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Air Force Reserve's 910th Airlift Wing provides initial response to Deepwater Horizon spill

  • Published
  • By Maj. Brent J. Davis
  • 910th AW Public Affairs
Normally, the 910th Airlift Wing (AW) based at Youngstown Air Reserve Station (YARS), Ohio, is known for its aerial spray missions to control vegetation and overpopulation of insects. However, for the first time in its history, the 910th AW deployed its aerial spray capability to disperse oil instead of annihilating insects.

More than 60 Air Force Reservists and two specially equipped C-130H aircraft traveled to Stennis International Airport in Kiln, Miss., April 30, to aid in the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill cleanup efforts there.

For almost two decades, the wing's 757th Airlift Squadron and the U.S. Coast Guard have participated in oil spill cleanup exercises to ensure the U.S. military has a capable response in the event of a national emergency.

During the 5-week mission, the YARS aircrews flew 92 sorties and sprayed approximately 30,000 acres with nearly 149,000 gallons of oil dispersant.

"Oil dispersant is used to mitigate the environmental disaster," said Maj. Mark Breidenbaugh, an entomologist from the 757th AS. "It is like a detergent soap that breaks the oil up and moves it under the water so it stays in the water column. This speeds up the natural process that breaks down the oil."

In addition to the 910th AW's two Modular Aerial Spray System (MASS)-equipped aircraft, civilian aircraft provided the backbone of the aerial-dispersant operation.

"We have one C-130A model under contract to Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) and there is a stretch version ... in Alaska," said Mr. Toenshoff, vice president of the MSRC. "Both aircraft operate using their own spray systems. We also have seven spotter aircraft that tell the C-130s when to spray on a given area of the slick."

According to Mr. Toenshoff, the oil dispersing operation required the specially trained spotters to direct the aerial spray planes over the slick.

"We used a standard of 1,500 feet and five miles visibility in order to safely conduct the operations," said Maj. Phil Townsend, 757th AS chief of aerial spray. "This allowed us to move out of the way of ships and rigs out on the Gulf. When we disperse the oil, we fly down to 100 feet above the slick and the spotter will tell us when to spray and when to stop."

Moreover, Major Townsend added that he was in awe flying so closely to the oil spill.

"Seeing the oil the first time we flew out over the Gulf was quite an amazing thing," he said. "For 20 to 30 miles out, we were seeing different streamers of oil and slicks 10 to12 miles in length. When flying down at 100 feet, sometimes we could smell the vapors from the oil."

The entire team from the 910th AW made a difference in how smoothly this mission was executed, said Charles Huber, Incident Command Center Dispersant Operation's group supervisor.

"The (910th AW Servicemembers) fit right into our team and everyone wanted to help out," he said. "We saw that in some of the turnaround times of (YARS) aircraft on the runways. Being able to land, reload the C-130 with dispersant and take off in about 10 to 12 minutes was unbelievable."

In addition, Mr. Huber said the marrying of the Air Force and commercial operations was vital to the mission.

"We wanted Airmen here to provide coordination (with commercial operations) and work on any issues that may come up," said Mr. Huber.

Despite the training and efforts of the Airmen and contractors, the mission was temporarily halted when an internal audit commenced to address local and state officials' concern for public safety.

Major Breidenbaugh served as a scientific advisor and aerial spray expert during the mission. He said during the audit, he used a public domain computer model to analyze spray drift at various altitudes and wind speeds. His calculations estimated the distance drifting spray would travel under normal and severe wind conditions.

As a result of his drift model predictions and other aerial dispersant data, the internal review panel recommended that aerial dispersant operations immediately resume.

However, on May 27, 2010, Rear Adm. Mary Landry, federal on-scene coordinator for the BP oil spill response, signed a memo that released the Air Force Reserve Servicemembers and planes from the spray mission pursuant to a transition plan.

Under this transition plan, civilian planes are slated to deliver oil dispersant in the Gulf waters. This plan complies with the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of September 2005.

Under the law, the United States should "avoid competing commercially with the private sector" and should "rely on commercial sources to supply the goods and services needed by the department."

The Deepwater Horizon mission was the first time the president of the United States and the Department of Defense used the oil dispersing capability of the 910th AW--its only large area, fixed-wing aerial spray program--in an actual spill of national significance.

"We're very proud to have supported this cleanup effort," said Col. Fritz Linsenmeyer, 910th AW commander. "Our Airmen have been training for this type of response and we are pleased to have been able to utilize their skills and capabilities to help make a difference."