By Don Comis
September 10, 2001
As the only
Agricultural Research Service pilot in
the country collecting remote-sensing imagery, Michael Rene Davis has learned
the secret to accomplishing complex scientific missions: keep it simple. He has
honed this philosophy to a science with more than 6,000 hours in the sky.
His answer to keeping the sun directly behind him for light-reflectance
imagery: mount a 3-inch bolt on the fuselage as a sundial to let the suns
shadow point the way. Just flying the plane is enough to think about without
being distracted by analyzing sun angle tables.
Davis is in his 31st year of flying for ARS, accident-free. He flies out of
the ARS Kika de la Garza Subtropical
Agricultural Research Center in Weslaco, Texas.
He has flown missions in 21 states. Next month, he will fly his camera
with wings over the Chihuahuan Desert, piloting a fully loaded
10-passenger, twin-engine Cessna 404 Titan. The plane was a gift from the
U.S. Customs Service, which
confiscated it from drug dealers. It has three cameras mounted through its
For less demanding assignments, Davis flies a six-passenger Cessna 206,
He flies scientists over the Chihuahuan Desert twice a year, to help them
collect imagery to study interactions between landscapes and climate.
Davis spends up to three hours in 100-degree heat as he flies at 300 feet
above the desert floor. Its so hot and bumpy that many camera operators
literally cant stomach it.
His job requires not only a cast-iron stomach but also a researchers
curiosity. He has taken college courses in plant sciences and other topics to
help him interpret the imagery on the television monitor he uses to stay on
target. His job tests his mechanical, electrical and photographic skills as
For more details about Davis previous flight over the Chihuahuan, see
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.