The sun is just beginning to rise but I feel none of its warmth as I walk towards the vintage Cessna on the wet tarmac of Merida’s airport. I’m about to embark on my first aerial photography mission for Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan, a thrilling prospect for sure, but the gloomy weather is taking some joy out of the idea of going airborne in a single engine airplane. No one says anything, but I can sense I’m not the only team member wondering if this is really the best day to fly.
Our unspoken worries notwithstanding, it takes Captain Lawrence “Bud” Sittig one long stare at the horizon to forecast our immediate future. “I can see a window there“, he says with a confident smile after detecting a small parting of clouds to the north. “We’ll be all right, but first we need to take the door off this plane“.
Captain Bud, as he insists to be called, is a volunteer pilot with Lighthawk, an organization that donates flight time for NGOs committed to conservation. Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan has benefited from this cooperation for several years and now it is my privilege to have been asked to participate in two flights. Our mission will be to photograph natural conditions in forested areas as well as human activities related to agriculture and cattle ranching in the state of Yucatan. We’re also tasked to photograph any forest fires we may encounter and, with any luck, once we reach the sea we’ll be able to document the presence of whale sharks and ocean turtles in their migratory routes off the coast of Quintana Roo.
The photographer in me can’t help but wish for a sunnier day. That thought, however, soon becomes irrelevant: we’re now flying and I have the best seat in the plane, secured with a harness next to the open space where the right side door would normally be. I can point my camera out and straight down at the mesmerizing landscape that’s being revealed before my eyes. Any foreboding feelings I might have harbored quickly disappear and within minutes I realize I’ve become instantly hooked on aerial photography.
As our flight progresses, and then again on the following day, I make hundreds of images using a trio of lenses: a 300mm, a 50mm and a 10,5mm fisheye lens. It’s our good fortune to come into visual contact with the coveted whale sharks and sea turtles, as well as impressive looking oceanic mantas, so the mission can formally be declared a success.
On the night of our second day I get together with Captain “Bud” to learn more about his experience as an aviator and the work he does with Lighthawk. The ensuing conversation is worth sharing, along with more images, with all of you here in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND. I give you Captain Lawrence “Bud” Sittig.
I.G. Hello Captain Bud. Please tell us a little about your experience as a pilot.
L.S. I’ve been flying for over 50 years. I started flying as a teenager, grew up in General Aviation –that is flying small planes– and then during my college years got all of my gradings, commercial pilot gradings, and became a flight instructor. Then after college I entered the military, I was trained in the United States Air Force and flew jet fighters, a passion which continued for some 31 years in the International Guard of the United States Air Force. Also I was hired into the airline industry and flew as a Captain with Delta Airlines for about 30 years, retiring just a few years ago. Now I’m back to General Aviation, flying smaller airplanes. I own my own airplane, a Beechcraft Bonanza, but I do a lot of flying with Lighthawk.
I.G. Before we go into Lighthawk, tell us a bit more about some of the aircraft you’ve flown in your life.
L.S. I started in small airplanes, Cessnas, Beechcrafts and Pipers, and then when I went into the Air Force of course the airplanes became much more sophisticated, high-speed jet fighters, you move from little airplanes to traveling super-sonic, faster than the speed of sound, with very sophisticated weapons delivery systems. And then I joined the airline industry, flying large transport-category airplanes with 290 people on board, a lot of responsibility for those people. I flew those airplanes all over the world for Delta, in Europe and the Middle East, North Africa, all over South America and into the Orient, and of course all over the US to every major city in America. Then I retired from Delta, and I retired from the Air Force -the International Guard- and now I’ve come back to the smaller airplanes that I began in, some fifty years ago. But I’ve always been of the mind that my favourite airplane is the airplane I’m flying that day. It doesn’t matter what it is, I have a passion for flying. I love to fly and I love to share the experience of flight with other people.
I.G. On a personal note, is anyone in your family following in your footsteps?
