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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
parked plane at an airport in Chihuahua City, fracturing
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
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
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
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.