The Coast Guard has begun training spotters to work aboard a slow-moving, 178-foot-long Navy blimp that will add another airborne tool to the search for petroleum slicks and distressed wildlife from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Coast Guard's observers aboard the MZ-3A Airship, at least temporarily based at an airport near downtown Mobile, will help guide skimming vessels and wildlife rescuers responding to the massive crisis, officials said.
The all-white blimp, with a gondola that can carry as many as 10 people, cruises at a comparatively leisurely 55 mph at lower altitudes, and it can come to an almost complete stop if needed.
It's expected to be far more effective that the Coast Guard's HC-144 cargo airplane that often is used for Gulf flights. The plane has an average speed of 155 mph and flies at a minimum of 1,000 feet above the water, making it difficult to pinpoint oil or see animals on the surface of the water.
"This is another asset in the effort to respond to what is going on in the Gulf," said Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the spill response command in Mobile.
DeBruyne said Coast Guard members who will work on the airship must undergo a day of safety and observer training on the ground before beginning additional training in the air.
"They have to be qualified just to go up," he said. Training started Friday and was continuing today.
Spotting oil from a blimp isn't as simple as it sounds: It can be difficult to distinguish between streamers of burnt-orange oil and masses of brown seaweed from the air, and the shadows of clouds sometime resemble dark patches of oil in the water. Also, dead or dying marine animals on the Gulf surface can appear as mere dots from aloft.
The airship, manufactured by Oregon-based American Blimp Corp., arrived in Mobile on Friday after a one-night layover in New Orleans. A crew from Integrated Systems Solutions Inc., the Maryland-based company that operates the blimp for the Navy, drove stakes into the ground around a truck that has a tall, red-and-white mast used for mooring the airship on the ground.
The blimp bobbed in the afternoon breeze before training flights began. DeBryune said it was unclear when the aircraft would begin operating over the Gulf.
The blimp can stay aloft and work for 12 hours at a time, far longer than airplanes or helicopters. The Coast Guard said it also is more economical because it can monitor a far larger area than conventional aircraft. Normally based in California, the blimp is being outfitted with additional sensing equipment and communications gear for its time in the Gulf.