Flying high

National Geographic photographer Klaus Nigge documents a large concentration of pink flamingos on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
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National Geographic photographer Klaus Nigge documents a large concentration of pink flamingos on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
MEEKER I Last December, local pilot David Cole and his wife Martha traveled to Cancun, Mexico, to fly for LightHawk, a non-profit organization. As part of the group’s mission to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight, the Coles flew a Cessna 206 owned by LightHawk from Cancun to Belize.
Cole began donating flights through LightHawk after learning about the group from fellow Meeker pilot David Kunkel. Kunkel has donated many hours in his Maule aircraft to fly LightHawk conservation partners around the western United States and Mesoamerica (a region which extends approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica). Kunkel also served on LightHawk’s board of directors and as a past president.
For five days, Cole, a retired United Airlines pilot with more than 24,000 flying hours, flew two National Geographic photographers over the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. The reef runs along the entire coast of Belize and is second in size only to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Renowned photographers Brian Skerry and Jeff Wildemuth were working on an ­upcoming piece on the inter-connectivity of undersea life along the reef. Observing an undersea reef from 1,000 feet in the air might sound odd but the crystal clear water gave the photographers the ability to easily spot manatees and dolphins from the air.
During the next week, the Coles flew community leaders and conservation representatives over the rainforests to assess damage from Hurricane Richard, which passed through the area in October 2010. These protected reserves are managed by different conservation trusts and the Belize Forest Service. Aerial monitoring, donated free of charge by LightHawk, is vital to these groups for evaluating the impact of clear-cutting forests and agricultural practices that cause river silting. The rivers are the lifeblood of local communities.
The Coles visited an eco-tourism lodge built amid partially excavated Mayan ruins in northwestern Belize and saw firsthand the hurricane damage from the ground. “From the air,” David observed, “It looked like the once totally green jungle canopy was about one-third gray from fallen trees and dead foliage.”
The Coles then flew to Merida, Mexico, on the north central coast of the Yucatan peninsula, to assist in a project counting and photographing flamingo populations along the estuaries.
Eduardo Galicia, a well-known biologist in the conservation community, sat in the front seat of the plane and counted, while Klaus Nigge, a freelance National Geographic photographer, documented the largest concentrations from the open rear doorway of the Cessna. Nigge discovered that in the Yucatan the flamingo is “the bird” in many respects. For example, all of the tourists who visit Yucatan, whenever they think about nature, think of the pink flamingo. Everyone on the flight was awestruck by the sight of thousands of flamingos rising up as a coral cloud.
That particular mission was profiled as a “Tripods in the Sky” event by LightHawk and their strategic partner, the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP). LightHawk provides the aerial platform and iLCP, consisting of many of the world’s top nature photographers, provides the images. Together, this partnership proves to be a game changer for conservation throughout much of North and Central America. More information and photos about Cole’s flight can be found at TheSky-Yucatan-BehindtheScenes.html.
“Whether it is getting the right congressman or reporter into the air, where political boundaries disappear and the land speaks for itself, or capturing a poignant and indelible image with a camera, these pilots and photographers believe they can break through society’s indifference with compelling images rather than words,” explained Rudy Engholm, executive director for LightHawk.
Cole adds, “You do not need to be an environmentalist to appreciate LightHawk’s work as they provide the same aerial platform to both sides of environmental issues, which will help in decision making.”
This flight ended where the trip began, landing in Cancun where the aircraft awaited its next LightHawk volunteer pilot.
“The trip for us was fun, educational and very productive. People along the way were extremely friendly and seemed to appreciate LightHawk’s contributions to helping them conserve the special places and wildlife of their communities,” the Coles said.

About LightHawk:
LightHawk is a volunteer-based environmental aviation organization that provides donated flights to make the aerial perspective freely available to conservation groups. Founded in 1979, LightHawk illuminates environmental threats and empowers its conservation partners to protect land, water and wildlife in the United States, Mexico, Central America and parts of Canada. Visit their website at