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Photo of Sandra Lanham
Desert Ace

by Deborah Knight

Sandra Lanham flies a 47-year-old single-engine prop over some of Mexico's most rugged terrain in search of vanishing wildlife. What keeps her airborne? Guts.

The flight to La Paz begins around 9 a.m. at an airport hangar in Tucson, Arizona, where Sandra Lanham keeps her 1956 single-engine Cessna. Lanham, who's about five foot eight, with longish brown hair that's usually in a state of mild, wind-blown disarray, starts walking around the plane for a pre-flight inspection. She checks the oil, inflates one of the tires (with an eight-dollar bicycle pump), runs her fingers over the propeller to feel for nicks, and scans the entire aircraft to make sure it still has "all its nuts and bolts." She informs me that should we have to ditch the craft -- which seems, just then, entirely plausible -- I am to hurl the 40-pound life raft from the back seat into the water. Of course, if the plane happens to flip upside down on impact, the door will be impossible to open; in that case, I am to calmly wait until the cabin fills with enough water to equalize the pressure and free up the hatch. Lanham then gives the Cessna another once-over, eyes the worn yellow exterior, and smiles. "I love it. Bad paint, strong heart." Then together we roll the plane -- by hand -- out of its hangar onto the runway.

Photo of Isla Espiritu SantoAs the founder and sole pilot of Environmental Flying Services, Lanham, 55, helps biologists and conservationists in Baja California and northwest Mexico collect data on dolphins, turtles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, prairie dogs, ducks, parrots, jaguars, and even hummingbirds. Many of these surveys can only be done from the air, and without Lanham would probably not be done at all in Mexico, where funding for environmental projects is notoriously scarce. Seated behind the controls of her vintage Cessna, Lanham often flies perilously low to the ground -- sometimes just 50 feet above the earth or the sea -- clutching the plane's throttle as she tracks the movement of wildlife below. But today Lanham is gunning it for southern Baja to meet up with a marine biologist who needs her piloting skills to survey a population of whale sharks in La Paz Bay. Though these fish are immense -- sometimes growing to 39 feet long -- they are elusive. Relatively little is known about their breeding locations, their migration patterns, or their numbers.

A short time after we lift off the runway, we pass over Nogales, a town bifurcated by a 14-foot tall metal fence marking the border between the United States and Mexico. A little later we're soaring 9,000 feet above the Gulf of California, the fecund, mesmerizing expanse of water that lies between the Mexican mainland and the 800-mile-long Baja peninsula. One of the inherent risks flying south of the border is that there is no search and rescue. Because Lanham regularly flies over open seas, she took a survival course in water landings a few years back. "It's not a matter of if you end up in the water," her instructor pointedly told her, "but when." Her life raft, therefore, is top-notch -- designed to open and inflate automatically -- and she recently spent $1,400 on some additional amenities: a locator beacon, flares, and a high-quality desalination pump. Fortunately, her worst mishap so far has occurred on land when she slipped down the step of her parked plane at an airport in Chihuahua City, fracturing her elbow.

Once we cross the Gulf of California, we turn south along the Baja peninsula. Dropping to an altitude of 5,500 feet, we watch the water beneath us bloom into shades of blue, azure, purple, and turquoise. Baja may be a sparse, dry land, but the water surrounding it teems with color and life.

Photo of Sandra Lanham That afternoon in La Paz, Lanham wraps her oil-stained fingers around a margarita and discusses GPS points with James Ketchum, the whale shark researcher. He's a graduate student at the Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, a federal marine research institute, and Lanham's plane is critical to his work. Ketchum has plotted for her a zigzag flight pattern of transects over La Paz Bay. At 100 miles per hour, she can survey 10 times the area Ketchum could cover in the same amount of time by boat.

