Flying Over the Oil Leak Site with a Coast Guard Air Crew

Coast Guard C-130 aircraft fly daily out of the Clearwater Air Station tracking the spread of the oil leak.
Coast Guard C-130 aircraft fly daily out of the Clearwater Air Station tracking the spread of the oil leak.
CLEARWATER (2010-7-19) -

Even though the oil has stopped spewing into the Gulf, crews from the Coast Guard Air Station in Clearwater continue their daily flights over the Gulf to track the movement of oil.

Just before the oil well was capped, I and three other reporters caught a ride with a C-130 crew. We discovered that the view from that height both illuminates and obfuscates the true scope of the spill.

Before we left, the pilot, Lt. Commander Scott Murphy, laid out the mission. We planned to fly over the Franklin Eddy, which feeds the Loop Current, and then check out the site of the spill before cruising along the shorelines of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida and returning home.

We flew in a C-130 – a cargo plane that’s known as the workhorse of the Coast Guard. Co-pilot Lt. Brian Boland says its radar and sensor systems are designed for law enforcement and search and rescue, but have been fine-tuned to map surface oil.

“We try to be as adaptable as we can,” Boland said.

“Even though none of us have done it very often, the nature and design of the Coast Guard allows us to take all the systems and sensors that we have and figure out a way to use them.”

After the briefing, the next stop is a dispenser by the door for a pair of multi-colored ear plugs and then out onto the tarmac where the C-130’s engines are revved up and ready for takeoff.

As soon as the plane reaches the Gulf, two trained, Coast Guard observers peer out two rectangular windows just forward of the wings scanning the waters for signs of oil.

Four members of the media are aboard – each gets a turn on the flight deck. Mine comes as we approach the source of the oil spill. Murphy points out where flames rise from two ships burning off excess crude.

“That’s 38 miles away -- you can see that structure with the flame if you look at it long enough you can pick out an orange flame,” he said.

On the deep blue Gulf water, ribbons of oil radiate out from the source – they look like tendrils of a giant jellyfish.

Below, the oil sheen is everywhere except a few distinct straight lines carved into the water where ships have passed.

The commander orbits the source of the spill – dozens of ships, barges and skimmer boats are clustered together. There’s a lot of traffic in the air too.

Murphy points out what looks like thicker oil than the sheen we’d seen so far.

Next, the plane climbs to 17,500 feet so the radar systems can map the surface oil spread along the coastline. We fly a back and forth pattern over Louisiana, Mississippi and the Panhandle beaches.

Six hours after we took off, the C-130 lands at the Coast Guard Air Station in Clearwater. Petty Officer Justin Keen, a trained observer, reviews the mission with reporters.

He said they were looking for the consistency, condition and location of the oil. He said it was hard to tell where the oil was.

“It takes experience to see those things for what they are,” Keen said.

Keen and the aircrews out of the Clearwater are getting plenty of experience as they continue their daily flights over the Gulf to map the oil that’s still out there.

CLICK HERE to listen in as the Clearwater crew does a flyover the Coast Guard Training ship the Eagle which they encountered during their this mission.

4202 East Fowler Avenue, TVB100, Tampa, FL 33620-6902 • © 2009 WUSF. All rights reserved.

Geo Visitors Map