Michigan DNR pilot Bill Green and biologist Roger Mech on a forest health flight. Photo: David Kenyon/Michigan DNR.
Flying through the skies in single-engine planes over roaring forest fires, skirting treetops scanning the dense forest for poachers and illegal baiters, seeing wildlife from a vantage point most only view through photographs—it's all in a day's work for the five pilots with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources air division. They're the DNR's eyes in the sky, responsible for the health of wildlife and its habitat as much as for keeping outdoorsmen from breaking the rules, and saving their lives if they get in a jam.
Known mostly for detecting and monitoring wildfires, these hybrid law-enforcement and natural resource officers survey wildlife, aid in search and rescue operations, and spot violators of baiting, spotlighting, and off-road vehicle regulations.
A pilot's view of a wildfire in progress. He circles a fire, looking for ground routes in and out. Photo: Neil Harri/Michigan DNR.
Wings Over Wildfire
Less than a century ago, spotters in fire towers were the front line of defense against forest fires. Though this system was reasonably effective in the Rocky Mountain peaks, Michigan’s relatively flat, dense landscape made it tough to spot flare-ups. Plus, a spotter in a fixed location could only patrol a certain area. So, in 1968, the agency took to the skies in planes and helicopters. These days, wildlife agencies in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio each employ a corps of pilots, as well.
“At any sign of fire, we can fly right over it to pinpoint the location and provide valuable information to the ground crews battling the blaze,” says Bill Green, lead pilot and a 25-year veteran of the department. “We identify fuel type—pine, grass or hardwoods—the rate of spread, if any structures are involved, and, most importantly, how to get equipment and people in or out safely.”
With the help of pilots, ground crews can quash single-acre fires in hardwoods in as little as 20 minutes. The goal is to spot and respond to all fires before they grow to 10 acres. Photo: Neil Harri/Michigan DNR.
Green says that when his pilots give turn-by-turn directions to emergency responders on the ground, acting as low-tech GPS units, help can arrive in minutes rather than hours.
“When we see crews responding, we radio, 'I have you in sight,' and those drivers can put away their maps and listen to us call their turns,” says Green. “The last thing anyone wants is a semi to get stuck in a sand hole and block other equipment from getting in.
“Once crews arrive, pilots watch the fire's movement and make sure nothing flanks the fire line. The crews might not see it coming, and it’s our job to warn them,” says Green. “We’ve built a rapport with these guys, because being able to trust the voice on the other end of the radio is invaluable.”
Pilot Neil Harri was conducting a moose survey when he came across these two giant bulls squaring off. Photo: Neil Harri/Michigan DNR.
Not Your Average Gig
Fire detection is the group’s foremost mission, but the value of having eyes in the sky extends to many other DNR duties. “We help with wildlife surveys for the state’s elk, moose, and wolf populations, and count every eagle’s nest,” Green says. “We partner with the law enforcement side of our agency to find deer baiters or poachers spotlighting wildlife at night. At times we help with search-and-rescue missions, catch illegal ORV use on state lands, and everything else in between."
The repopulation of bald eagles is a success story in Michigan. Pilots now find the nests of eagles and other predatory birds in trees, communication towers, roadside signs, and even atop stadium lights. Photo: Neil Harri/Michigan DNR.
The pilots are hesitant to describe all the technological aids at their disposal for viewing people, animals, and vehicles on the ground, but they are quick to confess that nothing beats a good pair of binoculars. Pilot Kevin Jacobs, a Michigan native who has been with the DNR for 14 years, says he doesn’t think baiters and poachers realize how well he can see things from the air. While some offenders go through stages of denial, others simply fess up and say, "Yeah, you got me," when they know a plane is involved.
One of the five single-engine Cessnas of the Michigan DNR flight division. Photo: Bill Green/Michigan DNR.
The main tool of their trade is a fixed-wing, single-engine Cessna, one for each pilot, painted white with red and blue accents to make it easy for ground observers to recognize, and easy to locate if there’s a need to ditch. Fuel capacity is 87 gallons, and an average flight consumes 11 gallons per hour. But Gordon Zuehlke, a pilot in his 13th year with the division, says he rarely stays airborne long enough to burn through a tank. Most flights don't exceed four hours.
“It’s one of the most exciting jobs there is,” says Green. Combined, the five commercially-rated pilots have logged over 70,000 hours of flight time and 85 years of DNR service.
"People always want to know what I like about my job, and I guess my answer is the view. I have the best office window in the world," Green says. Photo: Kevin Jacobs/Michigan DNR.
