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FWC pilots track oil headed toward Florida's beaches

News Release

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Media contact: Karen Parker, 386-758-0525

For 22 years he's flown the friendly - and, at times, not-so-friendly - skies above Florida, protecting the state's unique natural resources. Now, he's continuing that mission by patrolling the shoreline of the Panhandle, looking for oil that's closing in on Florida's beaches.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) pilot Joe Johnston, based at Lake City, is one of the pilots flying reconnaissance missions out of Pensacola, tracking the movement of oil along the coast.

"This isn't like any disaster I've worked before," Johnston said. "I've flown disaster relief missions around the state and in Mississippi after hurricanes. But this is different. This is an event we will be involved with for the long term."

One of Johnston's first missions was flying out to the rig shortly after the explosion.

"I was only out there one time, but that was enough," Johnston said. "Watching it on television can't compare to actually flying over it."

Since the explosion of the oil platform in late April, FWC pilots have been participating in daily missions, monitoring the shore.

According to Capt. Kevin Vislocky, FWC Division of Law Enforcement Aviation, there are three FWC helicopters stationed at the Pensacola Regional Airport along with a Florida National Guard helicopter. Crews are rotated in and out, while the helicopters remain in the area. In addition, a twin-engine FWC airplane stationed in Tallahassee is assigned to daily flying patrols along the coast.   Pilots from other agencies also assist with flights patrolling the coastline. Missions take place in the early morning and late afternoon.

"Our mission right now is strictly reconnaissance. We are attempting to locate product and provide information to the clean-up vessels before the oil reaches the shoreline," Vislocky said. "If the situation changes, we can move or add to the crews."

The daily twin engine airplane flights, running from east of Destin to the western state line, follow the coastline one mile out from the beach on the way to the Alabama border and five miles out from the shore on the return trip. Each flight also has specialists onboard, photographing what's seen during the trip. These photos, with corresponding coordinates, are then used to track the product.

"We also have FWC biologists on the flights, so if we do see any wildlife that's been affected, we can get a proper identification of the species involved and their condition," Vislocky said.

Using the aircraft is much more efficient than trying to monitor the shoreline from the ground. When the pilots see product in the water, they can direct the skimming vessels to the area and hopefully resolve the situation before it hits the beach.

Because this event will be a long-term effort, Vislocky is coordinating with other agencies to assist with the daily flights.

"In addition to the folks we're already working with, the Florida Highway Patrol has recently joined the team with their twin-engine aircraft," Vislocky said. "This has been an excellent cooperative effort.

Everyone - the FWC, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida National Guard, the Civil Air Patrol and FHP - have all stepped up to make this happen. We are learning and using the resources of the state to combat this disaster."

Johnston has returned to Lake City for a week of down time prior to returning to the Panhandle this weekend and back to flying the shoreline.

"There are times when I'm overwhelmed by what's happening in the Panhandle," Johnston said. "But we can't give up. This is the profession we've chosen, and it's our job to protect our resources."

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