The Navy has now sent a blimp -- the MZ-3A Airship -- to patrol the shoreline from above, direct skimmers trying to corral floating oil, and look out for wildlife in harm's way.
The MZ-3A, almost identical to blimps used for advertising and bird's-eye views of sporting events, has been brought in from Yuma, Arizona. The Navy says the helium-filled ship, 178 feet long and capable of carrying 10 people or equipment, can stay in the air far longer than helicopters or planes, burning just 10 gallons of fuel an hour at its maximum cruising speed of 55 mph.
"The airship will operate relatively close to shore, primarily supporting skimmers to maximize their effectiveness," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kevin Sareault in a statement from oil spill response headquarters. "While different sensors are being considered, one of the primary means for locating oil will be by simple visual observation by the embarked aerial observers. The mission of overflights is to locate and direct surface assets to actionable oil -- that is oil that can be burned, dispersed or skimmed."
Lighter-than-air ships were the wave of the future for the Navy -- or at least they were back in the 1930s, when airplanes were primitive and the Nazi Zeppelin Hindenburg disaster hadn't scared people away from airships. By 1962 the Navy had phased out its last lighter-than-air squadron; helium blimps were safe, but for patrols and reconnaissance, jets and satellites were faster and sleeker.
In 2006 the Navy decided to give airships another try. It bought one blimp from the American Blimp Corp., which made them for civilian use. It flew the ship for a year -- and then mothballed it for lack of money. This spring it handed it off to a division of the Naval Research Laboratory, which began testing it.
And then came the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
"Airships are great platforms for broad-area persistent surveillance," said Jim Thiele, president of American Blimp Corp. "That's a fancy way of saying you can cover a lot of ground, and do it for a long time.
"For aerial surveillance, they work much better than when you're zipping through the air, vibrating all the time," he said.
The MZ-3A should stand out in the steamy skies off the Gulf shore. Unmarked except for its tail number, it is expected to hover at altitudes of a few thousand feet, looking much like a commercial blimp at the Super Bowl.
Cameras, radar and infrared sensors, says the Coast Guard, will be mounted in its gondola to survey the scene below.
Thiele says the Army, meanwhile, is working on an airship that would be able to do reconnaissance over theaters of war such as Afghanistan. The remote-controlled ship would be able to carry a ton of equipment at an altitude of 20,000 feet -- and stay there for three weeks.
Blimps don't do very well, though, in the stormy summer weather along the Gulf Coast. The joint command for the spill operation said it would be Friday before the MZ-3A is in place. Sensing equipment should be installed by next week.
"I just hope the airship is able to help," Thiele said.