The chance to see from the air some of Earth’s most beautiful places is the most obvious reward of flying for the U.S. National Park Service. But the job also has unique risks, as Weino “Tug” Kangus, the most experienced airman in park service history, can attest. Now 72 with 39 years as a pilot, Kangus still flies five days a week over Lake Powell’s breathtaking 185-mile-long expanse of rock and deep water in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona.
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I ask him about a particularly memorable moment in his career. “Some Navajo bad guys shot two officers and burned their bodies on the San Juan River,” he says of a 1987 incident. “We spent time flying with the FBI looking for those guys, and we found out about two years later that one of them was hiding out in a hogan [adobe dwelling] on the reservation. We dropped down low enough where we could look right in the door of that hogan, and there he was, standing in the doorway with a high-powered rifle with a ’scope, pointed right at us. I’ve been in on scores of those things—that’s what we do.”
Law-enforcement missions, Kangus says, require precision flying. “You’re not going to arrest anybody from the air, though I have pulled them over and have them spread-eagle on the ground. The thing is, if you can’t control your aircraft in a 30-degree [bank], low enough that you can read a license plate or follow footprints in the desert, you should be in a different business.”
The park service began using pilots to patrol its ever-expanding domain in the 1930s. Today, of more than 400 national parks, monuments, recreation areas, and wildlife refuges, only a few dozen—many of them in Alaska—enjoy the prestige and protection of fixed- or rotary-wing aircraft and ranger pilots. Even some of the larger parks, like Yellowstone (in Montana and Wyoming) and the Everglades (in Florida), call on outside equipment or lease a fixed number of hours of aircraft use each year.
The current roster of law enforcement ranger pilots numbers seven in Alaska and 15 (plus one biologist pilot) in the Lower 48. An additional 60 fly for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as law enforcement refuge officers, and a few others fly helicopters for the U.S. National Park Police as law enforcement pilots in the Washington, D.C. region.
Though isolation in scenic wilderness areas is an attraction of the job, it is also one of its biggest hazards.
“The potential for danger is real high,” says ranger pilot Richard “Shad” Dusseau, who spent a decade patrolling some of Alaska’s most rugged country. “You’re all alone, there’s no backup that can come if you need it, and basically the best you can hope for [if things go badly] is that they will find your body. One of the big issues of being national park rangers is that we are some of the most assaulted officers in the federal system. We work alone, usually in the middle of nowhere, and people think they can get away with [assault]. But it’s still safer than being a city cop.”
Dusseau, 59, is now a ranger at Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore, operating from both land and water. In Alaska, he flew three specialized aircraft: a two-seat Piper Super Cub bushplane, a Cessna 185 on tundra tires or wheeled skis, depending on the season, and a Cessna 206 on floats.
“In a typical week, I’d go out one day in the Super Cub to drive off a grizzly that was bothering a camp of archeologists,” he recalls. “Then there were these small lakes in the Upper Noatak, where one time, I went in to investigate a moose kill, and it scared the hell out of me. There was a guy who’d gone in on a hunt, and he killed his moose five miles from camp. You’re supposed to move the meat first, but he just took the antlers and the bears got into the carcass. He was supposed to be cited for it.
“The approach was over a little creek that was down six or seven feet below level land, so you had to touch down almost exactly at the end of the gravel and roll out in the willows,” he says. “Coming out, you had your wheels pretty much on the runway until you fell off the cliff; you were just barely flying. At that point, it’s all about experience and judgment. When you get down to the extreme edge of flying, a little mistake can make a big disaster.... And after all that, I never found the guy.”