Flying With LightHawk

Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands. Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk

I feel the pull of the Cessna 182’s changing lift vector as I turn to orbit just south and east of KPHL at 500 feet. 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 towers 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.

The Mission

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.

Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands. Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk

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.”

“Volunteer pilots who would fly the established programs in Central America had a good ground-support crew that arranged the missions and communicated numbers, locations and mission objectives to us daily,” Slyfield continues. “There was a sense that, as a pilot, you were on your own in a foreign place, and LightHawk leadership strove to ensure that the volunteer pilots they sent down had the right mix of experience and personality to function. You operated as your own dispatcher, scheduler, safety officer, flight planner, flight attendant and mosquito-abatement officer.”

Still, there remained a feeling of true backcountry flying. “We flew with the doors off,” Slyfield says, “looking for timber theft—mostly mahogany trees.” Thieves on the border between the two countries would cut down a single tree and drag it home through the forest—impossible to locate from the ground but easier from the air. “The mahogany chips were bright red,” Slyfield remembers. “They looked like trails of blood.”

For operational safety, the pilots and their government agents made standard procedures of sweeping runways for animals and people before landing at backcountry strips. The outreach did more than help governments deal with illegal logging and the like, as Slyfield recalls. “The indigenous folks in Belize, Honduras and Mexico—for many of them, it was the first time they got to see where they live,” and put it in the context of the world at large.

That intersection remains at the heart of what LightHawk does, four decades later. On the surface, the missions might appear to focus on photography, capturing the ever-changing landscape and the human imprint upon it from the air. But the larger goal lies in changing the hearts and minds of those exposed to this view of the Earth for the first time.

Passing the I-76 bridge south of downtown Philadelphia. Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk

Stephanie Wells, a former Air Force instructor pilot and FAA operations inspector in Colorado, has been flying with LightHawk for several years. Wells retired from the FAA in 2010 and then worked for Mountain Aviation in Broomfield, Colorado, as a charter pilot—but she wanted more. “After leaving the FAA, I thought, ‘What can I do as a volunteer pilot?’ One of my passions is the environment, climate change. I Googled it, and I found LightHawk.”

Wells owns a Van’s RV-7, and because LightHawk pilots can’t use experimental aircraft in their missions, she had to wait until a more suitable mount presented itself. In the western region of the US, LightHawk was doing some of its flying in a Cessna 185 that the organization could access. But it was in Boise, Idaho—too far away to make sense for Wells to use—and then it was sold. “A few years later, I got a call from Greg Bettinger [now retired from the organization], and he said ‘We have missions in Mesoamerica in our [Cessna] 206.’ That caught my interest right away.” Wells attended the annual volunteer fly-in for LightHawk in 2012 in Fort Collins, Colorado, and began flying in 2013. “I put a lot of time on that 206. I have ferried it down [to Central America] and back. I spent a lot of time in Guatemala. I had taken Spanish back in college—one year of college Spanish—and after one trip, I found I was pretty lost without it. So, then I made an effort to become fluent in Spanish, including doing some Spanish immersion classes in Guatemala.”

She found enough fulfillment flying for LightHawk that Wells sought a partnership in a Cessna 182, which is considered an optimal airplane for the kinds of flights routinely made. She’s tallied around 300 flights for LightHawk total as of 2019. Wells also took her participation to the next level, serving on LightHawk’s board of directors for three years at a time when they were transitioning to a new CEO, Terri Watson. “Watson thought they needed more written details for pilots, and I agreed. [Because] my background was in training and standardization, I assisted. They now have a manual, a handbook on how to do LightHawk missions and [a] whole bunch of safety information and LightHawk policies.” She continues to serve on the advisory board.

Streams coursing across the New Jersey wetlands. Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk

With challenging flight profiles, the education of a new volunteer pilot—even one with a lot of experience in the mountains or low-level flight—remains paramount. “The handbook is on the LightHawk website,” Wells says. “It’s available at any time, to anyone. It has advice on how to take photos, how to fly in the mountains, how to fly surveillance-resource missions, flying over coastlines—it’s a resource all pilots use.”

