CLEARWATER, Fla. - As oil continues to gush from the damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico, everyone wants to know one thing: Where is the sticky, toxic mess heading next?
To answer that question, you have to know where the oil is now. And that job falls to crews with the U.S. Coast Guard. Their helicopters and planes have been busy making daily flights from bases around the Gulf, probing the edges of the spill and turning that data over to NOAA for use in the forecasts.
Air Station Clearwater, which adjoins St. Pete - Clearwater Airport, was already the busiest Coast Guard air station in the world. But it's been even busier as crews from around the country have arrived to use the site as a staging area for the flights.
A North Carolina-based crew is in the second week of their two-week deployment to Clearwater. Like the other crews, they fly seven missions in a row, then stand down for 24 hours before doing it all again.
"They've been tasking a C-130 to fly this mission every day, four to five hours of oil spill mapping or low-lever visual spotting of the oil," pilot and flight commander Lt. Jonathan Miller explained during Thursday's flight. "Today we're doing both missions, so we're extending out to about seven hours of flight time."
WATCHING FOR OIL
During the low-level search, the white and orange plane buzzed the water at an altitude between 1,000 and 3,000 feet. Inside, experts peered out the windows, scanning the seas with a low-tech but effective method – their own eyes.
"It starts with the observation -- actually getting the eyes on-scene," offered Petty Officer 2nd Class Kelly Smith, the flight's dedicated marine science technician.
For two hours, the C-130 zigged and zagged across the eastern Gulf, while Smith and others used GPS receivers to mark their observations.
After making five or six flights in the last few days, Smith seemed to have a feel for what to expect.
"In some areas, it's oil as far as the eye can see," he recalled. "And more vessels than I've ever seen on the water."
Sure enough, gooey red-orange blobs of the oil were visible from the plane, many strung out in lines hundreds of feet long. Darker lines were visible in the water as the flight passed over the Deepwater Horizon site, where dozens of large vessels congregated, collecting and burning some of the leaking oil.
"I gather GPS location information of where the oil is, type of oil, color, a description -- is it a light sheen or a heavier patty like we've been seeing today. I also take photographs of it to provide to NOAA and the Florida in Miami, which is the incident command.
"Today we've been seeing what we call a transparent sheen. It's a light sheen, almost no color on the water. We've also seen some patties. The patties for this particular oil are red and we've seen a few of those out here today."
NEW RADAR SYSTEM TESTED
Meanwhile, a group of technicians clustered around a laptop in the middle of the plane, intensely peaking at the radar data. The C-130 climbed to a higher altitude to allow readings up to 30 miles from each side of the plane.
Radar readings clearly showed details of the land as the flight hugged the northern Gulf coast, and revealed a clear outline of the slick too, just as strings of the reddish-orange-tinted oil became visible again outside the windows.
"We're real pleased," offered Greg Wood, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander who is now working with the radar contractor. "The radar worked really well today."
The flight landed just after 5 p.m., giving the crew just one night to rest before turning around and doing it all again -- not that they mind the schedule.
"It makes you feel good to be a part of something and try to be a solution," observed Petty Officer 2nd Class Smith.
"The Coast Guard's always ready to pick up any kind of mission that helps out the environment or helps out people or even helps out other nations," Lt. Miller added. "We're always ready to answer the call."