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.