After 11 years of quietly helping researchers and environmental activists carry out their projects from the air, Tucson pilot Sandy Lanham was awarded a $500,000 "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation on Oct. 23.
Other pilots bill $300 an hour for similar services. But Lanham's Environmental Flying Services, with the help of charitable foundations, only charges scientists and environmentalists the cost of airport fees and fuel for her 45-year-old Cessna.
"Everybody that knows me must be laughing because they know I'm not a genius," says Lanham, who adds that she may use the money for a new plane.
Often flying just 200 feet above the ground or water, Lanham has helped scientists discover new prairie dog colonies in northern Mexico, monitored recovery efforts for pronghorn antelope and tracked the migration of blue whales in the Gulf of California.
Researchers and environmentalists credit Lanham with helping them complete projects that would be impossible or cost-prohibitive to do by land or sea. One example: a 1,500-mile aerial survey of sea turtle nests along the Mexican coast.
"It's a man's world down there, for the most part, and she's just this woman who's got a lot of starch," says Cecil Schwalbe, a herpetologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "She's treated almost like a celebrity when she comes into camp."