Rick Durden.

With what environmental organization are you affiliated?

I have recently become the executive director of LightHawk, sometimes referred to as “the wings of conservation.”

What does your organization do?

We work with other environmental and conservation organizations to provide free flights over environmentally threatened areas in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Several hundred environmental organizations regularly make use of the volunteer aircraft flown by LightHawk pilots. They take decision-makers, media, activists, researchers, governmental officials, and others for customized flights over damaged areas to show firsthand the effects of poor environmental decision making. By using an airplane, you can get the job done in a few hours instead of the days or weeks it would take on the ground, and often the areas we fly over are off-limits to those who would go in on the ground.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Come fly with me.

About half of my work is administrative, and the other half is fund-raising. We are uniquely hamstrung in that we are absolutely prohibited by the Federal Aviation Regulations to charge anything at all for our flights. They must be provided free of charge to the passengers, otherwise we are considered a commercial operation. Our volunteer pilots provide their airplanes for free — something that costs them from $100 to $400 each hour the airplane’s engine is running — so they make a huge contribution to environmental efforts on each flight they make.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I got interested in flying and the outdoors as a child. I was in Boy Scouts and went hiking, canoeing, and camping frequently. I also started taking flying lessons because of the Boy Scouts (although one can’t do that anymore, sadly). I became a flight instructor while I was a freshman in college and flew professionally on a part-time basis to help pay for college and law school.

After graduating from law school, I specialized in aviation and space law, handling cases involving aircraft. In the ’80s, I read about the work LightHawk was doing for the environment through the use of airplanes and realized that finally there was something that would allow me to combine my two passions.

In 1991, when I had saved up enough money to buy a small airplane, I joined LightHawk and became one of its volunteer pilots. Over the years, I also did some of the organization’s legal work on a pro bono basis and joined the board of directors. Last summer, I realized that I had run out of challenges after 27 years of practicing law; I applied for the executive director position and was hired. The learning curve is steep, but I haven’t once been bored.

How many emails are in your inbox?


Where were you born? Where do you live now?

Born and grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Now living in Grand Rapids, Mich.

What’s been the best moment in your professional life to date?

The day the Missouri Department of Natural Resources called to say that photos taken from a LightHawk flight I made had resulted in a $300,000 fine for the Doe Run Mining Company for illegal dumping of chemicals.

Who is your environmental nightmare?


What’s your environmental vice?

A very weird affection for racing and high speeds, particularly open-wheel racing and top-fuel dragsters as well as the National Air Races north of Reno where speeds hit 500 mph at 40 feet above the ground.

What are you reading these days?

Everything from media reports on environmental issues to world history to murder mysteries to a recent biography of Shakespeare.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

A Clean Water Act so effective that we could again drink water directly from our rivers and lakes as we could in the 1600s.

What’s your favorite TV show?

NYPD Blue.



What are you happy about right now?

Recently getting married to a woman who is more right for me than I could have ever dreamed.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Donate to LightHawk because our work helps make hundreds of other environmental organizations throughout this hemisphere more effective.