It’s fairly common for locals to hear and see various aircrafts flying in and out of the Petaluma Municipal Airport, though most may not notice Petaluma native Heather Davis soaring through the skies. Hidden in the crowd of airplanes is a vehicle that closely resembles an oversized kite with a propeller attached to the back and three wheels on the bottom – otherwise known as a weight-shift control Light Sport Aircraft, or “trike” – piloted by Davis.
“Flying gives me a different perspective on the world,” the 51-year-old said. “All the petty things fall away in the air. I have an awareness of the atmosphere, clouds, and wind that is always with me.”
Davis’ love for aviation was kindled in the ‘80s, when she took an interest in flying hang gliders. Both hang gliders and trikes have weight-shift control wings, which means that the pilot uses his or her own weight against a triangular control bar attached to the wing structure to control the plane.
“In hang gliders and trikes, you are far more open to the elements,” she said. “It’s a raw and immediate experience.”
After taking a break from flying hang gliders, Davis decided to get back into the air, but with a slight change in the mode of transportation.
“When I was ready to get back into aviation, I wasn’t so interested in picking up a heavy glider and running off the hill,” she said. “However, I still wanted to fly weight-shift-control; it offers the only experience of controlling your flight with your hands actually on the wing. It’s the closest thing to being a bird.”
Davis’ friend offered to take her on a flight in his trike, and the duo flew up to Sea Ranch along the coast on an autumn day, and Davis said she’s been hooked ever since.
Flying above the Sonoma and Marin counties offers an endlessly beautiful experience: views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas, the Farallon Islands far off the coastline, whales spouting as they migrate past Point Reyes National Seashore, and the hundreds of tiger sharks that come to Tomales Bay to spawn every spring are just a few sights to be seen during a trike flight.
To fly a Light-Sport Aircraft, Davis obtained a Federal Aviation Administration issued sport pilot’s license. Davis did a majority of her training with Michael Globensky of Spirits Up, an open air flying school out of Petaluma Municipal Airport, though some of her training was also completed in France. As a FAA licensed pilot, Davis noted a lack of women pursuing aviation, though she hasn’t let that stop her.
“Women are definitely a minority in aviation, although it has been my experience to be welcomed wholeheartedly,” she said. “Perhaps so few women try flying because of its macho reputation. In truth, flying is all about finesse, knowledge, and paying attention. It doesn’t work to muscle an aircraft around. The best pilots have the lightest touch.”
With three years under her belt as a weight-shift control Light Sport Aircraft pilot, Davis and a partner now run a small business called “Bird’s Eye View,” where they generate information, data, and imagery products by flying customized real-time observational or digital surveys, or other focused missions.
She combines her aviation experience, and ecology PhD specializing in conservation into shooting and editing aerial videos and photos for clients ranging from conservation organizations to adventure-sport participants.
To obtain these products, Davis uses the most appropriate equipment and aerial vehicle, including unmanned aerial systems and conventional aircraft, holding an FAA section 333 exemption to allow commercial operation of unmanned aerial systems.
Davis has also taken part in other ecology projects in Petaluma, including assisting a professor from Tulane University for several years with a tree swallow study at Shollenberger Park. She’s also been involved in a series of studies on invasive cordgrass, a species which is commonly found in coastal marshes, including some in Petaluma, as well as other countywide projects involving endangered species in vernal pools.
Recently, Davis has been working to upgrade her pilot’s license to include flying into large controlled airports, mountain flying, and advanced maneuvers.
“Flying adds beauty, challenge, and the best thing is I know I will never be done,” she said. “There is always something more to learn, something to get better at.”
To see Davis’ aerial science and imagery work for Bird’s Eye View, visit bev-asi.net.