The Right Stuff to Become a Wildlife Biologist/Pilot

Important Notice: will be shutting down on January 2, 2019. However, most of the content found here will now be available on the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Program website.

Written by Thom Lewis
Thursday, June 02, 2011

Thom LewisSome of you may have wondered, how does a person get a job flying aircraft to count waterfowl? The job requires a person to have a passion and become proficient in both wildlife biology and aviation. If you’ve followed this website for very long you probably know that I’ve been participating in the survey for nine years now. My involvement began while I was the Wildlife Biologist at St. Vincent NWR and I got selected to be the right seat observer for the Southern Saskatchewan Survey area in 2003. To make a long story shorter, Phil Thorpe –who was then and still is the wildlife biologist/pilot for that area—saw my interest in using aviation as a wildlife management tool and recruited me. Note that I use the term “wildlife biologist/pilot” because we are wildlife biologists first, but have to be pilots as well. I already had the required Wildlife Biology background, so after several years flying with Phil and helping on some winter redhead surveys, I decided to begin flight training. The minimum pilot qualifications for the job are a commercial pilot certificate, an instrument rating and 500 hours as pilot in command (PIC). I was fortunate to be hired as an intern and be mentored by many of our staff and other service aviators while working on my advanced pilot ratings.

Even though I am just short of meeting the minimum pilot requirements, I was able to take advantage of the fact that John Rayfield is a Certified Flight Instructor, so I got some flight training during this year’s survey. We requested and were granted a waiver from our Aviation Management Directorate to allow me to fly during ferry flights with John as my instructor (see video below). John was a great mentor and I gained valuable experience flying with him. It was a privilege to have John participate in my training and I appreciate both his efforts and the confidence our managers had in us to grant this waiver.

After the survey, I resumed my flight training and should complete my commercial training early this summer. It has been a long and rewarding road to gain the experience necessary to become a wildlife biologist/pilot. I look forward to completing my training and taking full advantage of everything I’ve learned from all my mentors. I hope to be in the left seat on next year’s survey and fly many safe surveys in the future to help us manage our resources. I appreciate all of you following along and hope you do your part by supporting conservation programs in any way you can. One great way to do your part is to” Buy Duck Stamps.” Together, we can sustain our wildlife resources for the enjoyment of future generations.

Thom Lewis conducts a ferry flight with guidance from his instructor, John Rayfield. Video by John Rayfield, USFWS.

Here is what it looks like out the windsceen of the aircraft as we fly over wetland habitats on survey. Video by Thom Lewis, USFWS.