High Flying Guardians

A group of pilots spot contamination from the sky.

By Carolyn Lomax

On a late summer morning, Akky Mansikka, a retired teacher and commercial pilot, climbs into a Cessna 172 at Buttonville Airport near Toronto, and takes off. Her flight plan includes a stop at Hamilton airport where she picks up a passenger—an inspector from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment. From Hamilton, they fly to a location where environmental laws have been broken.

Over the site, Mansikka flies in slow circles while the inspector takes photographs through the open window, which will be used as evidence to prosecute and fine polluters who have degraded the land.

This aerial surveillance of Ontario’s air, water, land, and waste is a cooperative venture between the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) and the First Canadian Chapter of the 99s, an international organization of women pilots. The project, known as Operation Skywatch, started in 1979 when the MOE asked the 99s to volunteer their time—and sometimes their own aircraft—for aerial surveillance flights. MOE provided a photographer. Because the 99s’ mission is to promote women in aviation and advance science, the project was a perfect fit.

But over the past ten years, the MOE has decreased the number of flights offered to Skywatch pilots. In the process, many polluters are now getting away with contaminating the environment. The 99s aren’t happy, and now they’re hoping to persuade the ministry of the value of Operation Skywatch.

“My personal interest is to increase the flights and monitoring of the environment; hopefully that meshes with MOE’s goals,” says Akky Mansikka.

Operation Skywatch is the creation of Ron Johnson, a former MOE employee who was head of the program and chief photographer. When he flew with the 99s, he photographed sites, set up a photo lab, and trained the pilots in aerial surveillance techniques. As a result, the New York/New Jersey Chapter of the 99s also started a Skywatch program in 1989, looking for environmental infractions during their own flights and calling a special hotline with their observations.

At the peak of their work in 1994, the Canadian Skywatch pilots logged over 300 hours a year, and provided evidence for many court cases to prosecute environmental crime. With the increasing number of convictions, MOE’s personnel relied on the flights to support their inspections. And the program’s achievements, prompted MOE to pay for the 99s’ aircraft rentals, aerial maps, a pilot training manual, and the cost of the pilots’ recertifications with an annual grant that grew to $7,500.

Denise Egglestone, one of the 99s who joined the program in 1992, was a coordinator for Skywatch. She says that some of her most memorable experiences in the air were her flights over mines in northern Ontario where the government had allowed companies to leak toxic waste into the forest.

“One time in winter, we flew over a site high, at 10,000 feet,” she says. “Somebody had buried an 18 wheeler and the ground had collapsed over it.” Police later removed the truck and its toxic cargo.

But Skywatch fell apart when the government cut 60 percent of the MOE staff in 1997, because Johnson was one of the casualties. Since then the pilots’ flying hours have decreased to less than 13 hours a year. The consensus among the pilots and Johnson is that the person who now runs the program at the MOE, Sarah Bowlby, is unsuitable for the position. The pilots say they’ve tried to engage Bowlby by hiring a consultant to help improve the program, but she won’t co-operate with them. The MOE declined to comment for this story.

“The ministry no longer gives us a grant to cover expenses,” says Dee Buchmare, another one of the 99s. “What’s always amazed us is that MOE could do so much good with Skywatch, and people are finally waking up to the perils to the environment.”

In spite of their conviction that Operation Skywatch is being compromised by MOE, the 99s want the program to be strengthened. They’d like to coax Johnson out of retirement to revitalize Skywatch, and reignite passion for the work that has made many so polluters pay up and clean up.

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