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Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve fills the windows of an AStar B3 helicopter en route to base camp. (NPS/Martin Parker)

Air Rangers

The wild flights of Park Service pilots.

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We’re at little Cascade Airport in the valley of the Payette River in Idaho, an hour and a half drive from Boise, flanked by peaks where the last snows of winter linger into August, and where, as dawn breaks on this summer morning, the air hangs thick. Stowell is fueling his red, white, and blue Super Decathlon for a typical day’s work: teaching stalls, spins, and inverted emergencies so if any of these occur on the job, a ranger pilot-student will have the tools to survive.

Stowell’s credentials include certification by the International Aerobatic Club as an official spin doctor, being named the Federal Aviation Administration’s National Flight Instructor of 2006, and possibly holding the record for the most controlled spins: more than 32,000 in everything from a Canadian Chipmunk to a Bavarian Grob. (No one has kept an official score.)

“The first thousand spins were the hardest,” the doctor says, grinning. Climbing into the front seat of the dual-control Super Decathlon with him today is Steve Mazur, 45, a former waiter at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn and now a ranger pilot posted at Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota. “A lot of people equate hours with safety,” Mazur says. “But even guys with lots of hours get complacent, and that’s what messes things up.”

There are some parallels between emergency maneuver techniques and law enforcement, Stowell says: “You’re going from a low level of stress into [an] environment that has the potential of killing you. It sure would have been nice as a private pilot to have learned some of the things we learned in aerobatics.”

A CONTINENT EAST of Cascade, Idaho, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina—the very birthplace of powered flight—ranger pilot John Kimmel invites me along on a typical assignment in his gleaming, nearly new Cessna 206. It’s a low-altitude population survey of re-introduced red wolves with Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Art Beyer: three hours of grid geometry flying, 500 feet or less above the marshy, sandy ground.

“We’ve had about 200 complaints of damage caused by wolves,” Beyer says. “Five of them turned out to actually be a wolf. Seventy-five percent of the time, it was the neighbor’s dog.”

Kimmel is a Texan and a former helicopter pilot for the U.S. Border Patrol who saw some friends’ aircraft brought down by rocks thrown by desert desperados. At Cape Hatteras, he divides his time between biological survey work and patrolling the long, thin strip of beach.

In Kimmel’s flight path, hazards include cell phone towers, telephone poles, windmills, and powerlines. When he served at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, chasing border jumpers and drug runners, he had to watch out for the pin-cushion arms of the giant saguaro.

“People think that high-altitude, high-speed jets are the coolest, toughest things to fly, but, to me, low-level is one of the most difficult flight regimes there is,” Kimmel says. “If you can do that every day and come home at the end of the day, that’s prima facie a great pilot.

“If you lose your engine at 700 feet, it’s a piece of cake: You can land on a farm road or in a field. But below 300 or 400, your options are very limited. It’s not a conscious ‘Okay, I can land there or there’ in your mind at all times. You have to recall your training before it happens and prevent it from happening because if it does happen, it’s all over.”

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