Climbing aboard a U.S. Coast Guard airplane is stepping into a safe unknown. Serious warnings are issued before takeoff, but confidence drips from every Coast Guard member on board.

Climbing aboard a U.S. Coast Guard airplane is stepping into a safe unknown. Serious warnings are issued before takeoff, but confidence drips from every Coast Guard member on board.

Don’t all cluster near the back if we have to maneuver to avoid hitting another craft mid-air. Don’t get too far to the rear of the plane when the back hatch is open. If you get sick, please, ask for a barf bag. Quickly.

Once airborne, all those glowing “fasten your seatbelt” signs on commercial airplanes seem silly amid fluffy turbulence. Coast Guard members wander around the plane with steady feet and encourage all journalists aboard to do the same.

It’s a short runway, but an easy takeoff. It’s a small plane, but a smooth ride.

The base at Houma, La., is less than an hour’s flight to ground zero. As the plane approaches, reddish-orange ribbons begin to appear in the water, gathering in ferocity.

To give its passengers a better view, the HC-144A snaps open its crocodile jaw back end. The floor lowers, and the top presses upward, allowing a square of open air and clear sight.

What follows is still a peaceful ride. There’s no sucking sensation, or whipping wind. Passengers are free to move about the cabin, although the Coast Guard members lingering near the opening drag thin, strong lifelines that assure an unlikely fall won’t result in death.

The pilot glides about 1,000 feet above the site of the disaster, revealing a multitude of ships working the area. It provides a much different perspective of the spill that continues to cough up balls of tar on white beaches and consume wildlife without hesitation.

A few darts over the site, from different angles, and the plane heads home.
Pressure appears suddenly when the back closes up, erasing the brilliant rectangle of light.

Another 20-minute ride back, and the flight is over. Tomorrow’s jaunt promises to show little different than the changing position of the slick.

Editor Carlene Peterson is reporting on the Gulf oil spill for GateHouse News Service. You can reach her at cpeterson@mysuburbanlife.com.