Flight of the Condors

By Michael Baum, EAA 684922, and Ralph Britton

How did two long-time Palo Alto Airport Association volunteers find themselves coincidentally flying out of Boise, Idaho with California condors?

For Michael Baum, EAA 684922, and Ralph Britton, the common denominator was LightHawk, a unique volunteer conservation organization of pilots and environmental experts that leverages the unique capabilities and perspectives of flight to benefit improved land use, endangered species transport, and enhanced government and media environmental awareness and education. Because of LightHawk’s unwavering commitment to conservation and its impressive ability to execute despite finite resources and challenging missions, both pilots found themselves drawn to the organization.

By joining the LightHawk community, Michael and Ralph found an amazing group of cooperative, collaborative, and passionate pilots, staff, and client-partners who exude a contagious commitment to action and excellence — with uncompromising dedication to safety. Both pilots were impressed by what their prior LightHawk passengers do and how they do it, and have found lasting fulfillment in working among such a cadre of dedicated professionals.

Ralph Britton

In Boise, Idaho, both Michael and Ralph discovered that they had independently committed to transport condors for release into the central California flock, managed by biologists from Pinnacles National Park and Ventana Wildlife Society. Especially meaningful for Michael was that his son Matthew, a 16-year-old who recently completed ground school and is pursuing a private pilot certificate, volunteered to assist with the flight.

The condor mission was particularly important given the birds’ status. At their most threatened point in the late 1980s, only 22 California condors remained in the wild. Those birds were brought in from the wild and moved to zoos and captive breeding centers. The California condor is the largest vulture in North America. Condors are carrion-eaters and do not hunt. They weigh up to 20 pounds and depend upon a wingspan up to 9 and a half feet to support their weight as they soar majestically among the peaks. Because they are scavengers, they don’t need the sharp grasping talons of hawks and eagles. They are social birds that often fly in groups. After mating and producing an egg, a pair will raise the offspring together for two years without further egg production during that time. It will take yet another six to seven years before the offspring becomes reproductively active. As a result, recovery proceeds slowly in the wild. Nonetheless, it helps that these birds are long lived when not exposed to lead. They once ranged over much of the western U.S., but with so few in the wild their range is limited to portions of California, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California in Mexico today. Through persistent conservation efforts, the condor population has slowly grown to approximately 500, of which about half are now in the wild.

Hana Weaver, Matthew Baum and Marti Jenkins loading Condors in Boise.

Lead poisoning is the primary cause of death for adult condors and hinders their recovery in the wild. Condors naturally see carcasses or entrails left in the field as food and fragments of lead are inadvertently consumed by condors when they feed on a carcass shot with lead ammunition. Regulations preventing the use of lead ammunition for all wildlife hunting in California will be fully implemented in 2019, although limited restrictions are in place now. However, many nonprofit organizations and the park provide education and outreach to the hunting community about non-lead ammunition and its availability because many hunters are not yet aware of how they can help protect wildlife through their choices.

The Boise transport was particularly unique in that it was part of a convoy of nine juvenile condors raised by The Peregrine Fund’s breeding population and prepped for transport. The Peregrine Fund, a longtime partner of LightHawk, is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving birds of prey, and in this case, vultures. The Peregrine Fund staff greeted the volunteer pilots and assisted in loading the birds into their airplanes. By flying the birds rather than transporting them by van, they endured much less stress over a much shorter period of time, increasing the likelihood of a successful introduction to the wild flock.

The flight from Boise (KBOI) to Hollister (KCVH) was about 500 nautical miles. Despite the good weather, Michael had a touch of apprehension because on an earlier LightHawk mission, one condor shook its cage violently throughout the flight in an awesome display of strength and stamina that demonstrated the unmitigated power of these huge birds.

In fact, the flight to Hollister was uneventful, particularly since the birds were well-behaved. As they taxied to the FBO at Hollister Municipal Airport, the two pilots were pleased to see the friendly biologists from Pinnacles National Park’s and Ventana Wildlife Society’s Condor Recovery Programs waiting patiently for their charges.

Condor with radio transmitter.

In addition to flying condors, Michael has had the privilege of completing LightHawk flights transporting cougar cubs, black footed ferrets, and a Mexican wolf. He has also transported a U.S. Congressman, journalists, environmentalists, oceanographers, and state and regional elected officials. Ralph previously has made several flights with radio antennas installed on the struts of his 182 and has searched for signals from condors and black-backed woodpeckers in locations inaccessible from the ground. Condors released in the wild are regularly equipped with small transmitters, which allow remote monitoring. Like Michael, he has also flown photographers and officials over areas of environmental concern or opportunity.

For Michael and Ralph, it was great knowing that the condors’ fate was about to improve and that they had played a small hand in their brighter future. One thing that stood out was the level of coordination and expertise required to make the mission a reality. But this accomplishment is not extraordinary for LightHawk.

Michael and Ralph urge every qualified pilot (1,000-plus hours PIC required) to consider LightHawk. Every mission is different, and most missions will challenge and improve your piloting skills on many levels. You will be guaranteed to meet some amazing, accomplished people — and, most importantly, you will really make a difference.

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