichella was referring to a controversial proposal by a power company in nearby San Diego (California map) to build a new transmission line through California's largest state park.

An hour later, back on the ground at the French Valley Airport near Murrieta Hot Springs, Parker said the aerial survey of the park showed the importance of getting a bird's-eye view of environmental issues.

"A lot of things you can't see until you're up there," the veteran pilot said.

"But from the air it's easy to see the interconnectedness of the landscape, the flow of water down the hill, how something that affects one part of the land will eventually affect another part."

Parker is one of 140 volunteer pilots who fly for Lighthawk, or what some people have dubbed America's environmental air force.

Pilots donate their planes and time to the organization, which allows interested groups to study environmental situations from the air for free.

Staying Neutral

Pilot Michael Stewart founded the Lander, Wyoming-based Lighthawk in 1979 because of his concern about the environmental impact of rapid growth in the U.S. Southwest at the time.

Today the nonprofit is the largest and oldest volunteer-based environmental aviation organization in North America, flying some 700 missions each year. About half of the missions are flown over Central America and Mexico.

Participating pilots must have at least a thousand hours of flying experience, must maintain medical certificates and insurance coverage, and must stay current with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Continued on Next Page >>


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