Gratitude from the Ground Up: Meet the LightHawk Pilot Saving the Bay

Mike delivering flood relief supplies in Bangladesh

“I don’t like to climb mountains or go up walls. I just like to fly. It’s a neat feeling – controlling a plane in three dimensions. You get a neat view of the world.”

Mike Venturino has enjoyed this “neat feeling” for more than fifty years, and he recently won the highest honor in his industry: the Wright Brothers FAA Master Pilot Award.

Save The Bay couldn’t be prouder to have Mike at the helm of our LightHawk flights, ecological tours that highlight San Francisco Bay’s pressing threats from an aerial perspective.

Modest to the core, this Berkeley native would never boast that he pulled off his first solo flight at age 16 – before he got his driver’s license. Mike wouldn’t show off about holding two degrees from M.I.T. He’d be the last to mention his volunteer work with Angel Flight: regularly flying people hundreds of miles, free of charge, so they can receive much-needed medical treatment.

Mike with his stepdad, John Sparks

Mike caught the flight bug back in the 1960’s. It started when a man named John Sparks was pulling out every stop to woo Mike’s mom, a stewardess. John was so intent on marrying her, that he actually bought a small plane and took flight lessons. But once the couple said: “I do,” John no longer had an eye for his Cessna-175.

A teenager at the time, Mike felt differently from his stepdad. He couldn’t wait to take the small plane for a spin. “It just seemed like a cool thing you do – thought I’d give it a try. You ride bicycles, you drive things – obviously people fly planes.”

Mike started taking lessons, and he rapidly made his way from eager rookie to Air Force pilot to flight engineer, instructor, and consultant. Looking back on his 50 years of flying, Mike is glad the industry values collaboration more and more.

He says pilots are now “expected to put a lot more thought into acquiring data to solve problems. Your job isn’t to turn info off, but to solicit information [from the crew.]”

Mike has flown his wife across the U.S. four times!

Mike really enjoys learning from his LightHawk passengers. “Over King Tides, you can tell when you talk to people you’re flying with – this is important. I’m certainly now more aware [of environmental threats to the Bay] than I was ten years ago.”

Mike and his wife Michelle, a retired journalist, often walk Redwood City trails and express gratitude for their rewarding careers. “We both had jobs that made us happy to get up in the morning.”

But when Mike’s not “flying a massive machine through the sky for fun,” he still finds plenty of contentment at ground level. Indeed, it’s the simple moments that make Mike feel most grateful: “singing in church choir, playing ‘amateur’ music, going to Disneyland with my grandson, and, right now, I have a cat on my lap, and she’s been with us for 16 years, so… that’s pretty satisfying.”