Subscribe today to Plane & Pilot magazine for industry news, reviews and much more!
The water below was on fire. Thick billowing clouds of black smoke rose up from the surface, blocking the sun. Our aircraft was in a left bank, directing surface units 1,500 feet below, the aircraft buffeted with turbulence as we dodged fiery tornadoes that were reaching upward from the flames and waterspouts dropping down from the smoke above. We were doing our best to avoid flying into the walls of smoke while staying on mission and watching out for the dozens of other aircraft that were in the vicinity. The radio crackled—Omaha 55, a DHS P3 Orion, was vectoring in a rescue helicopter to a site where a life raft had been spotted…
It started out for me on a remote island near the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. I flew for a charter company in Houston, and I was on layover. The waiter brought my breakfast along with a printout of the news. The lead story talked about a fire and explosion on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the Deepwater Horizon. “Hmm, I wonder if we will get any charter business out of this,” I pondered. Little did I, or the rest of the world, know the true scope of the disaster that was unfolding.
Upon my return to the United States, I learned that yes, we would be getting some business out of this. In fact, we would be flying in support of this disaster for over a year to come. While most of our work in charter revolved around simply moving people from point A to point B, we had contracts to survey oil company assets in the Gulf following hurricanes. The response to this incident had similarities to our hurricane missions but involved challenges and hazards that no one had ever seen before.
In the days and weeks following the initial explosion, our missions fell into three categories. There were shuttle operations—moving people and equipment all around the Gulf Coast daily—handled by our Citation 650 jet fleet. We utilized King Air 200 turboprops for reconnaissance missions and in support of what we came to refer to as “burn flights.” We temporarily based several King Airs in Houma, Louisiana for several months, and they flew 10 hours each day.
Specially equipped high-altitude government recon aircraft were mapping the Gulf, locating possible oil slicks. These locations would be sent back, and then we would be dispatched for a closer inspection. The trick was not only to find the oil but to assess its age, as that dictated how it could best be mitigated. The experts in the back would then communicate to the command center, who would then allocate the appropriate resource to clean it up. Now, reconnaissance flying sounds pretty easy, but when you are operating under a charter certificate, you must adhere to 14 CFR 135.79, which deals with flight locating. In short, the company must know the location of the flight at all times—a challenging task when it’s in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico at 1,500 feet following a meandering oil slick. Add to that the fact that we had to coordinate our TFR entry and exit points and times with NORAD and the FSS. All of this flying had to be done VFR, at low altitude and on company flight plans. To meet our flight locating burden, we utilized a dedicated dispatcher at home base, a big map and satellite phones. We would phone in our position as often as every 10 minutes. Satellite-based GPS trackers were also employed, but while it was nice to have them, these portable models we had lacked the ability to communicate both ways, so they did not meet 14 CFR 135.79 to the FAA’s satisfaction.
The scope of this oil spill was unimaginable, and because of this, there was no end to the methods used to clean it up. Chemical dispersants were dropped on the oil, it was scooped up with booms and sucked into huge filtering ships, and the most interesting was to light it on fire and burn it off. Once a patch of candidate oil was located from the air, boats were vectored in, specially designed water was cooled, fireproof booms were floated and the oil was corralled. Once this was accomplished, someone in a small boat would motor over and throw a makeshift “Molotov cocktail” onto the oil, igniting it. We would then orbit above, monitoring the situation to make sure that they didn’t drag the fire into unwanted areas or other boats. Occasionally the fires would jump the booms, grow and be so big that they could be seen over 100 miles away. These missions were the most surreal, as often the sun was completely blacked out by smoke, the flames formed tornados that rose upward from the surface, and waterspouts were a common sight.
Safety was always the number one priority. With the Citation jets and their shuttle flights, the primary concern was in making sure that no hazardous materials were flown. With regard to reconnaissance and burn flights, ensuring that flight locating requirements were met and avoiding other aircraft were the big issues. We were told that there were upwards of 100 aircraft all operating within 10 square miles of the “source” (the term used to identify the actual spill location). There was good coordination between everyone involved, with regular safety briefings conducted with our team of pilots, helicopter operators and the response command structure. Customs and Border Protection kept a P3 Orion overhead to monitor activity, keep unauthorized aircraft away, and offer emergency response support. While they did not provide any traffic advisories, all aircraft would check in and out with them when entering and leaving the TFR. Aircraft were also assigned various altitudes, depending on what their mission was. Dispersant aircraft would fly below 500 feet, transiting helicopters were above that, and our burn/reconnaissance flights were at 1,500.
The burn flights had additional hazards beyond the fiery tornados, water spouts and dense smoke. With the diminished visibility and a myriad of distractions, disorientation and loss of control were very real dangers. Communication with our passengers was critical to the mission, and that began with a thorough briefing prior to launch. Parameters, limitations, communications, emergency procedures (ditching, exit door operation, life vest and raft) were all thoroughly discussed. The lead passenger was designated, and he/she was issued a headset and could speak directly with the cockpit. Regarding the crew, the pilot flying would do nothing but that—fly the airplane at all times (autopilot engaged was preferred)—and the pilot monitoring handled the radios, requests from the passengers, position reporting and maintenance of the flight log. Flying 10 hours a day with minimum required rest periods, fatigue was a problem. Once, while acting as monitoring pilot, I fell hard asleep while transiting to our assigned search coordinates. Additional hazards existed on the ground; a Coast Guard crewman almost walked into a spinning propeller and one of our Citation jets encountered severe helicopter wake turbulence upon landing. When the Homeland Security secretary decided to visit on short notice, she directed that Houma airport be suddenly closed for hours, causing flights to divert with low fuel upon returning from the Gulf. Several of our aircraft were grounded and required inspections after the Secret Service ordered them to be towed, even though the control locks were in place and they were placarded “Do Not Tow.” In the end, safety efforts paid off and there were no aviation accidents throughout the recovery.
In time, the spill was contained and flights shifted more to traditional passenger movement and then tapered off all together. Our charter business returned to normal, and soon I was on another trip back to the Caribbean. Reflecting on all the flying we had done in the previous year, the oil spill response was definitely the hardest I have ever worked as a pilot. It was made tolerable thanks to an incredible team of my fellow team members and supportive management. I feel proud to have made a contribution in the cleanup efforts of this historic disaster. I’ve labeled these flights carefully in my logbook. Perhaps my grandchildren one day can show that in class when they learn about this tragic event in school.