Commercial, Public Service, Services

Aerial Support in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez (Part 2)

By By Terry K. Terrell | August 22, 2012

Part 2: Post-Disaster Recovery

The Navy

In addition to an extensive assortment of fabricated floatels distributed throughout the Prince William Sound, many fitted with helicopter decks, and various “cruise vessel” facilities pulling contingency duty as housing for workers offshore, it was arranged for the U.S. Navy to provide for significant levels of support. Somewhat amazingly, 500-foot troop carrying LPDs, complete with expansive flight decks hosting detachments of Boeing/Vertol H-46s, were provided, courtesy of the U.S. government and Exxon. Perhaps even more amazingly, coordination was accomplished between contracted civilian helicopter providers and the Navy, and, after proper qualification, many civilian pilots flying Exxon assignments were able to operate to and from the USS Juneau, the USS Fort McHenry, and other LPD Class vessels, on an entirely routine basis. This writer, in fact, was delighted to learn that one of the on-board Air Bosses was one of his former Navy flight students, and was able to learn further that records were set, for whatever they might ever be worth, regarding numbers of civilian takeoff/landing cycles from a U.S. Navy ship, a somewhat rare activity from the Navy perspective.

As the unforgettable summer of 1989 continued, and as the techniques and practices of brute force mechanical oil removal from shorelines approached their zeniths of capacity and efficiency, another solution to the cleanup problem, which was to involve aviation resources even further, was revealed very quietly. The term “bioremediation” didn’t mean much to rank and file petroleum industry professionals at first, nor certainly to the public, but the concept of using naturally occurring biological agents and organic processes for the purpose of accelerating the marine environment’s inherent ability to cleanse itself of chemical imbalances, particularly of the type induced by raw hydrocarbon contamination, was to become a dominant one in repairing the damage done by the Exxon Valdez spill, and aviation support was to continue as a key component here also.


The concept involved distribution of fertilization materials along intertidal zones damaged by oil contamination, encouraging a blossoming of populations in the normally present vista of marine micro-organisms which have evolved to effectively consume hydrocarbons. Oil cleanup work forces in Alaska learned an appreciation for practical data very quickly, as industry biologists detailed that the histories of petroleum spills, into oceans and elsewhere, date back throughout all of biological time, and were introduced into the earth’s general environmental equation long before man’s influence. Oil reserve deposits distributed on a widespread basis within the crust of the earth, coupled with perpetually active tectonic movements and seismic activities, have ensured that spill conditions became established as a regular enough organic feature to have spawned this very specialized biological compensation, and Exxon broke new ground in beneficially exploiting such elegant yet tidy natural mechanisms. Helicopters and floatplanes, once again virtually the only way of surveying nearly endless stretches of potentially treatable shoreline, smoothly shifted into the new and additional assignments of site planning, application supervision, and follow up monitoring of bioremediation, the summer of 1989’s last phase of cleanup activities.

The Winter

As daylight shortened alarmingly and Alaska’s brief summer faded, Exxon prepared for its own version of northern winter. It was clear to the state of Alaska, the Coast Guard, numerous federal agencies, and perhaps most especially to Exxon itself, that much more cleaning and restoration would be required before the Prince William Sound and the remainder of southern coastal Alaska could be considered recovered and restored to their ambient preps condition. Even though climatical considerations were to force an end to mechanized beach cleaning, and the summer’s mass numbers of working participants would have to be almost wholly demobilized and evacuated, a vigorous presence would be maintained in the form of specifically assigned monitoring teams. These Winter Interagency Monitoring Program (WIMP) Teams were to provide an ongoing observational analysis of the effects of Alaska’s winter weathering in terms of biological, ecological, and even archaeological criteria, paying particular attention to “bioremediated” areas. Winter teams were to work in groups of four or five, and were to be transported via instrument-equipped Bell 212s, each piloted by two IFR-rated pilots.

Overriding emphasis was placed on safety, for the winter operations of 1989-90, with all aircrew members and passengers uniformly required to wear specifically listed types of exposure suits during flight, and with all aircraft fully outfitted according to comprehensive survival equipment lists. This writer can attest to the fact that the “Fitzwright” type of exposure suit, a “dry” design, is quite comfortable for at least short, if questionably advised, recreational swims in freezing water. Worst case precautionary measures against bears, usually shotguns loaded with rifled slugs, were also standard issue for aircrews and shore parties, and handheld VHF FM radios were mandatory for all, allowing appropriate communications schedule adherence whenever it became necessary for aircrews to be physically separate from shore groups. Exxon contracted Ray Tremblay, perhaps Anchorage’s most legitimately experienced Alaska survival expert, to conduct “Winter Operations Qualifications” classes for all air and field crews involved, and rapt attention was paid by even the most stoic attendee during these sessions.

