Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Jeff Oimoen DNR pilot. Natasha Kassulke

Jeff Oimoen is one of nine DNR pilots the agency employs to work on projects ranging from wildlife surveys to wildfire spotting and suppression.
Natasha Kassulke

June 2014

A soaring career

DNR Pilots have an office with a view like no other.

Natasha Kassulke

When Jeff Oimoen flies, it is often as bald eagles do. For nearly 100 miles, Oimoen, a DNR pilot who works out of Madison, cruises just 300 feet above the Wisconsin River, gently dipping and maneuvering the Cessna 182 he pilots. Joining him are DNR wildlife biologists Dan Goltz and Elizabeth Boyd, who work out of Boscobel. Their combined goal is to spot and count bald eagles as part of the DNR’s annual winter eagle survey.

There are no leaves on the trees, so the crew has a clear view of the frosted farm fields near Mauston, which eventually give way to a patchwork of ice and open water where eagles, trumpeter swans, Canada geese, ducks and even coyotes gather on the Wisconsin River.

“Alright, this is it,” Oimoen announces over the radio headsets that connect him to his passengers. It’s a smooth flight, but there are air sickness bags readily available just in case.

Oimoen keeps an eye out for hazards such as power lines, cellphone towers and what he calls “other ghosts like that.” He politely responds to requests from the back seat to fly lower to allow the crew to get closer for a better view. The department has a low altitude waiver with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Oimoen, who works for the DNR bureau of forest protection, is one of nine pilots the agency employs on its Aeronautics Team. Besides Oimoen in Madison, there are two pilots each in Oshkosh, Eau Claire, Rhinelander and Siren.

These pilots represent a colorful and ongoing chapter in the DNR’s history. The agency’s forest air patrol turns 100 next year and is the oldest in the country.

A historic marker posted in 1955 in Boulder Junction, Vilas County, recognizes that first flight feat and reads: “First Forest Patrol Flight was made from Trout Lake by Jack Vilas on June 29, 1915. Vilas was commissioned ‘Official Aviator’ by the Wisconsin State Board of Forestry (now Wisconsin Conservation Department) and on his own request received no salary other than ‘many thanks.’ . . . The flights from here by Jack Vilas marked the first time anywhere that an aircraft was used in detecting and locating forest fires and patrolling large forest areas.”

While silk scarfs and goggles were all the rage back then, today DNR pilots are outfitted with headsets, telemetry equipment and GPS. They not only detect fires but find missing persons, aid law enforcement in drug busts, spot for people hunting over illegal bait piles, survey endangered wildlife populations and much more.

DNR pilots are trained to use telemetry receivers for a variety of species. Wolves, deer, bear and several fish species have been tracked by DNR pilots. Telemetry information provides researchers with valuable data on animal movements and habits. DNR pilots and aircraft have been a key part of the trumpeter swan reintroduction to Wisconsin. Because trumpeter swans are highly mobile, the aircraft is critical in finding various birds’ locations after they have been released.

Gypsy moth spraying relies on DNR pilots to enhance safety and ensure proper and safe chemical application to wooded areas. DNR pilots are an agency–wide resource and their time in the air does wonders for those who work on the ground.

Wildland firefighters, cooperative fire departments, federal, other state and local agencies rely on the immediate dispatch of DNR pilots and the aircraft they use. For example, on the morning after the 2001 tornado in Siren, DNR pilots helped emergency responders determine which roads and driveways needed to be opened in order to reach those who were trapped.

John Jorgensen heads the Aeronautics Team and takes pride in the fact that the pilots in his unit are professionals with thousands of hours of flight time and decades of flight experience. Some have flown heavy aircraft, some have been transport pilots, others served as bush pilots or were flight instructors. Jorgensen himself was a pilot working in Belize and Hawaii before joining the DNR crew.

“Over the years, the department has owned and operated numerous types of aircraft for a variety of purposes,” he says. “The Aeronautics Team has evolved to provide pilots with appropriate training and experience as well as appropriate aircraft to help meet the changing needs of the department.”

The department no longer owns planes but leases them from the Department of Administration, which also maintains them. Two of the planes are equipped with Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) units that were paid for in part with a Port Security/Homeland Security grant. In Wisconsin, FLIR is used to locate hotspots over fires, find persons of interest during law enforcement activity and find missing people. The imagery can be recorded live and also sent to hand–held receivers on the ground via the onboard downlink system. This allows ground personnel to see what the flight operator is seeing in real time.

DNR’s Aeronautics Team is diverse. These aviation specialists combine their knowledge of department programs and piloting abilities to become the flying counterparts to fire rangers, game wardens and a variety of specialists within the department.

Bev Paulan flies out of Eau Claire. She’s been a pilot for 30 years — receiving flying lessons as a graduation present — and has a biology degree. When she isn’t tracking wolves or spying into eagle nests, she is on the ground assisting in the Karner blue butterfly program — performing duties that range from training volunteers to habitat assessment, to simply “chasing butterflies.” She’s also an excellent aerial photographer. Her past piloting experience includes serving as a flight instructor and working with Operation Migration.

