Wildfire helicopter pilot steers project to honor former geography professor

Jim McCrory, who graduated with a degree in geography in 1973, said his education has guided him during his decadeslong career as a helicopter pilot. McCrory often fights and plans wildfire missions. Here, he's flying experts to an offshore oil rig.  Credit: Photo providedAll Rights Reserved.

Jim McCrory, the senior line pilot at Aspen Helicopters in Oxnard, California, has always been fascinated with location. That’s something that drew him to Penn State to earn his geography degree in 1973, and a belief in the importance of location has continued to guide him in his 33-year career as a helicopter responder to Western U.S. wildfires. As he traverses a charred, steep landscape, often 100 feet above land and aboard a Bell 407 utility helicopter, being keenly aware of location is literally a matter of life and death.

McCrory said Penn State, where he participated in the ROTC program before serving for 30 years of active and reserve duty in the Navy, prepared him for his career. That’s why he’s spearheading a $35,000 effort to replace the dated topographic map located in the Walker Building with a more artistic, yet geographically accurate ceramic design that also honors Peirce Lewis, a longtime faculty member who had a huge impact on McCrory. Gifts to the McCrory Family Geography Discretionary Fund in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences will support the map replacement, and any addition funds will be available to the department chair to use for other needs of the geography program.

As a pilot, McCrory has seen the evolution of wildfires from a seasonal threat to a near constant menace. And the size and duration of the fires have followed suit. He said most people think of helicopters as only a source for water drops — that’s a part of it — but additionally he flies a wide range of tasks, from surveying land for trouble spots, to delivering crew and supplies, to infrared scanning of smoldering areas for hot spots, to land restoration efforts.

Jim McCrory has been a helicopter pilot for more than four decades, often braving West Coast wildfire scenes such as this one where he "put the camera down before getting any closer." Credit: Photo providedAll Rights Reserved.

Because these wildfires can rage for months, McCrory said, these efforts are run like a military campaign. Ultimately, he said, it’s the members of the crew on the ground who put the fires out, so his job is to support their mission.

He also performs a range of tasks not directly related to wildfires such as flying federal inspectors out to offshore oil platforms and flying LiDAR-equipped remote sensing missions to spot sagging power transmission lines, which can cause wildfires.

When wildfire season slows down this fall, McCrory will return to Penn State to plot out the tribute for Lewis. The concept that he developed with former department head Cynthia Brewer will replace the 45-foot-long relief map — worn through after countless fingers plotted Penn State — that extends from Quebec to Alabama, with the ceramic map that will include a portion dedicated to Lewis.

Because much of Lewis’ career was dedicated to boots-on-the-ground, physical geography, McCrory wants the replacement to reflect that as well as the more cultural side of geography, that interplay between which he said Lewis expounded upon so well in his teaching.

“So much of what I learned in terms of geographic perception of the world is thanks to Dr. Lewis,” McCrory said. “He taught me both sides of geography, the connection between people and their location. People’s lives are so much of a function of where they live.”

For McCrory, his location for now still will include the California skies. But that’ll end in the next couple of years after he earns his Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award from the FAA for 50 years of flight. After that, he plans to travel extensively with his wife, who retired in June after 30 years of teaching fifth grade.

He also plans to visit Penn State to see the final product of his yearslong effort to honor Lewis, to stand in the same place where the celebrated educator had an impact on him and so many others.

“I thought this would be the perfect place for him to have something dedicated to him,” McCrory said.

Contributions to the McCrory Family Geography Discretionary Fund in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences will advance “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st-Century Excellence,” visit

Last Updated August 17, 2021