Sandra Lanham

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

The tall rectangle of sunlight beside the open office door darkened as a silhouette stood quietly at the threshold. I was delivering a soft staccato of fingertips to my keyboard when the corner of my eye clouded. I turned my chair to face the harlequin light. "Can I help you?"

"We're looking for a cable to transfer data from a GPS to our laptop," came the reply. The voice was soft, tentative and seemed to possess an almost Southern facility for poise and constraint. A woman escorted the last few syllables of the sentence into my office, followed by two intent Mexicans.

"My name's Sandra Lanham," she announced then gestured with her GPS device. "These guys are from the university in Ensenada. We just finished a flying survey of blue palm canyons and need to transfer the coordinate data to Ernesto's computer." The larger of the two men liberated a Vaio laptop from his satchel and pointed to its serial port.

"Let's see what can be done," I said, opening a drawer. During an avid search through a Laocoon of knotted wires and cables I had a chance to study the woman. She was tall and seemed physically fit although her clothes, which appeared comfortable to the point of anarchy, made this second observation hard to determine. Her long black hair was attractively disheveled, as if recently teased by fingers of wind. The dark eyes, unwavering when they looked at me, were difficult to read. They were measured, curious and forearmed, perhaps ready with a retinue of responses that could be piped directly to either the mind or the emotions. I had the feeling here was a personality filled with interesting contradictions.

It came out in conversation that Sandy was a pilot and Ernesto Franco was a scientist from the Ecological Department of CICESE in Ensenada. Their young companion Mario, a technician in the field of botany, was an eager satellite and a good guide. He apparently knew the Baja like the contours of his own tongue. Ernesto described him as a real Baja legend, genetically related to most of the peninsular pioneer families. Dr. Ernesto Franco was something of a legend himself. An indefatigable crusader for Baja's natural resources, he has been involved in a wide spectrum of projects, from protection of old growth forest to the reintroduction of the California condor into the the northern mountains of the peninsula.

I also learned Sandy was the sole occupant of a vocational vessel called Environmental Flying (E-Flying), a non-profit organization located in Tucson, Arizona. E-Flying was created to provide researchers and scientists with the means to pursue their fact-finding and ecological investigations. It was Sandy's intention to help Mexican environmentalists in their work. She knew they didn't make much money and certainly couldn't afford the regular rates of a charter service. So she offers her services at no charge. Her passengers pay the fuel costs and the rest of her expenses derive from donations and grant foundations. It's largely a matter of faith and a lot of extra work writing up grant requests, but some money does find its way to E-Flying. Enough to keep her plane in the air and help with projects that might ultimately lead to policies for the protection of the Sea of Cortez.

Sandy Lanham’s professional ellipses swing wide and erratic. She covers a lot of territory in her plane and has received special dispensation from Mexican authorities to fly at low altitudes that many consider unsafe. But it’s just part of the job for a pilot whose plane delivers a speed and scope denied to an earthbound researcher. A scientist riding shotgun with Sandy has access to remote and difficult to reach locations and can tally more in a day than a colleague could in two weeks on foot.

Whenever Sandy’s tires chirp against our airport tarmac, I look forward to an eclipse at my office door. Over the last year we have become friends. I learn a little more about her with each visit. Small things and some large things. At one time she was a belly dancer. She was deeply involved in the design of her home in Tucson. She was a MacArthur ‘Genius Award’ winner in 2001. She is a very good writer. She simply has to have a cigarette after a meal. She loves the desert and the Sea of Cortez. She is impatient with people who hold to old perceptions of a woman’s abilities. She is comfortable with solitude. She likes to laugh.

I must admit I am envious of anyone who can offset gravity with a tin commode stuffed with`horsepower and aviation fuel. I am jealous of Sandy Lanham because she does that, and does it for a good cause.

* * * * * * *

Below is an article that appeared in the summer 2003 edition of OnEarth magazine.

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 956 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.

As 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.

That afternoon in La Paz, Lanham wraps her oil-stained fingers around a margarita and discusses GPS points with 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.


Photo by Marc Carwardine

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."

Photo by Ramon Castellanos

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. Lanham 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-mileper- 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 – palo verde 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.

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council
Deborah Knight is a freelance writer who lives in San Diego.