Navy blimp to be used in oil cleanup efforts

A Navy blimp is en route to the Gulf Coast this morning to aid in the cleanup efforts of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, according to a press release from Deepwater Horizon Response External Affairs.

The Navy’s "MZ-3A Airship" should arrive sometime after today at Jack Edwards National Airport in Gulf Shores, Ala., after leaving its home in Yuma, Ariz., last month to head this way.

The airship is more economical to operate and can stay aloft for longer periods of time than helicopters or fixed wing aircraft already in use. Because the airship travels slowly, it will be a helpful platform for aerial observers looking for marine mammals and other wildlife that may be in distress.

While the airship’s primary mission is spotting and monitoring oil to support command and control of skimming operations, the locations of animals will also be passed to the Incident Commands so that vessels and crews can be dispatched to assist wildlife. The airship will play an important role in achieving the goal of saving a way of life with the massive response.

The airship will operate from a mooring three miles southeast of the Mobile Bay shoreline.

“The airship will operate relatively close to shore, primarily supporting skimmers to maximize their effectiveness,” said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kevin Sareault, Deputy Area Commander for Aviation, Unified Area Command, Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response. “While different sensors are being considered, one of the primary means for locating oil will be by simple visual observation by the embarked aerial observers. The mission of overflights is to locate and direct surface assets to actionable oil -- that is oil that can be burned, dispersed or skimmed.”

Some of the sensor options under consideration include electro-optical, infrared and radar sensors. The sensor packages are scheduled to arrive during the week of July 12 and will take several days to install, test and evaluate.

There are two potential advantages of airship monitoring of oil in the Gulf. First, the airship can operate for a 12-hour endurance period, much longer than fixed wing aircraft or helicopters; and two, the airship is more economical because it can monitor a larger area and is less expensive to operate compared to fuel and manpower costs for several helicopters or fixed wing aircraft to cover the same area.

There are currently no plans for other airships to be used in the response. The MZ-3A Airship was built in 2006 and has flown missions as far away as Greece where it provided security for the Olympic Games.

It has also been deployed for the Office of Naval Research and Marine Mammal Research, and EPA Atmospheric Testing.

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald