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From the cockpit of a Coast Guard HC-144 patrol plane, the armada surrounding the Deepwater Horizon rig last June appears placid. (USCG/Petty Officer 3rd Class Walter Shin)

The Other Gulf War

After the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 200 aircraft took up the fight to save the coast.

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By June it was clear that more aerial coordination was required. The Air Force created an Aviation Coordination Command at Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base. Over the course of 57 days, it managed 4,942 flights under Emerson’s command. Pilots were required to check in for a briefing and transponder code before taking off.

At its peak, 125 people worked in the Command, analyzing information, scheduling and tracking flights, and publishing pilot advisories. Representatives from BP, which paid for all flights; the Department of State, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Department of Defense were in the command center and set the priorities for flights, to keep the oil off the beaches and away from entrances to bays and harbors.

Building the daily flight schedule was an exercise in détente. It started at area command centers, which would submit proposed mission schedules to the Tyndall command center around 6 p.m. each day. Then the negotiations started.

“Folks in New Orleans closest to the Houma command center have the source right there in their back yard,” recalls Emerson. “Oil is coming into their water table. There’s no question that they were the most immediately impacted. But I don’t think anybody in Mississippi really cared about who was the most immediately impacted. They knew they were going to get impacted. ”

Usually a master schedule of flights for the next day would be posted online every night by 8 p.m., but Emerson admits that sometimes the process lingered into midnight. “We had an unclassified Web site that was open to anyone,” says Emerson. “Even my parents could look at what the flight schedule was and say ‘Hey! I think that’s good’ or ‘My son’s an idiot.’ ”

In September, the oil was stanched and the Tyndall command center stood down, having kept hundreds of aircraft flying for more than three months without mishap. Control of the handful of remaining flights reverted to area command centers.

In Houma, Airborne Support, Inc.’s Howard Barker parked his DC-3 dispersant sprayers. An oil industry co-op called Clean Gulf Associates pays him a retainer to keep them at the ready. After a long summer of fighting more oil than anyone had ever seen, Barker said that flying as part of a multitude of airplanes all with different jobs to do worked well, considering “there’s never been anything like this before.”

Mark Huber has written about many airplanes for Air & Space/Smithsonian, but not as many as the types that flew in the Gulf of Mexico last summer.

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