We’re observing the changes along the New Jersey banks of the Delaware River—a very different “Jersey Shore”—and marking them with a string of photos across the water from the Philadelphia International Airport. At the same time, Philly Tower asks us to stay east of the final approach to Runway 35 for traffic, a landing Embraer 145, and we’re all watching for power lines, cell tower and birds. We brief the emergency bird-avoidance maneuver—if the bird appears motionless and grows larger, pitch up hard because birds tend to dive—and we almost use it.
LightHawk volunteer pilot Steve Kent negotiated our low-level path along the river as part of our environmental-survey mission for the Coalition for the Delaware River Watershed, which brings together more than 140 groups to advocate for the future of the watershed. The CDRW is just one of the many partner organizations that collaborate with LightHawk, a charitable aviation organization focused on conservation. Our low-level journey won’t have us above 1,200 feet msl for the entire 3.3 hours we put on the Hobbs. And it’s made safer in many degrees by the amphibious floats on the 182 we’re flying; everywhere we fly near the river, there’s a potential runway weaving past the settlements, marshes and myriad industrial operations.
LightHawk started as one man’s vision: Michael Stewart was flying over the desert southwest and saw the open pit mines and encroaching developments below, and he found an application for flying to help illuminate the conservation issues at hand. Stewart launched the program in 1979 specifically with a flight to show the effects of building a coal-based power plant on the doorstep of the Grand Canyon. The mission quickly evolved into a loosely organized project based in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Aspen, Colorado; and then in the San Francisco Bay Area. “It allows a person to be informed so that they can make better decisions,” says Ryan Boggs, current chief program officer and interim CEO for the organization, regarding LightHawk’s role in conservation efforts. “It provides a freedom of choice based on having good information.”
Leveraging donated aircraft from one of the founding contributors, Will Parish, after moving to California, the group began flying conservation missions in the US Mountain West through the 1980s before it ventured farther afield to Central America. The group worked directly with government officials in Costa Rica, Guatemala and other nations in order to go where the need was greatest—battling deforestation and other large-scale issues.
Skip Slyfield became involved with the organization in 1990, and he contrasts the early days against the current, more-structured approach that evolved. The first missions, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras, had a distinct air of flying closer to the bone— and he witnessed the change to an organized approach. “I was one of the check pilots who flew with prospective volunteer pilots in their airplanes on their initial check rides,” Slyfield says. “We had an [operations manual], a safety program, and the director of ops was a furloughed airline guy and USAF pilot who also managed the fleet of staff aircraft.”
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