NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Up in the Air

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Oil spills are mostly a water pollution problem, but the best perspective on a spill is generally from the air rather than the deck of a ship.  As a result, we end up flying in helicopters and small planes to track how the oil moves.

These visual observations in the field are passed along to the command post to help plan cleanup, but the information is also used by my colleagues in Seattle who create computer models of oil spills. The observations we make in flight, along with weather and water currents, are used to predict where the oil slick may head.  That information helps those of us responding to a spill to position equipment such as skimmers, floating booms, and cleanup teams in the areas most likely to be oiled.

Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, in a helicopter over a spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass.

Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, in a helicopter over a spill in Buzzards Bay, Mass. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Working in small planes and helicopters can be dangerous, so we do a lot of training and carry a lot of safety gear.  And if we can, we like to fly with the door open to have a better view.

In this picture, Steve Lehmann, our Scientific Support Coordinator in New England, is wearing a helmet, safety visor, intercom to the pilot, inflatable vest, and fire-resistant coveralls.  The inflatable vest is a special design for helicopters and contains a small emergency breathing tank called a HEED (Helicopter Emergency Egress Device) with about two minutes of air.  Helicopters that fly over water have inflatable floats on their landing gear, but if the helicopter had to land in the water, it could tip over, so the emergency air bottle gives extra time to escape.

On the seat next to Steve, you can see an orange inflatable life raft with a water-activated strobe light.  The yellow device with the black antenna is called an EPIRB.  That stands for Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. This automatically sends out a distress signal to search and rescue teams if the raft is launched.

Responders undergo safety training in a pool, using SCUBA tanks to refill HEED air tanks.

Here, responders use SCUBA tanks to refill HEED air tanks. Credit: NOAA

In addition to all of the gear, we also do a lot of training on flight safety and what to do in emergencies.  Every couple years we practice in a swimming pool with a mock-up of a helicopter.  This “dunker” simulates a helicopter rolling and sinking after hitting the water.

I’ve flown on a lot of commercial and military helicopters during spills and thankfully never had to use my HEED.  Keeping up with safety in the air is important, even when the mess is in the water.

Author: doughelton

Doug Helton is the Regional Operations Supervisor for the West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, and Great Lakes and also serves as the Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division. The Division provides scientific and technical support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spill responses. The Division is based in Seattle, WA, but manages NOAA response efforts nationally.

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