L.S. I have three adult daughters and now I have grandchildren, all of them have great fondness for flying but regrettably none of them had followed as pilots, until now my oldest grandson is beginning glider lessons. You can solo a glider at age 14 and when he turns 16 he’ll be able to fly a powered aircraft. He hopes to solo on his 16th birthday, which is what I did way back in the 1960s, I soloed on my 16th birthday and I’m hoping that my grandson will do the same.
I.G. You’re also flying one of the few remaining Flying Fortresses.
L.S. I am. The Flying Fortress, the B-17, is a WWII bomber that was used extensively, flown out of England, in support of the allied initiatives against the Nazis in WWII. There are only eight Flying Fortresses still flying and I fly with the Liberty Foundation, that’s libertyfoundation.org and you can read extensively about the mission. We fly the airplane on a tour program throughout the summer months to major cities all around the US, to help people remember or understand better those that served as crew members aboard the B-17. Many thousands of young combat members in WWII died in the B-17, huge loss of life. When one B-17 went down 10 people lost their lives. So really our mission is to help preserve the memory and it’s dedicated to those warriors that flew and served aboard those airplanes. As I said there are only eight still flying in the world. The airplane that I’m flying is called the Memphis Belle, there’s a famous movie of the Memphis Belle filmed in 1989 that tells the story of that aircraft, which had the first ten-member crew that survived twenty five missions, because the statistical probability of surviving 25 missions was almost zero. For two years nobody survived 25 missions until in 1943 the Memphis Belle crew completed 25 missions, then they took the airplane back to the United States and went on tour. They were celebrities of sorts, war heroes, but they went on tour to help sell savings bonds to support the war effort.
I.G. You said that you’re favorite plane is the one you’re flying on that day, but there must be a tremendous adjustment… I mean, just the number of indicators, buttons and controls in the cabin of one of those huge 767s, as compared to the Cessna from the 1970s that we’re flying in today, isn’t that a big adjustment?
L.S. Yeah, well… it’s not a big adjustment, it’s fairly easy to go from one to the other. Of course you train extensively on these complex airplanes, you train to manage the systems, and the weapons systems, and to fly the airplanes with certain skills and techniques, and then you move to another airplane and train well on that one. The human mind is a fascinating thing, it simply adjusts to whatever you’re flying that day. It’s no different than getting on a bicycle, pedaling down the street and feeling very comfortable doing that, and then getting into a Porsche that you drive and you go racing off in, you’re very comfortable in that. I think it’s a good analogy, it works that way, the mind simply adjusts to pedaling and steering a bike, or a motorcycle, or a sophisticated car, and you just adjust to what that is. For many years I was flying the F-16 Viper, a supersonic jet fighter that flies over 1,000 miles an hour, pulls 9Gs and drops sophisticated weapons, and then the next day I would go to my job at Delta Airlines and fly the 767 to Europe, and you just make the adjustment, your training prepares you to fly the jet fighter in the fighter mission, and your training in the airline industry teaches you to fly the transport-category airplane and be very concerned and protective of your passengers in the sophisticated air space that you’re flying into in complex areas of the world and in airports, you just make the adjustment.
I.G. You made the rank of General in the US Air Force. Considering that, I was impressed at how relaxed and gentle you were with all of us civilian flyers. It made me wonder what the differences are, coming from a military background and now doing this volunteer work for civilian organizations, how do you adapt to these different situations?
L.S. I think we are who we are, no matter what role we play in life. In the military one learns to become a leader, and as you increase in rank it’s increasingly important to be good to your people. To be an effective leader you must be sensitive to your people. So when you move from the military, which is very hierarchical and very regimented, nevertheless those basic human skills transfer, and when you get out into the civilian world again it’s all about your relationship with people, communicating effectively with people and understanding where they’re coming from. And it’s very important, with our partners that we fly with in Lighthawk, that we take time to help them understand the experience of flying in a small airplane, because many of our partners have never flown in a small airplane and for many of them it’s a bit threatening, it’s unknown. So it’s important to take some time to make them feel comfortable and hopefully transfer your own comfort level with the experience to them, so they can feel more comfortable. Today for example was unique, we’re flying over jungles, we’re flying on the coastline, and then we’re flying well out over the ocean, so there’s a lot of exposure with a single engine airplane… you know what happens if you have an engine failure over the ocean. So today we took special precautions and more personal flotation devices, so that if you went down on the water you had a flotation device, we have an on-board raft, and you have to take a few minutes to tell people about what to expect. Hopefully that will never happen but we have to be prepared.
