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June 18th, 2010

Air Traffic Control Over the Gulf

One of the challenges in flying out to the Deepwater Horizon site is getting clearance to fly into the restricted airspace in the Gulf of Mexico. The temporary flight restriction (TFR) has been used to keep lots of flights out in the past. Luckily, we’re working with an operator that knows how to use their connections to get flights approved into the TFR. Once approved, the flight is issued a “squawk code” that is transmitted by the aircraft to let the people monitoring the restricted area know we are supposed to be there.

Even with all that in place, it sometimes doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly. As we flew out to the Deepwater site, our pilot Dicky was in constant contact with a Navy P3 Orion—a mini AWACS aircraft—orbiting high above the gulf keeping track of everyone.

When we departed the Deepwater site and Dickie communicated to the Orion (call sign “Omaha 99″) our intent, the controller came back quite quickly saying, “You’ve created a hell of a ruckus with your flight today. We’ve got flights in and out of this airspace and you’ve been interfering with them.” We got chewed out for several minutes straight. The funny thing is that we hadn’t been given any advisories or instructions by the controllers the entire time we were orbiting the site. Furthermore, there were no other flights that came or left the immediate area while we were there. We’d have photographs of them if there were.

Something tells me that we weren’t quite welcome there and our presence was merely tolerated. But we were there in any case and we weren’t there to make friends.

Photos: James Duncan Davidson

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June 28, 2010
Washington, DC