Home Field Advantage
Bill Green's interest in flying dates back to his first ride in a J3 Cub when he was just seven years old. He earned his Bachelor of Science in aviation from Western Michigan University in 1974, then worked as a flight instructor in Minnesota and a bush pilot in Alaska before signing on as a contract pilot for the DNR in 1986.
“I really hadn’t found my niche as an instructor, and I didn’t mind being a bush pilot, but I really like electricity, and in Alaska, they only have two kinds—some and none,” jokes Green. “Just days into my first season with the DNR, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
If moose seem used to aircraft invading their privacy, it's because they are. In 1985, the Michigan DNR relocated moose from Ontario to northern portions of the state. Pilots have monitored these animals with radio collars to quantify the repopulation efforts. Since the transplant, moose numbers have increased. Michigan is now considering a limited harvest. Photo: David Kenyon/Michigan DNR.
All five pilots are sportsmen, which Kevin Jacobs says makes it easier to relay information to conservation officers. The few times Green has needed to fill an open pilot position, he’s made it clear that typical airline pilots need not apply unless they enjoy hunting, fishing, shooting, camping, or hiking. Of course, they also have to be willing to fly a small, single-engine aircraft. Not that there's much turnover.
These wolves are not dead; they're just resting. Pilot Neil Harri flew over the alpha pair just after they'd mated. He tracked the female and its offspring for more than seven years before the mother died of old age. Photo: Neil Harri/Michigan DNR.
After winter elk and wolf surveys and springtime bald eagle nest counts, the pilots spend summer months investigating forest defoliation, and monitoring off-road vehicles. Their job responsibilities change seasonally and, while that cycle is predictable, each flight brings something unexpected.
“Memorial Day weekend begins the busy season for spotting OHV misuse. A lot of people get on top of these restricted hills, look up, and wave at me as I circle. They don’t know who I am at that point,” explains Green. “Right about then, a conservation officer at the bottom of the hill announces on a loudspeaker, 'Come down please, you’re being watched from an aircraft and you can’t get away.' Well, all those waving hands are now middle fingers.
“Some riders flee the scene, knowing officers in a pickup truck can’t chase a dirt bike through mud and forest. But with an airplane, the whole cat-and-mouse game changes. Riders may find another two-track road, but I’ll have another conservation officer’s truck sitting at the end of it. I’ve even spotted bikes that riders have covered with ferns so that they can walk out and play dumb.”
You can run, but you can't hide. Generally, when an illegal off-road driver decides to flee, ground officers leave a buffer as they pursue, knowing the pilot can keep an eye on an offender until they stop, or in this case, get stuck. Photo: Sgt. Glenn Gutierrez/Michigan DNR.
DNR pilots are often tasked with finding lost or injured people. Green remembers being called in the middle of the night to search for a missing rabbit hunter. After circling the sky for hours in dark, snowy conditions, he was about to give up when he noticed a red glow in the forest below—the dimmest of lights—and directed ground crews to the position.
“I told the crews to relay a message to the hunter—next time, build a bigger signal fire,” says Green. “They radioed back that the hunter was cold, wet, and unable to start a fire, so he decided to have a cigarette instead. That was the glow I saw from about 1,000 feet up.”
Last year, Kevin Jacobs responded to an unusual search-and-rescue call. A convict in the back of a sheriff’s vehicle had slipped out of his handcuffs, reached through the cage, grabbed the deputy’s sidearm, and forced the cop out of the vehicle at gunpoint. The convict sped down the highway in the cruiser, eventually bailing into the woods. Because he was armed, officers were hesitant to press hard on foot.
“I flew over the scene, and since the man was wearing an orange jumpsuit, I thought I’d be able to spot him quickly,” says Jacobs. “Believe it or not, the convict eluded us for several days. When officers finally apprehended him, he said that when my aircraft flew over, he’d jump into the swamp water and cover his head with vegetation to avoid detection. I think the fact that we kept circling and putting pressure on him kept him from gaining ground.”
Fall is the heavy hunting season, when pilots assist conservation officers on the ground to curb poaching, especially jacklighting—using high-powered spotlights to locate or disorient deer or other game.
A conservation officer initially spotted this illegal baiter's sugar beet pile, right in front of a deer blind, from 500 feet in the air, just before the opening of Michigan's deer rifle season. Photo: Kevin Jacobs/Michigan DNR.
