Embry-Riddle Alumna is an Airborne Environmentalist

Volunteer pilot aids in conservation

Aviators were once sky explorers whose survival depended on how astutely they surveyed the mountains, rivers and lakes below them, and the weather and wind surrounding them. As a conservationist, Stephanie Wells (’03) relies on sophisticated navigation aids; from the vantage point of her Cessna 182, she monitors and collects data to protect the world around her.

Wells has been a LightHawk volunteer for more than 11 years. Through a network of 300 volunteers, LightHawk pilots aid conservation projects through the powerful perspective of flight. Since 1979, the nonprofit has served as a consultant to researchers, co-designing campaigns flown by skilled pilots who donate the use of their aircraft and pay for their own fuel.

Wells flies out of Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport, northwest of Denver. Since her retirement 10 years ago, her connection to LightHawk satisfies her love of flying and a restless desire to do something meaningful. Her flights help capture images that tell important environmental stories. She has helped experts assess fire and flood damage and track endangered species. She has been part of shark surveys in Belize, where poaching is a problem.

Stephanie Wells flew weather reconnaissance planes for the U.S. Air Force and later became a T-38 instructor pilot. She now uses her vast piloting experience to protect the lives of animals and tell important environmental stories from the powerful perspective of flight. Image courtesy of Wendell Air and Space Museum

Closer to home, she also preserves her own backyard. As a Coloradoan, many of her flights have been over the headwaters of the Colorado River.

“Last week, I did a five-hour flight documenting the human-based activities along the length of the Colorado River from a headwater all the way into Utah,” she says. “I flew with a photojournalist from Bloomberg who came all the way from New York so he could depict a river at risk.”

Protecting Feathered Fliers

Her earliest LightHawk flights remain memorable. “We were flying in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. Looking at all the different facets of environmental concerns was fascinating,” she says. “The Guatemala flights were over the northern panhandle, which has the most pristine rainforest in North and Central America, and the Guatemalans had gone to a lot of trouble to keep it that way. Scientists put radio collars on endangered macaws. We flew with little antennas attached to our wings to track these birds and figure out where they were living and migrating to, so we could learn more about their habitat and its destruction.”

Another project Wells was proud to support was the Dark Skies Program conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and University of Colorado. Her flight was part of an effort to protect birds disoriented by city lights during annual migration. In key areas, people were asked to cover their outdoor lights.

“From midnight until 2 a.m., I flew a photographer using a special camera over a rural area and then back toward Denver. We could see the city lights grow brighter, creating a dome of light over an important flyway for the birds,” she recalls. “I had not realized how many birds migrate at night. At first, I was nervous about running into a flock, but we stayed above the altitude of the birds.”

As someone who once dreamed of being a veterinarian, she would like to accommodate wildlife up close and personal, flying a project that transports baby Mexican gray wolves. However, her airplane doesn’t have the cargo door and space required for caged animals. An animal lover, Wells says she has “cats, dogs and rodents of various sorts.”

Air Cred and Adrenaline

In Wells, LightHawk gains a pilot with extraordinary “air cred,” thanks to a career that includes work for the U.S. Air Force, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration.

LightHawk requires at least 1,000 hours of piloting command time. That expertise is of life-or-death importance, as Wells points out: “We fly low altitude, make tight turns, and it requires a good amount of experience and skills — so they don’t want brand new private pilots.”

Wells was always fascinated by weather. She took a few meteorology courses as an undergraduate and changed her major. Air Force ROTC made an offer she jumped at. The recruiter told her, “If you do this, you can go to a summer camp. And you can get a flight and a jet with no commitment. And you get paid for it.”

After she earned an undergraduate degree in meteorology from Iowa State University, she started her Air Force career as a meteorologist.  When the Air Force began allowing women to become pilots, she went into pilot training with about 500 civilian hours in small planes. After graduation, her first flying assignment was as a T-37 instructor, and following that, the Air Force sent her to become a weather reconnaissance pilot “typhoon chaser” in Guam, allowing her to combine her passions for aviation and meteorology.

“I saw more real-world and wartime activity in the reserves than I did on active duty.”

— Stephanie Wells (’03)

“Being stationed in Guam was the most fun assignment I had the whole time I was in the Air Force, flying the WC-130s weather reconnaissance airplanes,” she says. “We would fly them right into typhoons. I did that for two years and thoroughly enjoyed it.”  Following that assignment, she was a T-38 instructor pilot, which led to her future job flying for NASA.

After 10 years of active duty, she joined the Air Force Reserves, flying Lockheed Galaxy C-5s in San Antonio, Texas, and went to work for NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. She earned her master’s degree in Aeronautical Science while working at NASA through Embry-Riddle Worldwide, focusing on safety and space studies. “The extension campus was right across the parking lot from where I was working,” she recalls.

Unexpectedly, flying for the reserves delivered even more intensity than storm-chasing.

“I saw more real-world and wartime activity in the reserves than I did on active duty. My reserve unit was activated for the first Gulf War, Desert Shield and Desert Storm,” she says. “Even though the C-5 didn’t go into combat, we were prepared to be in a combat scenario, complete with preparing for Scud missiles and chem warfare. When they activated us, they threw a lot of the rules out the window. We had long days and flew with some substandard equipment. That’s what you do in a war.”

Today, she continues to fight the good fight as a volunteer pilot. Serving as an airborne environmentalist, she protects the lives of animals and the immediate and long-term welfare of people.