Birds and the conservationists who protect them lost a cherished friend August 10, when pilot John Leuci died in a small plane crash en route to Mt. Pleasant Regional Airport. Leuci, 45, was a pilot and flight instructor for Coastal Aviation. The six-seat Piper PA-32 Leuci was flying went down in a wooded area of rural Georgia shortly after he reported engine trouble.
Leuci made a strong impression on a small group of bird conservationists who took to the air with him every year. He was introduced to the Swallow-tailed Kite Conservation Alliance through a special relationship between Leuci’s employer and the International Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw. For the past five years, Coastal Aviation has generously donated flight hours to bird conservation.
“John had to awaken at 3 a.m. to make our dawn take-off,” said Maria Whitehead, project director for The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina. “Every time I apologized for the early hour, he reminded me that he did it because he loved it.”
Leuci served as the primary pilot during roosting surveys of the Swallow-tailed Kite, which is considered to be one of the most elegant and threatened birds in North America. He became as adept at spotting the birds from the air as any of the researchers nestled into the four-seat, fixed wing Cessna.
“John was wonderful to work with – a skillful and safe pilot who always took pride in doing the best possible job for us,” said Dr. Ken Meyer, executive director of the Avian Research and Conservation Institute. “I will miss flying with him very much.”
“John was the most skilled and gracious pilot I have ever flown with,” said Jim Elliott, executive director of the International Center for Birds of Prey. “He was always prudent, accommodating, and genuinely interested in our work.”
Born in Boston, MA, Leuci grew up primarily in Nashua, NH. He moved to Ladson, SC, in 2008 to be near his parents, Robert M. Leuci Sr. and Barbara A. Leuci. They are comforted knowing he was doing what he loved most – flying. His position at Coastal Aviation was his dream, and his passion for the sky was catching.
“I loved flying with John not only because he was such a good pilot but also because he was so enthusiastic about the work we were doing,” Swallow-tailed Kite researcher Grace Gasper said. “My condolences go out to his family.”
Laurel Barnhhill of the SC Department of Natural Resources also had the privilege of flying with Leuci.
“These tragedies always give me pause on the risks taken to collect biological data,” she said. “John was very knowledgeable in the air, one of the best I’ve been up with.”
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
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