June 28, 2010

Pilots Vince Kane and Jessica Jackson in a Raytheon King Air circle in the Gulf, directing smaller Air Tractor airplanes below toward oil slicks. Once at a slick, the Air Tractor pilots spray Corexit, a chemical that lessens environmental damage. “It’s like liquid detergent,” says Grant Lane, president of Lane Aviation, a Rosenberg, Texas subcontractor. “You’ve seen those TV ads, showing how detergent turns gunk into particles that disperse in a column of water? That’s what we’re doing to this oil.”

The unlikely team of business King Airs and Air Tractors is the newest “critical tool” for cleaning up major oil spills. King Airs usually carry businesspeople, while turboprop Air Tractors typically dump flame retardant on forest fires. The more nimble Air Tractors are making effective “spot treatment” of heavy oil slicks possible for the first time, with the King Airs guiding them to those slicks.

They’re doing a great job,” says Scotty Meador, air boss for the clean-up effort based in “These airplanes can cover a lot more ground, get a lot more done.”

“Because of the [smaller airplane’s] maneuverability, it can respond quickly and treat ribbon lengths of oil or small sections,” says Bill Lavender, a former agricultural pilot and now publisher of Ag Air Update, the industry’s newspaper. He adds that the spray pilots labor under difficult restrictions. “[They can’t spray] aquatic life, turtles, dolphins or let the chemical drift on them. Marine mammals have a 3 mile no spray zone; boats and oil rig platforms have a two-mile buffer zone.”

“Most people think business aircraft only transport executives or a company’s employees,” says Jessie Jackson of Dynamic Aviation, one of the King Air pilots. “It’s a good feeling to use these business airplanes to help protect the U.S. shoreline.”