I.G. What is Lighthawk?
L.S. Lighthawk is a group of volunteer pilots, some 220 volunteer pilots living across the United States, who fly their own airplanes in volunteer service to the goals and objectives of Lighthawk, which is to help conservation and wildlife organizations, primarily NGOs, in support of their conservation initiatives. These volunteer pilots provide their own airplane, pay their own fuel, give of their own professional time and services in support of these initiatives. In addition to these pilots flying their own airplanes, there is a unique program within Lighthawk called the Mesoamerica Program. Lighthawk itself owns two airplanes and from this group of 220 pilots there is a small, select group of aviators who each year, from January through May, will volunteer to fly the Lighthawk airplanes in the Mesoamerica region, supporting the conservation and wildlife initiatives going on throughout the region, primarily Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and Mexico in the Yucatan and in Baja.
I.G. Why Mesoamerica, why was it defined as being so important for Lighthawk?
L.S. I think the initial founders of Lighthawk saw a lot of opportunity here, and then they saw a lot of need, whether it’s deforestation issues, wildlife conservation and preservation, mangrove preservation along the coastlines, they just saw a need and said “this is a worthy outreach that Lighthawk can contribute to and we need to do it”. And it’s growing every year, as I said we spent five months from January to May with one airplane based here in Mesoamerica in the countries that I mentioned earlier. Different pilots come in for usually a two week period, crew the airplane and work with the partners, then another pilot comes in, gets a hand-off, they’re over-left for a couple of days, do another hand-off, and so it goes over the course of about a five month period. I’m here at the end of May finishing up the project and Monday when I finish I’ll fly the airplane some 15 to 20 hours back to Tucson, Arizona, where it’s based for the rest of the year.
I.G. In terms of cooperation between Lighthawk and these NGOs that you support with your flights, how can these organizations best take advantage of what you’re giving them?
L.S. A partner will come to Lighthawk with a proposal: we would like to use the Lighthawk services for our research, our studies, or our observations of our mission as an NGO. Then Lighthawk makes a judgement on whether this is a worthy program. The better the partner can describe, explain and articulate its goals and its mission, the more likely they are to be supported by Lighthaw. We have many, many requests, so it’s our goal to choose the NGO partners that we feel are very well prepared and have clearly defined their mission, so that when we give them 4 or maybe 6 hours of free flying they get the most productive results from that experience. If they can articulate their mission clearly and help us, particularly the pilot, so we can understand what they wish to achieve, the better outcome they’ll have. So it’s really all about how they outline the proposal to Lighthawk.
I.G. Does Lighthawk actually engage in fund raising to run the operation? You mentioned that the pilots pitch in for fuel.
L.S. The Lighthawk budget is about 1.2 million dollars a year. The vast majority of that comes from individual contributions, which tends to be true of most non profits. Pilots contribute their time and they buy their own fuel, although when we come to Mesoamerica the pilot does not pay for fuel, that is a totally dedicated project by Lighthawk, the organization raises funds through the year, part of that 1.2 million, to support the Mesoamerica program. It’s a tremendous outreach that Lighthawk is doing for Mesoamerica.
I.G. What would be some memorable landscapes that you’ve seen flying in the area?