“Being a DNR pilot lets me bring my two loves together — wildlife and flying,” she says. “The more data that comes in from our work, the more knowledge is gained.”

Pilot Phil Miller is stationed in Siren and is the DNR’s current longest serving pilot. He joined the DNR team in 1991 and laughs at the fact that he came to the job with a degree in music education. He had planned to teach grade school instrumental and vocal classes until he took flying lessons and was hooked.

After some additional training at an aviation school and earning a mechanics license, he moved to the West Coast to be a flight instructor and charter pilot. That is, until Air Serv International got his attention. For three years he flew relief missions in Mozambique and Kenya for Air Serv, a U.S.–based nonprofit corporation that provides air transportation for humanitarian programs and disaster relief operations worldwide.

But when the opportunity presented itself, he returned to his home state, landing a job with the Department of Natural Resources.

“What I love the most about the job is that we use the airplane as a tool rather than just transportation,” he says. “We get to do aerial photography and animal tracking. I also like that the job is seasonal and we get to do different kinds of flights throughout the year. There is fire season, fall law enforcement work and winter surveys.”

Last year Miller flew as part of a 14 aircraft team (DNR and partner pilots) that fought the Germann Road Fire in Douglas County.

A well–known and highly valuable duty carried out by department pilots is that of fire detection and suppression. Pilots work 11 fire detection routes statewide and receive yearly training with both formal classes and by participating in fire simulator training held around the state.

DNR pilots are often the first to reach the scene of a fire. They provide rangers responding to a fire with critical information that can be used to determine how much equipment is needed for a proper response. But that is only the beginning. Once on a fire scene, the pilot remains overhead providing intelligence on the fire’s behavior and movements, as well as indicating structures or resources that are threatened. The pilot also provides critical safety information for tractor plow operators and others working on the fire.

One of Miller’s most memorable flights, though, wasn’t a fire but finding a missing woman in Copper Falls State Park. Miller recalls spotting her in an open field waving her arms. From the air, he then guided rescuers on the ground to her. Later, she shared that she had remembered an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger” in which Walker (Chuck Norris) advised those around him that if they ever get lost, to go to an open area and look for an airplane.

When he isn’t flying, Miller runs the DNR’s firefighting training simulator. He also penned the spreadsheets used to track DNR pilot flight logs, writes computer programs and conducts energy audits of DNR buildings. “There are certain jobs that the department does that we can only do with an aircraft,” Miller says. “And that’s why we exist.”

Safety training and follow through is paramount before, during and after every flight, Paulan says.

She cites her pre–flight checklists that include gauging her own health and that of the plane, as well as weather conditions and the flight plan. She also points to the importance of a pilot’s constant awareness of their “Division of Attention,” meaning paying attention to multiple stimuli while flying, from tracking GPS coordinates to running telemetry equipment to actually piloting the aircraft.

“Every flight has its own unique hazards and complacency is the enemy of every pilot,” Paulan says.

DNR pilots © DNR File
DNR pilots meet at hangars around the state for training and more. The Aeronautics Team’s mission: To provide safe, effective and cost-efficient air support for all aspects of resource work conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources."
© DNR File

Back to Oimoen, who begins his eagle survey flight at the Department of Administration hangar on Madison’s north– east side by checking weather conditions and any temporary flight restrictions. He also checks that weight restrictions are adhered to. He balances the weight of passengers with the weight of the fuel necessary to complete the assignment.

He inspects the plane to see that it is fully fueled, or in pilot speak “topped off,” and in excellent condition — ready to go. With the hangar door open Oimoen pushes the plane outside and then jumps in to cruise it onto the landing strip. There, he awaits flight clearance from the tower. And then he’s off. He checks in with the tower.

“We are not alone up here,” he says.

Oimoen has been flying for 45 years and lives in Mount Horeb. He can find his way around southern Wisconsin just from seeing high points such as Blue Mound and the Baraboo Bluffs.

Oimoen says the best part of the job is when he can participate in animal tracking surveys.

“It’s great to see the animals and I like to see them doing well,” he says of his involvement in the fixed–wing surveys used by wildlife managers to estimate populations of deer, beaver, otters, ducks, eagles, osprey, trumpeter swans and more.

During the eagle count flight, Oimoen follows bridges and dams that divide the Wisconsin River. He’s watching for the eagles’ white heads amid frosted tree limbs.

He points out a snowman on the ice. Then a few river otter slides. Then some turkeys. Finally, he spots two adult eagles calmly poised on their perch seemingly oblivious to the nearby plane.

“It’s a most scenic tour you are taking us on, Jeff,” Goltz says. “Thank you.”

In the end, the survey will yield 59 bald eagle sightings on the Wisconsin River.

“It’s a great job,” Oimoen opines. “Especially, when you get a day like this. Some people would pay for the chance to do this. What a beautiful day. You can see forever.”

Natasha Kassulke is editor–in–chief of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine .