ABOVE THE GULF OF MEXICO — The Coast Guard C-130 soared off a Clearwater runway and flew to what looked like a war zone: a fleet of ships, columns of flame, arcs of spraying water and blobs of discolored sea.
To Petty Officer Kelly Smith, making his sixth flight over the gulf to observe the oil spill, "it's really remarkable just how much stuff is out there. It's a huge grand-scale thing."
In the war against the spill, Smith and other crew members are forward scouts. They fly from the Clearwater air station, scanning gulf waters to see if the enemy has advanced. And the next day, they or another crew will fly again, and again and again, trying each day to pinpoint the oil's leading edge. They use radar, infrared, cameras and eyeballs.
Flying over the spill gives you a real sense of its massive spread, even more than what you see on television, said Lt. Jonathan Miller, commander of Thursday's flight. He wonders if the spill's effects might last our lifetimes.
"It's going to take a lot to correct the problem, and it's probably going to be a problem for a long time," Miller said.
For the Tampa Bay area and the west coast of Florida, the daily C-130 flights from Clearwater are critical missions. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has not come closer than about 150 miles from Tampa Bay, and experts say it's not likely to get to the area's shoreline. But if they're wrong, these flights are the likely way we would find out.
The flights also provide data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for forecasting the spill's track.
"It's not a uniform shape and it's going in all kinds of directions," said Greg Wood, a retired Coast Guard lieutenant commander who was on Thursday's flight as a trainer with a private contractor. "The current is making it do different things, and we can only see it on the surface."
Thursday's flight left about 10:30 a.m. with a North Carolina-based crew and airplane that have been temporarily deployed to Clearwater. About 30 miles south of Panama City, the C-130 began zig-zagging to the south. The idea was to weave over the eastern boundary of the oily zone.
As the plane zigged southwest, closer to the spill, the crew looked to see if the sheen was still in areas where it had been spotted before. As it zagged southeast, farther from the oil, they checked to make sure it had not spread closer to the west coast.
Smith, the petty officer with a GPS and clipboard, watched the waves intensely. He was one of the few on board to see the oil clumps. It's not always easy to know what you're seeing, he said.
One of the things he was looking for was "transparent sheen," which as its name implies, has the same color as water. It's one of the trickier ones. You spot it because there are fewer ripples in the sheen than surrounding waters.
Smith is based in St. Petersburg as a marine science officer. "What I do every day is respond to oil spills," he said.
But usually, they're little spills close to shore, sometimes from something as simple as an absent-minded boater who overfilled his tank.
While Smith marked his clipboard, radar specialists hunched over a laptop in a darkened portion of the C-130. It showed another view of the spill, courtesy of radar.
Another type of radar showed a gray image of 30 miles of the gulf surface, but oil sheen areas stayed blank — a stark black-and-white portrait of the pollution. This type of radar works better for mapping the spill, and sharing that information with NOAA, said Wood, the trainer.
The Coast Guard often takes extra passengers on C-130s such as county emergency managers and other officials. For people who peer out the window, as well as the people who peer into the radar, the sight always makes an impression.
"Before we came out here we were just getting whatever the news was reporting and we had kind of an image of what we expected in our mind," said Miller, who had been flying into the gulf for a week straight. "But when we get out there and actually see it . . . it has a bigger impact."