On the next morning, Lanham steers her Cessna 1,000 feet above La Paz Bay. She uses an onboard GPS unit to navigate precisely the route plotted by Ketchum, who meanwhile cruises below us in a 26-foot motorboat. If Lanham spots any whale sharks, Ketchum will dive in -- video equipment in hand -- to document the fish in their underwater habitat. He wants to see whether he can learn to identify individual sharks. The two communicate using a marine-band radio that seems to transmit mostly static. Mauricio Hoyos, another shark researcher from La Paz's marine institute, sits beside Lanham, busily recording on a laptop computer the coordinates of any visible marine life. Hoyos points to what appears to be white triangles in the blue water below: They're actually the undersides of mobila rays, tropical mantas that leap into the air, then flip over like pancakes. Lanham spots a group of whales through her binoculars. "Ten pilot whales," she calls out. Then, "Bottle-nosed dolphins with calves: Call it a group of 35." Later, Lanham gestures to a school of sardines that, en masse, suddenly switches direction, flashing in the water like rhinestones.

The following day, we're in the air again for another four-hour survey. Lanham gleefully spots a hammerhead. She used to see a lot more, she says, but no longer: "In my most pessimistic moments, I feel like a historian, recording what once was."

Lanham charges her clients about $40 an hour to cover her costs, a small fraction of what commercial pilots would charge. When not flying, Lanham, until recently, would busy herself churning out grant requests to help keep her single plane aloft, since it regularly requires repairs, safety equipment upgrades, and, every two-and-a-half years, a new $20,000 engine. And then there were the home mortgage payments. But Lanham's money woes suddenly ended in October 2001 when the MacArthur Foundation awarded her $500,000 -- one of its so-called "genius" grants -- to support her aerial conservation efforts. Eventually she plans to use the money to hire another pilot and purchase a second plane so that "every time I catch the flu, I'm not ruining somebody's research project."

Lanham's flying career began 24 years ago when she found herself with a little extra cash from a tax rebate and signed up for flying lessons at a local aviation school in Tucson. She became especially enamored of aerobatics, or stunt flying, and in 1987 bought her Cessna for $10,500. Still, flying remained mostly a hobby until 1990, when she moved for one year to Alamos, Mexico, with her new boyfriend. The Cessna came along, too. One day a local government biologist came looking for the lady with the plane: Would she help him search for pronghorn antelope? After flying all day and finding none, they finally landed and sat dejectedly at a small, deserted airfield. "This isn't good enough," Lanham thought, and announced she was going back up. This time they found their pronghorn, and Lanham discovered her calling. Several months later, she returned to Tucson and launched Environmental Flying Services.

Photo of pronghorn antelopeLanham believes the real value of her work lies simply in the steady accumulation of data -- her annual surveys of the peninsular pronghorn, for instance, which is Mexico's most endangered land mammal. One day in La Paz, we take a break from our hunt for whale sharks and fly to a barren stretch of Baja's Pacific coast, where, she says, "the pronghorn look like cholla cactuses and the chollas like pronghorn." The 25- to 30-mile-per-hour winds here can be hazardous. Lanham points to a volcano where winds cascade down its steep slopes "like a waterfall of air. When you're flying as low as 200 feet," she says, "a dust devil can spin your plane around." Lanham regularly flies over this region, which includes the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, normally inaccessible by land. She collects data on the shifts in the numbers of pronghorn from year to year and on the areas they inhabit -- information that for the last 10 years has been used to support local conservation efforts.

The La Paz trip, in the end, is something of a bust. Hours of flight time spread over four days don't yield a single glimpse of a whale shark. Ketchum speculates that the reason lies in the very blueness of the water: Whale sharks eat animal plankton, which in turn eat plant plankton that bloom only in cool water, turning the sea green. Since early spring, the waters of La Paz Bay were one degree Celsius warmer than normal, leaving the seas enchantingly blue but devoid of plankton and whale sharks.

Lanham contemplates this setback the morning after our return from La Paz. She gazes out a window of her two-room house at the desert landscape -- paloverde trees, chollas, ocotillos, a giant saguaro. A rabbit hops cautiously down to the little pool in her stone patio and laps the water. Lanham glances down at a book Ketchum has just given her. His inscription reads: "To Sandy, for her enthusiasm and her desire to find the unfindable." By then, Lanham has already decided to return to La Paz to try again. This time she'll fly for free.

Deborah Knight is a freelance writer who lives in San Diego.

Photos: top, Jason Millstein; Isla Espíritu Santo, Jason Millstein; pronghorn antelope and Lanham in chair, Patricio Robles Gil

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council