FWC pilots track oil headed toward Florida's beaches
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
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,"
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
Because this event will be a long-term effort,
Vislocky is coordinating with other agencies to assist with the
"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