The Ninety Nines
In a small corner of a midtown Toronto office building, the walls are plastered with aerial photographs of polluters trying to beat the system. They document such brazen contempt for the environment that it takes your breath away.
They show mysterious, rectangular shapes in fields that turn out to be tankers from trucks, buried and rusting and slowly leaching toxic chemicals into groundwater. They show where attempts have been made to cover illegal disposal pits, sometimes by highlighting a path of dying vegetation that marks an underground drainage path. They show drift patterns of air pollutants. When past and present photographs are compared, they show people flouting court orders by continuing banned practices. They even show a polluter in action, driving a tanker around the floor of a gravel pit draining his cargo of waste oil.
All the photographs are thanks to a group of women pilots who, for 18 years, have been giving their time free to the Government of Ontario to fly surveillance missions.
Why do they do it? « Pride, » says Denise Egglestone, a flight operations instructor for Air Canada at Pearson International Airport. « We’re proud of making things better. » She pauses as she reaches for a deeper reason. « Otherwise, » she continues, « we’re just individuals. This gives us a focus. What we do together has more impact than what we can do alone. »
The women are members of the Toronto chapter of the Ninety-Nines a worldwide organization of women pilots, formed in 1929 with Amelia Earhart as its first president. The name comes from the ninety-nine women who turned up to form the association. Today there are 7,000 members. Twenty women from the Toronto chapter fly in the surveillance program. It’s called Skywatch.
Cathy Fraser, an Air Canada pilot, used to be in the program. However, now she is living in Houston, Texas, with her Canadian astronaut husband who has been posted there, and she rarely gets the chance to participate. On this day, she is visiting Denise in Toronto. She has an easy lankiness and as she leans across the table she transforms what otherwise could be a cliche into an ardent rationale. « It’s really inspiring » she says « when you see that you’re doing some good. »
At the centre of Skywatch is Ron Johnson: ex-U.S. Navy pilot, ex-FBI air surveillance investigator; stocky, white-haired, and with the instincts of a born mouser. If he had a tail it would twitch as he flicks slide after slide on to a screen and points out a shadow, a jumble of barrels, tire tracks, and what he calls « environmental colours » – the colours of contamination – that are his clues to wrong doing.
As a surveillance officer with the Ontario Ministry of the Environment Investigations and Surveillance Branch, he flies with Ninety-Niners and acts as navigator and photographer. It was he who, in 1978, first recruited the Ninety-Nines as volunteer pilots. It is he who organizes the surveillance flights which cover all of Ontario.
He rents a Cessna 172, a small, single wing, propeller driven airplane, from Buttonville Airport, just north of Toronto, for $30,000 a year, including maintenance and gasoline. There is the cost of processing film, and the expensive business of paying for high quality photographic exhibits for court prosecutions. Add in his salary, the cost of a part-time office helper who devotes 20 per cent of her time to Skywatch, and what I would guess at about 400 square feet of office space, and you have the price tag for Skywatch. In short, a shoe string budget.
Johnson estimates that Skywatch is in the air, somewhere over Ontario, on about half the working days in summer and about a quarter in winter.
The results, according to Ed Keough, assistant director of the branch, are dramatic because it is much more effective in court to use photographs that show what has been going on than to try and describe it. The result has been higher fines. The highest so far is $320,000 which was levied in Ottawa.
But it’s not the size of fines that’s ultimately important. It’s the fact that Skywatch is making sure that people who care about the environment, who spend their money and time to be responsible, are not dissuaded because others profit from polluting.
And it is the women of the Ninety-Nines who make that possible.