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With oil gusher capped, center to manage support flights closes

The Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and Air Force choreographed a complex aerial ballet of more than 23,000 aircraft missions during the government's response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, shutting down the operations this month.

The missions included everything from aircraft looking for sea turtles for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration to multiple flights by the Air Force and commercial C-130 aircraft to drop oil dispersant. The agencies coordinated flights using old-fashioned faxes, as well as e-mail, websites, satellite telephones and aircraft that CBP typically uses to track drug smugglers.

Coast Guard Capt. James Sommer, director of the Deepwater Aviation Coordination Command, said the missions his organization managed were in addition to commercial flights flying over the Gulf that were controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration through its center in Houston.

Missions included aircraft sent out to spot oil slicks, which then called in C-130s to drop oil dispersant. The operations were complicated by the fact that the aircraft were flying under temporary FAA flight restrictions over a 20,000-square-mile area in the Gulf.

Management and coordination of the flights (Sommer was careful not to use the word control, a function performed only by FAA) started with a federal organization sending via e-mail or fax a flight plan to the Air Force's 601st Air and Space Operations Center at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Fla.

The 601st, which provided 75 personnel to support the air coordination effort, housed liaison officers from the Interior Department, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, CBP, Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and BP, said Col. Randy Spear, commander of the center.

After the center received flight plans, officials plotted them on a map of the Gulf, over which was laid a grid, with each square representing a 30-mile-by-30-mile area. Each flight was assigned a discrete radio transponder code to identify it, Sommer said.

Although FAA radars do not cover the Gulf, Sommer said he had his own eyes in the sky: two four-engine CBP P-3 aircraft equipped with a massive rotating radar dish mounted on the fuselage, which normally track aircraft or boats used by drug smugglers.

The P-3 radar is an AN/APS-145 originally designed for use on the Navy E2 surveillance aircraft, which can monitor and track 20,000 targets simultaneously, said John Stanton, executive director of the national air security operations at CBP's Office of Air and Marine.

At the height of operations, CBP operated two P-3s for a maximum of 16 hours a day, with the first flight on May 5, 13 days after the oil rig sank. The final flight was made on Aug 6. Overall, the P-3s flew 1,316 hours and provided radar services to 23,790 aircraft flying response missions, Stanton said.

The P-3 has three computer-equipped workstations that display a radar picture, which along with the radio transponder code transmitted by aircraft operating over the Gulf, allowed it to track them "with the purpose of the exercise to ensure no one ran into another aircraft," he said.

Although the P-3 comes equipped with a suite of powerful long-range, high-frequency radios, Sommer said communications between the air coordination center and the P-3s were sent over the iridium satellite phone system. The P-3s have a phone at each workstation "and it's just easier to make a phone call than use the HF radio," Stanton said.

The P-3s flew similar air coordination missions after Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed FAA radars, said Stanton, who added such missions are a core competency for the aircraft and crew, in addition to drug interdiction.

Sommer said the Deepwater Horizon air coordination mission ranks just behind Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Haiti earthquake in January for complexity.

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