You are here

From the Cockpit – Guatemala by Air

Guest post by LightHawk volunteer pilot Stephanie Wells, a retired Air Force and NASA pilot. Among her many numerous flight experiences she flew the KC-135 in a roller coaster pattern of parabolas to create 25-second periods of zero gravity. Each flight contained about 40 parabolas enabling researchers to conduct experiments and astronauts to experience weightlessness. These reduced gravity aircraft were nicknamed, “vomit comets” for their intense physical demands.

When most of the US is bundled up against winter’s cold, elite pilots head south to Central America and Mexico. Their mission, to fly LightHawk aircraft for a week or more for local conservation organizations.

VP Stephanie Wells. 

I arrived in Guatemala City to meet up with Wildlife Conservation Society’s Victor Hugo Ramos and Juan Pablo Noriega, my constant companions for the next eight days. WCS had asked LightHawk for flights to map the entire country of Guatemala.

Each three to four hour flight would cover east to west grid lines spaced about 10 miles apart. During the transects, Victor and Juan would collect detailed photographs and video to support GIS research and monitoring programs focusing on land use classification, forest/ecosystem type verification, and deforestation.

As I looked at some of the terrain, up to 13,000 feet and the usual mountain top cloud cover, I found it entirely unlikely that we would be able to complete all the grid lines. We had 12 days to get it done, maximum, but I was hoping to finish early enough to take WCS director Roan McNab up on his offer to visit the Guacamaya (Macaw) Biological Station.

Ten colors marking ten flight routes covering one country.

The Sunday morning flight was one of the toughest. We took off somewhat late due to a permit delay and getting to the flight plan office on the other side of the airport. We traveled over some very high terrain around Quetzaltenango (“Xela”). I got the Cessna 206 up to 12, 500 feet and only had to bypass about 20 miles of the whole route where clouds and mountains met west of Xela. There we went by the highest peak in Central America, Volcán Tajumulco which stands at 13,800 feet.

The highest peak in Central America, Volcán Tajumulco which stands at 13,800 feet.

Day after day, we flew and flew. On our second day, we tried for two flights but had to abort due to cloudy weather up north. Surprisingly, this would be the only mission scrapped due to weather of the entire campaign! Towards the end of our tour, we were all glad to reach Tikal, but I had a hard time dealing with the insufferable heat. In general, the weather is very stable, but this is the middle of the three-month dry season.

Lake Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America created from a volcanic coldera. Volcán San Pedro is in the background.

The skies are often smoky due to numerous fires burning everywhere this time of year. The most challenging and stressful part of this flying is combining bad visibility, clouds, and mountains. My most difficult flight was over the 12,500-foot plateau in the northwest of the country. But to our good luck, the weather was fine and clear that day and I didn’t have to deal with clouds or smoke. It was exhilarating flying over this high and surprisingly populated plateau.

African palm plantations.

During our flights, I noticed Guatemala’s significant agriculture; the most astonishing is the vastness of the African palm plantations. There are so many new fields going in, and areas where as far as the eye can see there is nothing but African palms. Many have their own processing facilities and even airstrips. This is obviously a big cash crop. Next most frequent is sugar cane, which when burned off creates huge amount of smoke, followed by corn, coffee, and bananas.

As we finished on Sunday, Victor treated me to a tour of Yaxha a Mayan archeological site. It’s somewhat different from the very commercialized Tikal NP, and you have to go a good ways on a not too great road. The site was very interesting, but I found the heat totally oppressive – it probably reached 40 degrees C, had high humidity and no wind.

Yaxha is a former Mayan ceremonial center. The site has more than 500 structures.

Later that night, Victor invited us to have dinner at his house where I got to meet his wife and kids. We had a very nice meal of pescado blanco – the complete fish – right from the lake. While at Victor’s house a thunderstorm storm came through with rain, unusual for this time of year, but such a relief after the oppressive heat of the day.

Returning back to Guatemala City, 17N was put to bed at the Cessna dealer until the next pilot, David Cole arrived to resume LightHawk missions in Central America. After a relaxing evening, I headed for home the next day. The trip was uneventful, but I not impressed by the budget airline I chose for my return trip. Between their outrageous bag fees and charging for everything, including water, once you’re on the plane, I don’t want to be on board when they inevitably install pay toilets.

Looking back on all this flying, 38 hours worth, I feel lucky and privileged to have seen the entire landscape of the country of Guatemala. What an interesting place. The vegetation is so variable, it’s no wonder Victor was tasked to document this from the air.

Project Category: