LightHawk volunteer pilots protect the environment

Ever wonder what would happen if more people could see what we see?

That’s the question the folks at LightHawk pose to pilots during recruiting efforts for the non-profit organization. The question is central to LightHawk’s mission, which is “to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.”

“We have a way to show other people what we have been seeing for years,” says Greg Bedinger, LightHawk’s pilot outreach manager. “Sharing what we have seen is a powerful tool. We can post videos and photos online, but it is only a substitute for the real images that you see first hand.”

Missions for LightHawk’s volunteer pilots range from flying over strip mines to flights over the Gulf of Mexico after the massive BP oil spill to flights over areas ravaged by hurricanes. Passengers on the flights range from photographers to government officials, policy makers, researchers, and more. “We get people up in the air who will benefit from seeing things in a different way,” Bedinger says.

“The view from above allows you to see the land in its oneness and its interconnectedness,” says Bill Carey, a county commissioner in Missoula, Montana, on LightHawk’s website. “Everything down there — the hills and the draws, the rivers and the lakes — are all part of a whole. We tend to forget that. The flight strengthened my resolve to be the best possible steward of this truly remarkable part of the world.”

That is exactly the reaction LightHawk treasures. “We all love it when our passengers get out of the plane and say, ‘I had no idea,’” Bedinger says. “It can be transformative at its best, although the images can take some time to sink in.”

LightHawk partners with a number of conservation groups in North America and Latin America. A flight will often include a member of one of these groups tasked with explaining the environmental issues or concerns to a policy maker. Many of the flights are photography flights and volunteer pilots also have taken documentary crews up to aid in telling their stories. Just recently, LightHawk pilots began transporting endangered animals to safe habitats.

The variety of missions is endless and the group is always looking for more volunteer pilots. Volunteers must have at least 1,000 hours PIC time. “That’s substantially higher than other groups,” Bedinger acknowledges. “We are looking for pilots who have a wide range of flight experience.”

One reason is that more experienced pilots are better at making judgment calls about when not to fly, he notes. “There is nothing critical about a LightHawk flight. Flights can always be rescheduled. There is no reason to push it as we aren’t transporting patients who are on life support.”

The organization is looking for pilots who are skilled enough to handle all types of flying, from mountains to coastlines, and who are able to slow the plane enough to safely position photographers to get the best possible shots to document the oil spill, strip mining, deforestation, or any other environmental concerns.

There is no limit on the aircraft used for LightHawk missions, as long as they have standard airworthiness certificates. In fact, pilots can even fly Light-Sport Aircraft, Bedinger says. “However, this limits it to just one passenger, so they could be used in photography flights — and we do a lot of photography missions,” he notes.

But to accomplish the primary mission of getting decision-makers up in the air to see the big picture, a four-place — or more — is needed, so there’s room for the official (or officials), a representative from a conservation group to explain what it is they are seeing, and the pilot. “We like to have a guide or somebody who is knowledgeable about the issue so the pilot can concentrate on flying,” he says.

The flights sometimes will include representatives from both sides of an issue to present their cases to the officials, he notes. And it’s not uncommon to have officials who have never flown in a general aviation aircraft before, he adds.


Pilots interested in volunteering for LightHawk go through a rigorous screening process. It begins with a pre-application telephone interview with one of the organization’s four program managers that lasts about 30 minutes. “This helps us elicit their approach to safety,” Bedinger explains. “It helps us see their level of professionalism and to see if they are cautious.”

If there are no red flags, the next step is the application. An important part of this process is references, he says. They are obviously looking for aviation-related references and the pilot’s CFI is one of those who will be called. “We want to know how often they do recurrent training and their attitude,” he says.

Greg Bedinger and Bob Keller

They also want to talk with someone who is aware of the pilot’s interest in conservation, he notes. “We want to get a sense of whether they’ll be a good fit.”

If the pilot is a good fit, next is an orientation interview with Bedinger, another program manager, and a current volunteer pilot. “We go through procedures and safety issues, how to give a safety briefing, weather, and terrain,” he says.

LightHawk has about 200 volunteer pilots. Most are over 40 years old, with many retired airline or air taxi pilots who are “good at flying under pressure,” Bedinger says.

They also have the free time to fly for the volunteer organization and most own their own aircraft. “Some rent and some are in flying clubs,” he notes.

The organization also operates its own aircraft and pays for the fuel and operating costs of these, with volunteer pilots flying them for one- to two-week assignments. Pilots who fly their own aircraft are able to deduct some of the expenses, LightHawk officials say, noting the amount of the deductions varies.

With so many organizations looking for volunteer pilots, why should a pilot choose LightHawk?

“It’s really a personal preference,” Bedinger says. “It depends on the type of flying you like to do and what your experience is. All organizations try to encourage pilots to follow their hearts and find the niche that they love. Some pilots love mountain flying, while others love float flying, and still others like cross-country flying.

“LightHawk flights are not about Point A to Point B,” he continues. “We start out at Point A and look at an issue, and then go back to Point A.”

All flights are VFR, he says, noting, “We are showing something from the air. There’s no benefit if there are marginal weather conditions.”

Bottom line, most pilots who volunteer for LightHawk — or other organizations — do it because they want to make a difference.

“Most pilots want to do something — they want to contribute,” Bedinger says. “They want to make the world a better place.”

That’s why Bob Keller from Boonville, N.Y., started volunteering as a pilot back in 1995 for Northern Wings, which has since merged with LightHawk.

“I like to fly,” he says. “But I feel I need a purpose for what I’m doing. I like to feel I’m accomplishing something.”

Flying for LightHawk lets him combine his interest in environmental issue with his skills as a pilot, he notes.

A pilot since 1991, Keller owns a Cessna 182 that he uses for about seven to eight LightHawk missions a year. “I have close to 500 hours in this kind of flying,” he says.

While he’s flown a variety of missions over the years, lately he’s been doing an “awful lot” of monitoring missions of land trusts in the East. “We make sure the land is not being misused,” he says.

He also does a lot of photography missions. “I’ll take a photographer around to document what an area looks like, to see whether it’s not been disturbed vs. heavy development.”

One of his most memorable flights was years ago when he flew along the Connecticut River to look for Eagle and Osprey nests.

A CFI, Keller says flying for LightHawk has helped him become a better pilot. “It tends to keep my skills sharp,” he says. “The flying can be technical and more demanding that other types of flying.

“It requires professionalism, but you’re still having fun,” he continues.

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