BP Oil Spill - Helicopter Mission to The Source
My ride for today - USCG MH60 Jayhawk - Mobile, Alabama
photos copyright 2010 Jim Edds
June 20, 2010

                         My Ride for the day                                                  Collecting the Oil from the bottom and burning gas

heavy black oil at "The Source"                                                 TransOcean ship collecting oil 

No mistaking the oil in these photos taken at The Source

Burning the oil at sea

Flying out to the Source

There were very few aircraft allowed to fly out to the Source because it was restricted airspace.  After the preflight briefing we walked out to the flight line toward our ride for the day.  The MH60 is the premiere coast guard helicopter for long range missions.  There was a pilot, copilot, loadmaster, and just us photogs.  I was surprised there were no heavy hitters like NBC, CBS, & CNN on this trip.  The pilot was a lady and once we got settled in and fitted with headsets she advised us on what to expect on the mission.  After warming up the aircraft and running through the checklist we lifted off and turned south toward the Gulf of Mexico.  10 minutes into the flight the pilot came on the intercom and said we had a light on the console that she was keeping an eye on – we would continue the flight as it wasn’t anything to cancel the mission.  A few minutes later she turned the aircraft around and headed back to base just to be safe.  She advised Air Traffic Control we were returning to base for mechanical reasons and they cleared out the airspace so we could make a straight in “emergency landing”.  Just as we landed the engine developed some problems that would have required us to ditch in the ocean if the pilot and continued on to the Source.  So right away I was thinking this pilot was smart to turn back.  Sometimes you have to go by your instincts.  But I was thinking darn, the flight was scrubbed.  Two hours later, they rolled out another backup MH60 although you could tell it was a backup as the paint job was old.

So we took off once again to the Source.  First thing I notice is this helicopter has a little more shake to it.  Not good for handheld video but I’d have to make the most of it.  I didn’t have time to rent a gyro that would have done wonders for smoothing out the video.  (A gyro is a ball shaped device spinning at 20,000 rpm that attaches to your camera through the tripod hole.  If you fly and shoot video it’s a must have.  Still photographers like gyros too since it takes out a lot of the camera shake).  On the flight out we flew over the coastline and I filmed the booms laid out to protect the coastline.  I was sitting with a clear shot out the door on the side of the aircraft – as long as another photog didn’t into my filed of view I was ok.  The best seat in the house was right next to the door and it was agreed we’d rotate photogs in and out of it.  It also had the most wind so it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t sitting there.  I also had a great view of the cockpit and the instrumentation.  I saw the pilot talking with the copilot then tap the green radar scope display.  Dead ahead out 20 miles was a rather large reflection.  Wow, that had to be our target as there is nothing else out here on this ocean.  I started to get excited when we flew over a few oil rigs but they were just operating normally like so many in the Gulf of Mexico.  A few minutes later we came up on solid black crude oil on the surface of the water.  This was 3 miles before we even got to the Source.  Wow, if only they knew how bad this was back in the US.  When we came up on the Source it was surreal.  Two huge plums of fire were emanating from two side by side rigs. Large ocean going tugs were providing a constant spray of water to keep the metal cool.  There were many support vessels surrounding the main two rigs.  One was collecting oil from the “partial cap” over the leak and one rig was transferring what little oil they collected to another ship.  But most of the oil spewing from a mile below from the seabed was flowing into open ocean migrating to the surface.  This was what all the fuss was about and I had a front row seat – now I had to work fast.  I used the DSLR to film the oil in the water down below on the way in.  Then switched to video as we made a half circle around the two main rigs. I did my best to hold the video camera steady - shoo wide angle to cut down on the nasty shimmy in the blades.  I like my video silky smooth and stable.  Nothing says amateur more than shaky out of focus video.  I was not happy with the video – it was just jumping around too much from the backup helicopter.  I switched to my DSLR and began quickly firing away.  I choose shutter priority and dialed in 2/3 extra exposure.  We made a couple of circles and I had every angle of the rigs covered.  The light changed as we changed our position.  The air had a heavy haze to it due to all the summer moisture.  But I was so glad we were in a helicopter – it was so much easier to position to take advantage of the sun angle. 

Next we moved off the main complex to a spot where a boat had contained a large section of oil with a bright red boom.  They guy on the small boat was trying to light the oil with a long ignition pole.  He was having trouble getting it to burn but realizing this was a money shot I got on the intercom and asked the pilot if she would hover as I wanted that shot if the oil did ignite. Sure enough, a minute or so later it did and then I asked the pilot if she would drop down close so we wouldn’t have to zoom so much.  I always prefer wide angle to zoom.  We got so close in fact the helicopter started filling up with smoke from the burning oil and we had to quickly relocate.  But I got my shots and there was a bunch of happy photogs on the helicopter.  The pilot was very cooperative with our requests for positioning the aircraft and that was much appreciated.  Usually on aircraft they fly a predetermined route and you just fire away and get what you get –there’s no turning around for a second pass.  Here we had our own custom ride compliments of the US Gov.  We stayed out at the Source for about 45 minutes then headed back and worked the coastline some with all the booms laid out.  It was a real treat to get on this ride.  I took this photo with a 15mm fisheye lens of use shooting out the side of the aircraft.

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