Era Aviation remained as the primary helicopter provider for the winter, since its fleet of properly equipped Bell 212s/412s and roster of qualified pilots were equal to demand, and since Era’s existing bases dotted nearly the entirety of coastal Alaska. The summer’s logistics emphasis on the Prince William Sound yielded to more widespread scrutiny of all affected shoreline areas, and the aviation staging bases of Cordova and Kodiak, approximating the extreme east and west boundaries of operations, became centers of activity, along with the slightly less active bases in Homer and Seward. Cordova, since its well-developed instrument airport is situated conveniently away from high terrain, replaced Valdez as a major base in an attempt to sidestep previously mentioned adverse weather operations limitations, and Kodiak Airport, hosting the Coast Guard’s largest Air Station, became a hub for similar reasons. Exxon’s Winter Operations Manual restricted normally planned flight operations to VFR, since field destinations were still to have no approach facilities and since field observations and other monitoring work could not proceed in other than good daylight visibility conditions in any case, but an IFR reserve capability tended to provide everyone with a comfortable buffer against the notoriously unpredictable weather of the Alaskan winter. Bell 212s were required to travel in pairs whenever possible, and especially when crossing the Shelikoff Straits from Kodiak to the Katmai Peninsula Coast, where even Exxon’s best efforts at providing VFR radio coverage often proved less than equal to the terrain and the distances. Loran C continued as primary navigational reference, after visual landmark utilization, of course, but pilots clearly found the assurance of multiple 212s with which to flight follow very comforting, particularly since the midwinter’s daylight seemed to disappear suddenly after 3:00 pm local time each afternoon.

The Bears

Bears deserve special mention here, and even though hibernation theoretically provides a universally convenient occupation for brown bears during midwinter, any Alaskan native can confirm that a “winter bear,” or one that, for whatever reason, is up and about during the dark months, is the most dangerous bear of all. It’s interesting to note that one is never very far from some kind of bear anywhere in Alaska, but Kodiak Island and the Katmai Preserve are truly world meccas for the largest bears alive. All pilots and field team members became familiar with routine helicopter sightings of bears in the fall, when they gorged on fish, and during spring “breakup,” as they emerged from their dens, but everyone, under benevolent guidance from Exxon, was devout in observing a rigid holy doctrine aimed at avoiding any possibility of a ground confrontation between bears and people.

WIMP Team interagency monitors were usually professionals in fields such as biology, geology, or engineering, and fulfilled their missions of winter documenting such criteria as chemical analysis of shoreline oiling, biological surveying of test areas, conventional wildlife profiling, including bird census taking, archaeological impact assessment of the oil spill and its aftermath activities, and progress with regard to the previously mentioned bioremediation recoveries. These extraordinarily people were diligent and persistent far beyond normally encountered ranges of human tolerance in the face of nearly constant weather and logistics obstacles, and many of them became surprisingly aviation-minded during their Alaska adventures. Their numbers were few enough that they became familiar to each other, and to the flight crews, and many of them became teaching experts at such helicopter operational exotica as refueling procedures and emergency egress techniques. Exxon’s Winter Operations Supervisor Darryl Yoes, normally a mild mannered petroleum engineer, put things in succinct perspective when he said, “Up here, on this project, we’re learning a lot about everything, oil spills and otherwise, and the things that happen to feel important usually are.”

The Second Summer

The summer of 1990 was largely a mopping exercise. Some mechanical shoreline cleaning, creatively bringing into play such mundane equipment as bulldozers and bucket cultivators, was directed at a relatively short list of isolated locations; places where geographic orientation with regard to winds and currents had set up natural catchments for drifting oil, but heavy beach treatments were relatively limited. The massive hot water barges of the previous summer were to be seen no more, and the field work parties required were small. Alaska’s winter storms had brought a power to the cleanup campaign at large that human energies, even those amplified by the best late 20th century technologies, could never approach, and the environment’s own processes, in some case accelerated by the bioremediation treatments, allowed the total work force this second season a scale representing only a fraction of its previous self. The air operations in this second round was also scaled downward to some extent, but the work that continued remained critically important. Supervisory functions, with attendant transportation needs less centralized and more wide ranging than before, consumed air resources at a rate not proportionally downsized, and a host of government and VIP inspection tours rounded out a surprisingly busy set of flight schedules. Continuation of survey and monitoring functions proceeded through the summer, including one which located and documented a widespread network of naturally occurring oil seeps throughout southern Alaska, and perhaps further explaining the origins of environmentally intrinsic cleansing mechanisms. Era continued to provide Bell 212 and Super Puma heavy helicopters, now once again more fully used for servicing fueling and radio infrastructure, and the TwinStars appeared again as fast people movers. Other providers participated variously, with the Sound Adventures Beavers and Twin Otters still on the job as field shuttles to Anchorage.

The Outlook

The perspective of time beyond second winter after the Exxon Valdez oil spill now seems to reflect the less focused glare of an endlessly mixed set of reviews. An odyssey of accomplishment has inarguably been achieved during post-spill activities, and more is inevitably destined to follow. Exxon is emphatic in making it clear that it stands ready to provide whatever might be appropriate for a third season’s effort, and beyond. As a company, its posture seems to be a correctly and appropriately apologetic one for having allowed a monumentally unfortunate set of human errors, and their resulting damage, but it also seems to be a positively upright and honorable one, derived from the notable leadership ultimately displayed during perhaps the most colossal industrial correction project in history. Much has clearly been learned, including the realization that petroleum contamination of the environment is more physically reparable than previously believed, but much more damaging in human terms than ever expected. Much more than before is now known about how to layer redundancy into maritime operations, diminishing the chances of navigational errors such as the one allowed the Exxon Valdez. Much is also known about the cookbook methods of correctly responding to large-scale oil spills, almost incomprehensibly complex and extensive though they may be. Moreover, much is now known about the human economic, political, and emotional devastation that follows literally in the wake of such intolerable environmental disruption. Lastly, and perhaps only slightly less significantly, much favorable is now known more thoroughly than ever before about the commercial aviation community’s ability to flexibly accommodate emergencies on almost any scale.

Click here to read part 1, Flying Environmental Recovery/Support in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez.

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