You are here

Why Mesoamerica?

Whale shark off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. image: Ivan Gabaldon/LightHawk

Ivan and Bud talk about why LightHawk flies conservation missions in Mexico and Central America in the final installment of our Ride Into Birdland guest blog.

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.

The presence of “swim-with-whale-sharks” powerboats confirms we’re getting closer to these gentle giants of the sea. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

Finally, one of several Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus) spotted along their migratory route. Also seen swimming along with the shark, a Cobia (Rachycentron canadum). (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

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 LightHawk. 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.

As we follow the coastline the landscape continues to awe us with its changing features. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

No number of words would suffice in an attempt to describe this view. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

No, it’s not some distant world in the confines of outer space. It’s Planet Earth. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

The coastal town of Chiquilá, Quintana Roo. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

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,, 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.

This is an uncommon view for us birders: a high-altitude flying Magnificent Frigatebird, seen from above! (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

As we head back to Merida, clouds part to reveal an open-air garbage dump. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

Upon closer inspection with the 300mm lens, it looks much worse. With all the brainpower we humans have, is this really the the best we can do? (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

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.

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.

Granted, building materials must come from somewhere, but it’s not a pretty sight. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

When those building materials are used to erect human dwellings that resemble windowless boxes, again I have to wonder: is this the best we can do? (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).

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.

Before our final landing, Captain Bud regales us with a view of downtown Merida, a fitting transition back to earth-bound reality. (Photo © Ivan Gabaldon – Aerial support provided by Lighthawk to Pronatura Peninsula de Yucatan).