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GA and the Environment: Appalachian SpringGA and the Environment: Appalachian Spring

AOPA’s SR22 takes on an aerial missionAOPA’s SR22 takes on an aerial mission

Spring has arrived in the craggy, fog-shrouded mountains of North Carolina—but entire hillsides of spruce fir and hemlock trees won’t awaken from their winter rest. Hundreds of acres of trees, already weakened by a long drought, have fallen victim to insects.

Flying to save the planet

Volunteers of two organizations aid the environment

By Alton K. Marsh

Once they were known as the environmental air force, but now they are called LightHawk and SouthWings—two organizations that link volunteer pilots and their aircraft to environmental missions.

The larger is LightHawk, which coordinates volunteer missions throughout North and Central America and southern Florida; SouthWings concentrates on 11 southeastern states including northern Florida. Missions are wildly diverse and include tracking rare wildlife, helping NASA study global warming, and taking journalists aloft to photograph environmental disasters.

If you want to sign up with one of these organizations, remember that there is no pay and no fuel reimbursement, just the satisfaction of helping.


“To me the airplane is the best antidote to misinformation involving land use that there is. The alternative is to rely on propaganda,” said LightHawk Executive Director Rudy Engholm. He formerly headed Northern Wings in Portland, Maine, before that organization merged with LightHawk.

One of his greatest adventures came during three weeks of flying jungle and reef missions in Belize. He brought his Cessna 185 around a mountain near Caracol to find a gleaming white Mayan temple ahead. It had been discovered in 1938. “I felt like Indiana Jones,” Engholm said.

LightHawk board member Jane Nicolai of Vancouver, Washington, has used her Cessna Cardinal RG to fly Russian salmon specialists, a National Public Radio reporter doing a story on Columbia River dams, and Japanese officials measuring radiation from uranium mines.

Another of LightHawk’s 155 volunteer pilots flew a photographer who was tracking a pronghorn herd, showing the difficulties it faced from fences and highways during migration. The final effort became an episode of the National Geographic “ Wild Chronicles” television show.

LightHawk owns three aircraft, but most volunteers fly their own. The group partners with more than 160 organizations that are related to the environment, such as the International League of Conservation Photographers, which is documenting the effect on wildlife of the fence along the Mexican border. If you want to volunteer, call Shannon Rochelle, the pilot outreach manager, at 307-332-3242. You’ll need at least 1,000 hours of flight time to qualify, and an aircraft that fits well with environmental missions.


Perhaps you saw news coverage last Christmas that showed a coal ash spill from a pond at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in east Tennessee. A SouthWings pilot, one of 27 volunteers, took up a photographer to get shots that were distributed by news wire services.

SouthWings has four full-time staff members and operates a Cessna 182 plus aircraft owned by volunteers for its missions. Founder and Interim Executive Director Hume Davenport said the study of mountaintop-removal mining accounts for 40 percent of the organization’s flights.

The group can claim some star power, too. It has worked with the Altamaha River Keeper and has flown one of its founding members, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Actors Ashley Judd and Woody Harrelson and singer Kathy Mattea have observed environmentally damaging mountaintop removal operations from SouthWings volunteer aircraft.

One of Davenport’s most memorable flights was the discovery two years ago of a paper mill near Jesup, Georgia, discharging toxic waste. “It brought about change,” Davenport said. Other flights included tracking down a flying squirrel, which was wearing a radio attached by conservationists, and locating heron nesting sites.

One project involved bringing wildlife into the airplane. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a captive breeding program for the red wolf,” Davenport said. “There are only 200 left. I moved red wolves from New York to Chattanooga, Tennessee.” The wolves were good passengers. “They sat in their pens and looked cute,” Davenport recalled.

More recently, in March 2009, a SouthWings volunteer flew a mission for an organization called the Mobile Baykeeper. The executive director and an NBC cameraman got aerial footage of coal dust spilling into a waterway from a coal terminal and brought it to the attention of the Alabama Port Authority.

Interested in joining SouthWings? Pilots with 750 hours total time and access to an airplane should call the SouthWings office at 828-225-5949 or apply online.

See the video:

People Power: Susan Lapis, SouthWings pilot

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Environmental air force

General aviation helps to protect the environment by flying myriad missions. These wildly diverse assignments include tracking rare wildlife, helping NASA study global warming, and taking journalists aloft to photograph environmental disasters. In this online video, watch as Southwings volunteer pilots take their aircraft into remote regions of the country to help save and preserve the planet. Read the story below.

Spring has arrived in the craggy, fog-shrouded mountains of North Carolina—but entire hillsides of spruce fir and hemlock trees won’t awaken from their winter rest.

Hundreds of acres of trees, already weakened by a long drought, have fallen victim to insects. Southern pine beetles are destroying spruce firs, and woolly adelgids are taking a toll on hemlocks. Rising temperatures have allowed both kinds of voracious insects, for the first time, to afflict forests in these high elevations.

On a recent aerial survey of the southern Appalachian Mountains, Brent Martin, the Wilderness Society’s regional director here, took stock of the damage among hemlock forests deep in some of the most remote, rugged, and inaccessible places on the heavily forested North Carolina/Tennessee border. From the right seat of the AOPA 2009 Let’s Go Flying Sweepstakes SR22, Martin noted the scars inflicted by insects, roads, mines, and residential development—and he saw welcome new opportunities to preserve the stunning landscapes and natural areas along the historic Appalachian Trail.

“I had no idea the insect damage to entire coves of hemlocks was this extensive at these high elevations so deep in the national forest,” said Martin, a resident of Franklin, a mountain town in North Carolina near the Georgia border. “Entire hillsides are covered with dead trees.”

Martin was taken aback by webs of new roads carved into formerly pristine areas bordering national forests and other preserves. The roads lay the groundwork for future development as vacation property, second homes for owners with residences elsewhere. “It’s amazing how small our national forest is when you see it from the air, and how much residential encroachment and other kinds of pressures there are around the edges,” he said.

Martin saw many reasons to be encouraged, however, when he got a close, overhead look at the untrammeled areas his organization hopes to protect in the future. Most are very close to existing wilderness areas and set among some of the tallest peaks in the eastern United States. (Mount Mitchell, the highest, is 6,684 feet.) “These mountains are majestic, and it’s a hopeful thing to see opportunities [for new wilderness designations] in some of these key areas.”

Rocky Fork

The most critical parcel for the Wilderness Society in this region is the Rocky Fork tract, 10,000 acres of mossy hills as jagged as shattered glass bordering the Appalachian Trail between the Cherokee and Mount Pisgah national forests. The Wilderness Society and other environmental groups are seeking to keep Rocky Fork—an area that’s home to black bears, peregrine falcons, and native brook trout—permanently free from roads, bridges, and residential development.

Jay Leutze, a conservationist in nearby Minneapolis, North Carolina, pointed out a hawk soaring near protected nesting sites by a remote waterfall. “I am constantly trying to learn new ways to understand the landscape I work in,” he said. “I fish the streams and drink the water. I camp the high ground and hike the ridges. My work often involves botany and stream ecology. All this work is very ground based. To fly over the area I know intimately from field work is to bend the mind.”

Leslie Jones, the Wilderness Society’s general counsel, participated in the aerial survey and said the experience convinced her of the economic benefits that wild lands provide. Much of the area the Wilderness Society intends to preserve in the Appalachians is upstream from the reservoirs that supply drinking water to cities throughout the Southeast.

“Beyond their recreational and spiritual aspects, wild lands near population centers like this also provide economic benefits in terms of air and water filtration systems,” she said. “It would cost billions of dollars to build air and water purification plants if we had to start from scratch. People are beginning to ask, ‘What’s the economic cost of not protecting these areas?’”

AOPA and the Wilderness Society are dedicated to far different missions, and there’s no getting around the fact that pilots and preservationists are sure to disagree over some important issues. But AOPA and the Wilderness Society also share many similarities: Both were formed in the 1930s; have large numbers of passionate and influential members; are effective advocates for providing access, in their own ways, to America’s most beautiful, distinctive, and inspiring places—and both seek to extend the freedom to enjoy such vistas to future generations.

Jones, a Washington, D.C., student pilot, said flying over the environmentally sensitive areas that she and her colleagues are committed to protect gives them a perspective they couldn’t get any other way, and motivates them to do more.

“It’s so good for people who work at the grassroots level to see these areas in the larger context that can only come from above,” she said. “That aerial perspective allows us to see the broad range of issues we work on in a single sweep—and that can make us better, more effective advocates. On a personal level, it’s invigorating because it connects me with these treasured places and allows me to meet the people here on their own turf. I’ll be a better colleague, partner, and advocate because of it.”

The Wilderness Society doesn’t own its own aircraft. But some of the group’s volunteers regularly take staff members on aerial tours of environmentally sensitive areas as distant as Alaska and Florida. David Churchill, a member of both AOPA and the Wilderness Society, flew his Cessna 210 from his Maryland home base last summer to Utah where he took environmentalists and biologists on a series of photographic flights over the mountains and deserts in the Four Corners region.

“It was an amazing experience—and one that I plan to repeat,” said Churchill, an instrument-rated private pilot. “The flying was challenging, the scenery was spectacular, and the knowledge of the flora and fauna among the people I flew with was extraordinary. I learned a great deal just by being around them.”

Jones said aerial surveys help the Wilderness Society and other environmental groups use their limited resources to obtain the greatest conservation impact. “The best way to help stressed ecosystems is to create large, unfragmented landscapes,” she said. “It takes years of grassroots work to get wilderness designations from Congress. It’s the enthusiasm that swells up from local communities that has made us successful in the past, and will continue to make us successful.”

Jones began flight training in a Citabria and recently began flying a Cessna 172 at Potomac Airfield, one of the “D.C. Three” airports located within Washington, D.C.’s tightly regulated Flight Restricted Zone. A former resident of coastal Maine, Jones hopes to fly general aviation aircraft to some of the country’s most scenic, open, and unfettered areas and share a bird’s-eye view with colleagues, lawmakers, and others who can help preserve our country’s natural beauty.

“As a student pilot, I’m still a long way from making such flights on my own,” Jones said. “But I can dream.”

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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