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Jul 10, 2010 3:31 PM by Chris Welty

Coast Guard Trains Spotters for Gulf Blimp Duty

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - 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 Saturday.
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.

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