Spotlighting (with no gun in the car) is legal in Michigan—except in November. Pilots fly a grid pattern over 1,000 square miles each night that month, and radio to officers standing post throughout the area. Airborne, pilots say they can see spotlights from as far as 25 miles away, and as handheld spotlights become more powerful, a potential poacher’s beacon becomes that much brighter.
One story from pilot Dean Minett, who has seen a lot in his 13 years of DNR service: “I watched a person illegally spotlighting, and he fled down some forest roads to outrun the officer’s truck. Too bad the distance he traveled equated to about two-inches on my dashboard. He couldn’t shake me. I directed officers and they caught up to him on a paved road a few miles away, though the man swore he wasn’t poaching and he appeared to have no weapons.
“One of the officers had a trained K9 with her and patrolled the area, suspecting that the man threw a rifle out the window. The dog picked up a scent, went down into a ditch, and came up dragging a rifle in its teeth, biting down hard on the wood stock. The sight was more than the poacher could take and he yelled, 'Get that dog off my favorite gun, before he scratches it!' He incriminated himself without even meaning to.”
Some poachers on the run get creative. Kevin Jacobs led officers to one who said he’d curled up in the forest like a bedded deer hoping to fool the infrared camera in the aircraft. Then he tried “hiding” under one mercury light after another, thinking they would mask his heat signature. “Apparently, he forgot I still have eyes,” says Jacobs.
Sgt. Glenn Gutierrez has been a Michigan conservation officer for 20 years and has worked alongside all five of the pilots on the team on many occasions. He says without their help, officers wouldn’t be able to respond to as many violations—it’s just impossible to see everything from the ground. As in many states, the law enforcement division in Michigan is understaffed, and Gutierrez believes that having the help of these pilots can sometimes make up the difference.
Dean Minett (left) with a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. Their collaboration was essential to combat the Duck Lake fire, the third largest in the state's history. Photo: Michigan DNR.
“Pilots spot offenders, direct us on the ground, and give us the element of surprise,” says Gutierrez. “In some of the more rural areas, people think they’re so far out of the way that they’re untouchable, or they flee because they think they can outrun us or use the night to their advantage. Because the pilots can track offenders, we eventually catch up, and then they’re looking at much more serious charges.”
An estimated 80,000 ducks occupying one of the few openings in the ice on the Great Lakes during a winter survey flight. Photo: Bill Green/Michigan DNR.
Singed, But Safe
Any member of Michigan’s DNR pilot division will tell you that while they may fly solo, they work as a team—with each other, conservation officers, or fire crews on the ground. They feel it’s their calling, and part of their compensation is the knowledge that they make a difference on lands they truly care for. Certainly it’s a job with countless rewards, but they need no reminder about the risks—as common as inclement weather and as uncommon as freak mechanical malfunction. Just ask Dean Minett, who, in September 2012, survived one of the worst incidents this air division had seen since 1970.
While en route back to base after a routine fire patrol over Michigan’s upper peninsula, Minett caught a faint whiff of smoldering wires in his aircraft cabin. Fifteen miles and eight minutes later, he was on his final approach, just hundreds of feet from the runway, when a cloud of smoke burst from the instrument panel and filled the cabin. Though startled and momentarily disoriented by the smoke, Minett could still see and steer, until a powerful downdraft, formed by a rough, hot-air pocket, thrust the aircraft earthward with such force that his head slammed into the roof.
The plane struck the ground just short of the runway, hard enough to break off the landing gear and tear open the fuel tank. The craft skidded right down the center of the runway, and as sparks from the friction met with leaking fuel, fire consumed the plane with Minett still inside. Inside the cockpit, intense smoke and heat added to the chaos, and Minett was uncertain of his situation. When the plane finally halted, flames surged in all directions, searing his skin, yet he managed to unbuckle his harness, pry open the door, and make a run for safety—with only a few seconds to spare before flames completely engulfed the craft.
Once the wreckage was extinguished, Minett's plane was declared a total loss, and agents never determined the cause of the initial smoke inside the cabin. Minett suffered second- and third-degree burns on his legs, arms and face, and his right ear was nearly burned through, but he survived. In a few months, he was completely healed with only minimal scarring. And back in the skies.
“I’m incredibly fortunate, and consider it a miracle I survived and am back to a job that I love doing,” Minett says. “All five of us take it very seriously. If there’s a forest fire and we need to direct ground crews, or if someone needs a rescue, it doesn’t matter if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning—I get myself to the airfield, where I can be out of my hangar in less than five minutes, and in the air in 10. Just tell me where I need to go.”
DNR pilot Dean Minett standing next to one of the agency’s aircraft in March 2005. Photo: Michigan DNR.