In places like Colorado, it really pays to have mountain flying experience—in fact, it’s pretty essential. “Some missions go out east of the Rockies…but I’ve done a lot of ‘headwaters of the Colorado River’ flights, and you have to get up over Corona Pass to get anywhere. There are [peaks above 14,000 feet] everywhere. Even in a 182—it’s not turbocharged—it takes some planning, and you have to really know what you’re doing.” Other key topics include knowledge of microclimate weather, aircraft performance and oxygen requirements.

Though it’s not required by LightHawk, the volunteer pilots interviewed say it is highly recommended to have an instrument rating to fly the missions in Mesoamerica with an extra margin of safety.

Flying the Map

To become a LightHawk pilot, the process begins by going to the website and reviewing the minimum qualifications to join. Then you fill out an initial application, which triggers a call from a volunteer mentor pilot chosen by the organization for their experience flying missions and safety ethic. “It’s a qualifying call, essentially,” Boggs says. Then, you’re invited to fill out the full application on the site, along with several references. The mentor will call those references to check specifically on your own safety ethic. “It’s one part of our safety management system,” Boggs says. The mentor will verify that you’re the kind of conservative pilot they wish to have in the program. After a successful orientation call with the prospective pilot, mentor and program staff, you’ll join the pilot ranks with a full understanding of what that means—to both the organization and you.

Once you’re on the pilot roster, the regional coordinator will contact you regarding an upcoming mission and determine if you’re able to accept the assignment. If so, you receive a trip kit from the regional office that helps you create a manifest and mission plan. The coordinator takes care of a host of administrative duties, including ensuring that all those participating in the flight have signed a waiver and understand the basic safety parameters expected for the flight. Both Kent and Wells note the high degree of organization demonstrated by LightHawk, both overall and as compared with other volunteer aviation groups.

On the way down the Delaware River to Cape May, New Jersey, we witnessed the outflow from a tributary draining the wetlands, alongside development. Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk

The pilot remains pilot in command and can call off the flight at any point. The safety culture runs deeply through the organization, and Boggs is happy to relate that in 40 years of operations, they’ve only registered three accidents—a pretty good run considering the low-level and confined-area/mountainous flying that comprises most missions. “One of the great things about a LightHawk flight: It’s incredibly important, but it’s never urgent,” Boggs says, so the pressure to complete a flight on a particular day just doesn’t exist from the organization’s point of view.

On our mission to survey the Delaware River, eastern-region program coordinator Jonathan Milne put us in touch with Kent and gave us an overall brief on the flight. Then, Kent sent out a proposed flight route, which took us from Wings Field Airport northwest of Philadelphia, down to Cape May, New Jersey, then back up the Atlantic coast. On the day of the flight, having clear skies and warm temperatures, we modified the flight-plan route to stop for lunch at Cape May Airport and circle the wetlands and landfills at Burlington Island near Fieldsboro and Trenton, New Jersey, on our return.

I had to ask: Are drones going to put LightHawk out of business? The short answer is no, according to Boggs. “We’re about the human experience of being in the air and seeing something with your own eyes. Most people never have the experience of walking out on the tarmac to an aircraft, sitting next to the pilot—all those things are part of a LightHawk flight.” That view of the Earth from the air is rightfully precious.

LightHawk and Flying Expedition: Lower Delaware River Watershed Jonathan Milne/Courtesy Lighthawk

Be a Lighthawk Pilot

  • Private pilot certificate with a current third-class medical (could be BasicMed depending on aircraft and passengers)
  • Instrument rating desired but not required
  • Mountain flying experience highly desirable
  • At least 1,000 hours PIC
  • Access to aircraft (can be owned or rented) through which you can donate to the mission by paying for the aircraft costs

If you don’t have the total time yet, but you’d still like to contribute, LightHawk accepts cash donations at

This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Based in Maryland, Julie is an editor, aviation educator, and author. She holds an airline transport pilot certificate with Douglas DC-3 and CE510 (Citation Mustang) type ratings. She's a CFI/CFII since 1993, specializing in advanced aircraft and flight instructor development. Follow Julie on Twitter @julieinthesky.

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