Friday, March 16, 2007

Pilot goes low and slow for environment

Aerial patrol spots abuse of natural areas

Express Staff Writer

Steven Garman poses with the Cessna 185 he plans to fly over the Northwest while helping to conduct environmental surveys. Photo by Willy Cook

In his regular, paying job as chief pilot of Sun Valley Air charter service based at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Steven Garman is accustomed to zipping between cities at altitudes of 40,000 feet or better and at speeds above 500 miles an hour in a powerful Lear 60 jet.

So, with 13,000 hours of piloting time in his log book and hours and hours in a veritable fleet of different aircraft, Garman hardly needed more flying time. Nevertheless, 10 years ago he offered to be a volunteer pilot for LightHawk, a Wyoming-based organization whose volunteer pilots fly passengers on low-level inspections of the environment to determine whether it's being abused.

Finally, Garman's offer to be a LightHawk pilot has been accepted—and on top of that, LightHawk sent a donated Cessna 185 aircraft to be based at the Hailey airport for Garman's use on flights throughout the Northwest.

Garman's first scheduled flight was temporarily delayed Monday and again Tuesday because of weather in northern Idaho.

The mission is to carry a Friends of the Clearwater member to monitor snowmobile tracks in the Gospel Hump Wilderness Area, located between the Salmon and Selway rivers east of Lewiston. When this planned flight is launched, Garman will cover more than 260 miles from Hailey to Moscow-Pullman, where he'll pick up his passenger, cover another 350 miles crisscrossing the remote mountainous area, then add another 260 miles on his return to Hailey.

But the flight will be nothing like his customary jet trips. In the Cessna 185, Garman said he'd probably fly at 500 to 800 feet altitude and as slow as 70 miles per hour so his passenger can take in details of the environment they're overflying.

Lest the wrong impression is left about the LightHawk aircraft, Garman said the 1980 model Cessna has undergone a rigorous modernization at a cost of well over $100,000. It has state-of-the-art GPS navigation and communications systems, short field takeoff and landing modifications to its wing that allow operations out of short air strips, a supercharged 300-horsepower engine with three-bladed propeller, auto pilot and bubble windows to allow photographers room to swing cameras in all directions. The plane was donated to LightHawk by a California couple.

The organization hopes to find donors to keep the aircraft permanently stationed here. Annual maintenance, Garman estimates, will be about $3,000 to $4,000 and hourly operating costs could be between $120 and $140.

He expects any number of environmental groups to call on LightHawk to schedule flights. LightHawk ( has partnered with dozens of organizations in the United States, Canada and Mexico to conduct international flights piloted by an array of volunteer fliers from an assortment of professions other than aviation.

The LightHawk aircraft Garman is flying has a special familiarity for him. He owns a Cessna 180 tail-dragger that he uses for weekend commutes with his wife, Bonnie, an artist and writer, to their ranch near Challis.

Garman, who came to the Wood River Valley 26 years ago from Missoula and was a Ketchum firefighter before entering a professional flying career, stresses that he is merely a pilot for LightHawk with no input on environmental issues.

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