The National Park Service’s aviation branch helps find stranded hikers, manage fires, and conduct wildlife and vegetation surveys. To learn more, we met with Aviation Branch Chief (and SCA ALUM!) Meg Gallagher.
We’re thrilled when we can teach students about leadership or stewardship of the land. But often times, we are the ones learning from our community. When a colleague discovered that SCA alum Meg Gallagher had been named branch chief for the National Park Service (NPS) Aviation Program, it was the perfect opportunity to explore further.
What Does NPS Aviation Do?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t know much about aviation in our national parks. I knew hotshots fight wildfires and that search and rescue often requires aircraft, but that barely scratches the surface. The range of activities that rely on NPS Aviation is incredibly diverse, and as Meg told us, their role is to support the people they have on the ground.
Each year, NPS aviation logs approximately 12,000 hours of flight time to support missions that include search and rescue, law enforcement, scientific research, and wildland fire management.
When responding to wildfires, the role of NPS Aviation can be anything from dropping water, delivering equipment to firefighters, or extracting injured firefighters. Approximately twenty-five percent of NPS Aviation activities are related to wildland firefighting.
Search and Rescue
As I read different search and rescue stories, one stood out to me. It began with a request from Flathead National Forest for a helicopter to help handle a number of fire starts. That was a fairly standard assignment, but the forest was simultaneously exploring options to rescue a smokejumper who had been injured during a hard landing. Soon the helicopter and crew were performing a short-haul rescue of the injured jumper. On average, 12% of NPS Aviation hours are spent on search and rescue.
A few summers ago the Isle Royale National Park in Michigan needed to replace their boardwalks. An aircraft was the only way to reasonably get the heavy lifting done. Approximately 76 tons of planks and cross ties were transported to the island, and then a helicopter moved the materials to various drop zones throughout the park. Visitors can now traverse the bogs, streams, and ponds because of this interagency project between the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the NPS.
Another quarter of NPS Aviation activities are dedicated to law enforcement. This could be anything from finding criminals in a remote location or surveilling marijuana cultivation. One of the most recent additions to the NPS fleet of government owned and operated aircraft is the Lake Mead airplane (pictured above). Meg explains that it’s flown throughout the park for a variety of missions, primarily for law enforcement.
From a young age, Meg knew she wanted a job that allowed her to be outside, and that led her to study outdoor recreation in college. She spent the summer after graduation as an SCA backcountry ranger at Olympic National Park in 1985. That experience, she says, was very influential in jumpstarting her career.
Meg spent the next five years working as a wildland firefighter on hotshot crews, in fire dispatch, fire prevention, and as a helitack crewmember.
While she was working with the Baker River Hotshots, Meg’s crew was sent to Alaska to fight fire. That’s where she got her first ride on a helicopter. “After my second big fire season (this time with the Alpine Hotshots) I decided flying to a fire was much preferable over hiking,” Meg said. “The following year I got a job on Indianola Helitack on the Salmon National Forest and pretty much never looked back.”
Aviation as a Career
The National Park Service has permanent pilots in fourteen parks. For their fleet aircraft, the NPS hires two types of pilots: professional and dual-function (law enforcement or biologist).
The professional pilots perform search and rescues, reconnaissance, transports personnel and equipment at parks. For law enforcement pilots, the aircraft is basically a flying patrol vehicle. The biologist pilots focus on wildlife or vegetation monitoring. There’s also helitack, UAS pilots, smokejumpers, and all the people they train who use aviation to accomplish their work.
How to Get Started
As we talked with Meg, she emphasized that there’s no one path to a career in NPS Aviation. Research the different career fire and aviation career paths with the NPS, USFS, and Bureau of Land Management. You’ll notice Meg’s background includes experience with all three agencies. Expand your exploration to find the best fit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs also have aviation programs.
Try to be open to all opportunities. You never know where it might lead. “I took a job in Las Vegas which eventually led to a job offer in Jackson Hole,” Meg explained. “Don’t be afraid to call the park or forest and talk to the crew leaders about opportunities; we all love what we do and want to help up and coming (potential) firefighters.”