L.S. Among the most memorable, two in particular. One is the volcanic range that stretches west-south and west of Guatemala City, west all the way to the Mexico border. We were flying in the high country and those volcanic peaks, active volcanoes, rise to 18,000 feet above sea level. We were flying in our Cessna 206 at an altitude of about 12,000 feet, which is about as high as we can go with that airplane and without supplemental oxygen for the passengers. It’s very challenging flying, spectacular scenery around those volcanoes but it’s very challenging flying in the high elevations of that region. That was the first five days of my missions on this three week to Mesoamerica. So I would say the Guatemala volcanic region was one of the highlights. Also here in the Yucatan. I’d been to Yucatan but only on the East coast, the Cancun-Cozumel area, but I’ve been so impressed with the coastline, the wildlife, the bird life, the flamingos that we’ve looked at. Today as we were on the north-east coast of Yucatan we saw the Whale Sharks, we saw turtles, manta rays. Three days ago with The Nature Conservancy we were south towards Campeche in the jungles of that region, so I’m seeing it all here in the Yucatan, spectacular landscape.
I.G. What can you say about how people can participate to help Lighthawk?
L.S. I think it’s best to study the website, lighthawk.org, and understand the goals of Lighthawk. If a partner understands what Lighthawk is about and what resources Lighthawk has available, then they can adapt those resources to their mission. Flying over an area provides such a unique perspective to the partner, one they cannot see from the ground of course, and as I said earlier, many people have never flown in a small airplane. They get in an airliner but they’re at 30,000 feet and you can’t get a very good sense of the landscape at that altitude. But when you’re at 500 feet, flying over a flock of flamingos, it’s just a fascinating perspective and it opens the eyes and understanding of the partner organizations. So again, if the partner studies the mission of Lighthawk and understands what resources Lighthawk can provide, then the partner can take advantage of that as they write their proposal and then submit that and hopefully get some flying time from Lighthawk.
I.G. That is in relation to the partner NGOs, but you also mentioned that it is private citizens who do most of the funding. What do you think motivates them, do you have any specific programs to raise funds? What can people do to help Lighthawk?
L.S. Yes, the primary contributions come from individuals, and these are people who may not be wealthy people, they may just be passionate about conservation and they know something about aviation and what Lighthawk is providing, so they choose to embrace that mission. They’ll write a check for a hundred dollars, or a thousand dollars, some for ten thousand dollars, and contribute to what Lighthawk is offering. We’re working harder to bring corporate sponsorship to Lighthawk, that’s a difficult challenge because every non-profit out there is competing for the corporate dollars and the corporations look very carefully where they spend their development dollars.
I.G. These flights are mostly observation flights, correct? I mean, it’s not about getting teams of people from one place to another, it’s mostly about doing aerial reconnaissance.
L.S. Probably 95% of our work is that. There is an exception, in recent years we’ve been more active in moving wildlife. For instance, and this is just one example, we’ve been moving the Black-footed ferret from its original habitat in Montana to different places, breeding areas and so forth, and we’ll put them in dog kennels, load them aboard an airplane, and move them in some cases 600 or 800 miles, and the pilot will volunteer his flying time to move that dog kennel with a small family of ferrets to a new destination. So there’s a different example, that’s a point-to-point mission as opposed to an overflight mission. And we’re doing more of that. We’ve also moved some wolves.
I.G. And why are these animals being relocated?
L.S. For breeding purposes and to try to establish them in a new habitat, perhaps they were originally in that region but they moved out or they no longer populate that area, so they’re trying to repopulate certain species in a particular area.
I.G. Before we close this conversation, is there anything you’d like to add?
L.S. Let me say this about Mesoamerica: as I said earlier the original founders saw a need and a purpose for supporting initiatives in the Mesoamerica region. This is my first time here, and now that I’ve seen firsthand the opportunities that Lighthawk can provide to our partners, the more committed I am to the continuation of our Mesoamerica program. I’m a member of the Board of Directors of Lighthawk, the board has oversight of all these programs and determines where Lighthawk places its resources, and for me it’s been a terrific opportunity to come here, see the challenging flying we’re doing, be part of it and experience the relationship with our partners here. I believe we can continue to build upon these relationships, and I think over the years we can continue to do really good work together.
The fine folks at Lighthawk have honoured us by sharing this story both on their website and in their section of “National Geographic VOICES – Ideas and Insight From Explorers”. We thank them and include both links here, click on the images below to get there! IGH