Gulf War 20th: Coast Guard Aviators Battled Saddam Hussein’s Oil Spill
Coast Guard aviation gained abrupt visibility during Operation Desert Storm when the service’s sole VC-11A Gulfstream II transport – with its handy serial number, 01 – arrived in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 1991, carrying an interagency team of oil spill experts. Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army was seeking to pollute the Persian Gulf by pouring oil into it, an effort only partly stymied when Air Force F-111F Aardvarks bombed the source of the deliberate spill.
In the middle of a full-scale war, known in the United States as Operation Desert Storm, a giant slick was spreading rapidly, wreaking environmental havoc and threatening Saudi desalinization plants that supplied potable water for coalition troops. “Coast Guard Zero One” brought in experts from various U.S. government branches to assist Saudi Arabian officials in policing the oil-slick mess.
Based on this team’s recommendations, two HU-25B Guardians from Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass., were dispatched Feb. 13, 1991, supported by two HC-130H transports Hercules from CGAS Clearwater, Fla.
The support “Herks” brought in supplies and returned to the United States Feb. 25. Meanwhile, Coast Guard officers had to brief the press about the Guardian, a version of the twin-engined Falcon 20F executive jet. At a press conference, this exchange took place:
Q. What bomb does it carry?
A. The HU-25B is an unarmed aircraft.
Q. Is [the HU-25B] the only way to get information on the oil spill?
A. No, there are other methods. However, overflights enable us to monitor dispersion, rate of flow, the effects of weather and currents, and other data essential for preparing a response plan. This system was used in the Exxon Valdez and Mega Borg spills.
Capt. Paul Garrity led the HU-25B detachment, which was supported by 25 Coast
Guardsmen. Pilot Cmdr. Tom Seckler described the HU-25B mission: “Our HU-25B models had hard points and sensors for the Aireye oil-detection system. Our three HU-25Bs made up our ‘national response unit’ for major oil spills. They had AN/APS-127 forward-looking radar, a drop hatch, and large search windows. They also had the Aireye sensor, which uses APS-131 side-looking airborne radar, optimized for oil spill detection.”
Seckler continued, “The basic principle is simple: We look for the absence of ‘sea state.’ To find oil, you need wind to whip up a little bit of chop. Any oil, even the thinnest oil, will calm down a moving ocean enough that we can see it. The side-looking radar then provides a picture. You get an actual picture of an oil spill, not something that looks like an image on a radar screen.”
The HU-25B had five crew positions – pilot, co-pilot, drop master, and two sensor operators. On some missions, the plane carried a Coast Guard or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist as a technical observer. Operating from Saudi and Bahraini airfields, the HU-25Bs carried local experts as well.
Hussein’s ecological war on the Persian Gulf worked much like any other major oil spills. Added Seckler, “As the oil begins to come out and spread, the dynamics of how it spreads is really sophisticated. We coordinated with containment and cleanup experts and specialists in oceanography and acted as a sensor gatherer for them. We made trajectory maps which showed not only where the oil was but where it was going. We also used ultraviolet and infrared sensors to ‘type’ the oil and observe temperature differences. The HU-25B also had a KS-87B photo-recce camera mounted just forward of the crew entrance door which helped with every aspect of this work.”
The HU-25Bs in the Persian Gulf completed their oil spill work and departed the region on April 30, 1991, about two months after the fighting ended.