A bird’s eye view of disaster

By AMELIA T. REIHELD, For General Aviation News

It’s been one heck of a month at SouthWings headquarters in Asheville, N.C. Ever since the Deep Horizons oil drilling rig exploded and collapsed off the Louisiana coast, the aviation-centered conservation organization has been besieged by calls from the press and environmental groups requesting flights. It’s the best way to see the extent of a growing oil slick that now covers much of the Gulf of Mexico and laps at the beaches of the northern Gulf Coast.

In normal times, the environmental nonprofit group works with volunteer pilots and their donated aircraft to monitor land use, water quality, waste management, mining and forestry practices. By arranging flights for scientists, media, and environmental groups, they are able to keep an eye on threatened coastal preserves, industrial and mining projects, factory-farm complexes, and other areas of environmental concern that might otherwise be inaccessible.

SouthWings’ 36 volunteer pilots fly in Virginia, West Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Louisiana. In most of the rest of North America, a sister organization, LightHawk, has a similar mission. Normally, the organizations schedule flights several weeks in advance, and proceed at a quiet and measured pace, flying, at most, a few dozen missions each month. These are not “normal times,” though. The demand for environmental flights along the Gulf Coast has caused quite a scramble at SouthWings’ offices, as the staffers try to find enough volunteer pilots to fly them.

“This is huge. It may become the biggest disaster in U.S. history, if they don’t get it capped soon,” said Caroline Douglas, SouthWings’ conservations programs manager. “I have six flights scheduled for today, five flights scheduled for tomorrow — a record for us — with no end in sight.”

Reporters, photographers and environmental staff who have flown in GA planes over the spreading oil slick are returning to terra firma with a new perspective.

Skylane pilot Tom Hutchings (above), of Montrose, Alabama, has piloted a number of flights for SouthWings since the oil rig sank. His passengers — reporters, photographers, and coastal management personnel — are documenting the spread of the leaking oil, and noting the questionable effectiveness of measures deployed so far. Douglas uses the word “sky-truthing” to describe the role SouthWings is playing in alerting the public to the magnitude of the environmental threat.

“The sheen of oil now spreads across the horizon from east to west, as far as we can see from 4,000 feet,” said Hutchings. His photos show thick foamy drifts of oil and chemical dispersant along tide lines and currents. “It’s just appalling.”

To make the oil-spill observation flights, pilots must file a Defense Visual Flight Rules (DVFR) flight plan to enter and depart from the coastal Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and remain clear of the TFR that spans the spill area from northwest Florida’s coast all the way to easternmost Texas, up to 3,000 feet. For his over-the-Gulf flights, Hutchings carries an inflatable life-raft and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) for his passengers.

The over-water flights are more logistically complicated than most other missions, but the over-land missions are equally important, and sometimes equally dramatic.

SouthWings’ Executive Director Will Calloway recalls a recent flight looking at the proliferation of concentrated animal feeding operations in North Carolina. “We discovered one operation had dumped manure adjacent to a creek,” he said. “Recent rains had made gullies directly from the waste pile to the stream. Effectively, this stream had become a sewage pipeline.” Calloway, who reported the violation, doubts the discovery would have been possible without aerial views.

Douglas is proud of the influential role her volunteer pilots are playing in educating citizens about conservation issues in the Southeast. With graphic evidence of the effects of mountaintop removal coal mines, illegal wetland logging, massive coal-ash dumps, and the need for watershed protection, Southwings flights have focused nationwide attention on environmental problems as well as opportunities for conservation all across the Southeast.

The panoramic view pilots take for granted are a revelation to many first-time passengers. SouthWings also flies legislators and other decision-makers over pristine wilderness areas to help them understand the scope of a proposed refuge. Volunteers skim over seemingly endless, but delicate marsh to show how healthy wetlands contribute to wildlife management and support hunters, fishermen, and other outdoor recreation. Being able to see “The Big Picture” often makes all the difference in how a new wilderness area is funded.

Scientists and ecologists also use the volunteer flights to document wildlife distribution and health, to check on estuary water levels and quality, to illustrate academic papers, to chronicle the changes in forest vegetation, and to provide expert witness testimony in legal cases.

Wild animals get rides from time to time, too. According to Shannon Rochelle, of LightHawk, that organization is using pilots with fast aircraft to relocate threatened species. Flying is the least stressful way to move wild animals from rehabilitation facilities to new reserves. Recently, the organization flew endangered falcons raised in Idaho to a Central America mountaintop, where the rare birds once flourished. SouthWings, similarly, has relocated red wolves and used aerial surveillance to locate lost radio-collared flying squirrels.

The Gulf oil spill is today’s big issue, but the pilot volunteers flying for SouthWings and LightHawk contribute to a better world in many other ways. From documenting sources of industrial waste and agricultural runoff, to supporting responsible logging practices in the coastal Carolinas, to monitoring manatee populations in Florida, SouthWings pilots and their environmentally-concerned passengers are up there, looking down. They’re sharing their remarkable view with those who aren’t lucky enough to have wings of their own.

WANT TO HELP? Pilot volunteers are needed right now. For more information: SouthWings.org and LightHawk.org.

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