After waiting out a clamorous thunderstorm at the Fairhope, Alabama, airport, the Cessna juddered through lingering clouds and turbulence over the Gulf of Mexico on the 104-mile flight to BP Plc’s sunken oil rig.
The sky was gray and I was green.
Then the astounding view from 3,000 feet took my mind off the plane’s sickening motion. It was 90 days after the oil disaster began on April 21. Fingerlike tentacles of glistening oil covered the surface of the sea, stretching to the horizon. We could smell the slick.
“Flying is the most useful educational tool I know of when it comes to environmental issues,” said pilot Tom Hutchings, who was as awed at the sight as I was. “Until you go up in the air and see things in the context of the whole place, you really don’t get it.”
(Even airplane views are limited, though. According to a University of Georgia study, 79 percent of the 200 million gallons of spilled oil is still underwater and will be for years.)
Hutchings is one of 37 volunteer pilots who donate their time and aircraft to SouthWings, a nonprofit conservation group that arranges flights all over southeastern U.S. for media, policy makers and community leaders. Aerial views expose the eye-popping scale of environmental catastrophes in ways that other perspectives cannot.
“When we get the news and the facts out on a situation, then people can act and make an informed decision,” said Hutchings, an environmental consultant when he isn’t flying. “Otherwise you’re just listening to the major media outlets, and we all know how much information a sound bite has.”
SouthWings pilots also usually spring for fuel. Hutchings’s Cessna 182 burned about $150 each time he flew to the rig and back, a trip he has made more than 25 times.
Susan Lapis, a pilot with SouthWings since its beginnings in 1996, has found that passengers can get emotional when they see how much damage human development has wrought.
“People cry in my airplane all the time,” she says. “Especially in West Virginia.” Last year she gave me a bird’s-eye view of the coal-mining operations around Charleston, where the devastation, a growing wasteland in the middle of otherwise verdant hills, is particularly jarring.
SouthWings offered to fly senate candidates now vying for the late Robert C. Byrd’s vacated seat over the mine sites, but it had no takers in advance of the state’s Aug. 28 primary. That’s too bad, because if policymakers ever grasped the true scope of the damage caused by the type of mining called mountaintop removal in this richly green state, it’s doubtful the practice would continue.
Occasionally pilots do see positive results of their work. Mark Miller, an organizer for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, flew with Lapis several times over the Shenandoah Mountains while spearheading the effort to make thousands of acres there Wilderness Areas, the most protective designation for federal lands and the most difficult to get passed.
Lapis was listening to the radio in March 2009 when the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act became law.
“That boy went to Congress and got his Wilderness Area,” says Lapis. “When I heard the news on the radio, I wept.”
A cynic might wonder, how is it that an environmental group -- which goes to great heights to expose the consequences of coal or oil consumption -- can make all these gas-guzzling Cessna flights with a clean, green conscience?
“It is something that comes up,” says SouthWings executive director Hume Davenport. “We’re burning fossil fuel while decrying the industries that produce it. We could be targeted as hypocrites.”
Now SouthWings has effectively quashed that charge. Last year it calculated the emissions produced by all of its flights, then neutralized them by buying 45 tons of carbon offsets, an investment in projects that reduce the equivalent in carbon dioxide pollution elsewhere. This year they plan to go further and offset emissions generated by their office operations and ground travel.
I have seen some incredible -- and awful -- sights from the sky, thanks to SouthWings and its dedicated pilots. Every policymaker should get up there to see the big picture.
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)