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Flying the Busy Chesapeake

photo of Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper as "Mrs. Clean"

LightHawk volunteer pilots must navigate unforgiving airspace over the nation's largest estuary, Chesapeake Bay, where no nonsense F15 fighter jets corral errant aircraft. Why do our pilots volunteer to fly in this challenging arena? To give local conservationists like Kathy Phillips, the Assateague Coastkeeper, a leg up in their efforts to clean the waterway.

map of Delmarva peninsula courtesy of Christoper Chase-Dunn.

DelMarVa Peninsula

Chesapeake Bay resides within the Delmarva Peninsula, so called because it encompasses parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virgina (VA). This is a land defined by water, the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the many rivers that flow into these great waterways. Gaining an understanding of how activites on the peninsula trickle down to these bodies of water can be tricky.

“Routine aerial monitoring is an important component of my watershed patrols," says Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips. "My watershed is heavily forested and has extensive marshlands making it difficult to observe interior areas from roadways or the water.” LightHawk has been enabling Phillips to monitor the coastal bays watershed for five years. These flights provide the opportunity to observe current conditions of waterways and adjacent land to identify sources of pollution. New development of farmland and forested areas can also be tracked for impacts on water quality.

photo of Tim Drager flying left seat on a recent mission over Chesapeake Bay.

Up to the Challenge

Volunteer pilot Tim Drager (Pottstown, PA) is one of a handful of skilled fliers who will navigate the complicated airspace around the Chesapeake for LightHawk. "Currency is the key to flying in the DC metro area," explains Drager. Filing a flight plan with a FAA briefer is also important. Drager suggests including "photo mission" in the comments to explain the erratic flight plan.

Kelley Tucker, Drager's program manager, calls Drager one of her most reliable pilots - a real compliment considering the caliber of volunteer pilots in her region. "He's also a master of gadgetry and mapping. Now he's flying with an iPad 2 and using it to great effect. He's always thinking about ways to fly better, how to utilize the cool tools coming out for pilots and using all that to the partner's advantage. He also flies a very sweet C 210 which is such a good plane for us," says Tucker.

photo of Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper courtesy of Patuxent Riverkeeper

Connecting the Dots from the Air

“This flight was invaluable to our work!" explained Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper. "These sort of flyovers help us detect pollution problems and observe effects of construction and other encroachments on the wetlands and other sensitive areas in the watershed. It also helps us get a more visual comprehensive sense of how trends in one part of the watershed effect other parts."

"There are many areas that are very hard to get to on the ground, either because they are on private property or because the metro area is so hard to navigate. Aerial surveys save a lot of time and provide a big picture feel of how it all fits together. We are really grateful for the support of Lighthawk!”

photo by Kathy Phillips/Assateague Coastal Trust with aerial support from LightHawk

Waste Water

The Delmarva peninsula is well known as one of the major centers of chicken production in the US. The region ships over 500 million chickens each year, almost two chickens for every person in the US, not counting vegetarians. Most of these chickens are produced by industrial, factory farms that maximize yield in minimal space. Unfortunately, the voluminous waste they create is often flushed untreated into local waterways and creates critical imbalances in water nutrient levels in the Chesapeake. This photo taken on a LightHawk flight shows a wastewater run-off pond on the left which was intentionally linked by a trench to empty into Chincoteague Bay. Aerial monitoring provided by LightHawk is often the only way for local watchdogs to identify polluters and notify authorities of their actions.

As Potomac Riverkeeper's Brent Walls put it following a LightHawk mission, "This flight has allowed us to assess a pollution potential that otherwise would be in accessible by car. Flights help us achieve greater watchfulness and keep track of pollution sites."

High Pressure Airspace

Outfitting his Cessna 210 with a Garmin 530 and iPad 2 running the Foreflight app (shown at left), volunteer pilot Tim Drager is able to thread his way through some pretty unforgiving airspace around Washington DC. "My last flight with the Patuxent Riverkeeper was one of the most challenging flights because of our proximity to the FRZ (Flight Restricted Zone) and Class B airspace," recalls Drager. Class B airspace - often found around major airports - resembles a tiered wedding cake turned upside down to mark areas requiring Air Traffic Control clearances to enter. Unauthorized flying in the FRZ coupled with unresponsiveness to ATC communication may produce a fighter jet welcome.

photo by J Henry Fair with aerial support from LightHawk

A Cousin Under Threat

Chesapeake Bay's cousin to the north, Delaware Bay is now facing a threat from fracking proposed upriver. Touted by some as a way to unlock valuable reserves of natural gas, others have serious concerns about impacts on groundwater and property values. Decisions to allow fracking should be weighed carefully as the Delaware River provides drinking water to over 15 million people.

Tremendous volumes of water are used in the "fracking" process, as much as several million gallons per well per day. During fracking, this water is mixed with a variety of chemicals, many of them toxic to humans. This cocktail is then pumped down to the shale layer under high pressure to fracture the rock formation and release the gas. These fluids must then be brought back to the surface and stored (as shown in this photo). They can also be transported to a waste treatment plant but the facilities capable of treating this toxic brew are few and far between. Add to this that the gas industry is currently exempt from clean water act legislation.

photo by J Henry Fair with aerial support from LightHawk

Call to Action

Acclaimed director, and LightHawk partner, Josh Fox whose "Gasland" documentary exposed fracking to a national audience is backing efforts to block fracking along the Delaware River.

On November 21st, the Delaware River Basin commission will vote on a plan to allow 20,000 gas wells in the Delaware River basin. "We need calls to come from all over the nation," says Fox, "and we need people from all over the region to come out in protest on November 21st. There has never been a more urgent moment in the North east in the battle against fracking. The Delaware is the primary drinking water source for 15.6 million people and it is a national treasure."

Learn how four simple actions can make a world of difference to the Delaware River. Go to