Knights of the Sky: Committing Good Deeds on the Fly

February 23, 2011

This post is excerpted with permission from Donna Stuart’s article in  Portland Monthly.

It’s a chilly winter morning on the 1,500-mile flight from Virginia as Janice Newman, pilot of the Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop, starts her descent for a refueling stop in Branson, Missouri. On board: fellow pilot Tom Haas and Linda Moore, former senior biologist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and three Mexican wolves, the smallest and most endangered wolf species. Newman and Haas are volunteer pilots with LightHawk, a nonprofit with deep roots in Maine whose mission is “to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.” They are delivering the wolves to the Wildlife West Nature Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the two four-year-old females and one eleven-year-old male will live as part of a bi-national captive breeding program, the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan (MWSSP). The goal: a transcontinental “date” across the Basin and Range Province to help reintroduce Mexican wolves into the wild. Hidden from view, the shy animals lie curled up in deep beds of hay in burlap-covered dog crates set in the rear of the cabin. Moore, the wolves’ caretaker during the flight, detects their growing agitation. She taps Newman on the shoulder, signaling her to slow the descent. “It’s like they’ve got baby ears. I now know you have to plan the descent so as not to hurt them,” explains Newman, looking back on her first ‘wolf flight’ more than a year ago. Flying out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, she and Haas have since ferried other Mexican wolves to pre-release facilities in Washington state, Missouri, New York, and Arizona in order to accommodate breeding. “We do over 1,000 flights each year for hundreds of environmental groups,” says Portland-based Rudy Engholm, LightHawk’s executive director. Among their many other projects, LightHawk flights have enabled Maine Audubon to make an aerial survey of loons on the state’s northern lakes – important since loons in the wild are said to be a barometer measuring the effects of climate change, mercury and lead contamination in lakes, and land lost to development. The organization has also provided dozens of flights to Maine’s land trusts, helping them monitor and better understand the thousands of acres in their care. The 12-member staff, spread across the U.S. and Mesoamerica, coordinates all the missions flown by nearly 170 volunteer pilots. “We run a decentralized, multi-national [concern] with the number of people who can fit around a family dining table. We try to be judicious about what we do,” Engholm says, noting that LightHawk uses highly efficient aircraft and purchases carbon offsets [through] so the operation is carbon neutral. He estimates this year’s carbon footprint, including staff travel and all mission-related flights, will be about 272 metric tons, assuming 25,000 gallons of aviation fuel. “A single one-way trip from San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro in a 747 would use roughly 40,000 gallons. If society is willing to ‘spend’ these vast amounts of emissions on so many other activities, doesn’t it make sense that we at least invest a small amount of our energy in saving the irreplaceable pieces of wild nature? “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces [according to Paul Ehrlich in A Sand County Almanac],” concludes Engholm. “That’s the perfect analog for what we do. We try to protect all the pieces of nature–the wildlife, habitats, and diverse ecosystems.”