DESTIN, Fla. (June 22, 2010) -- As part of the ongoing response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Fish and Wildlife experts have taken to the air with Florida National Guard aviators to spot oil encroaching near the beaches of Florida's Panhandle.

Specialists from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have been flying in a Florida Army National Guard C-23 Sherpa airplane and an LUH-72 Lakota helicopter over the Gulf of Mexico each day, looking for oil drifting into waters near the Florida coast.

The Guard pilots fly systematic patterns over the water off the coast near Pensacola and Destin, and the Fish and Wildlife experts scan the surface for oil blobs and sheens nearing the beaches. When they locate oil, they mark the location and type of oil "product." Immediately after the flight they upload all the information to a Florida Fish and Wildlife database where it is distributed to other agencies concerned with the oil spill.

By using existing satellite data each morning, the spotting teams can get an idea where the oil might be, and then they confirm the location and extent when they get in the air, according to Bryan Schoonard, a research associate with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

"This has been very successful," Schoonard said during a recent spotting mission south of Pensacola, noting the flights give them a good look at "what's out there and what can come into state waters."

On June 22 the C-23 Sherpa crew flew three members of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to see if there was any oil in a fishery enclosure area south of Pensacola. The C-23 flew 1,000 feet above a 40-mile stretch of coast, and soon Schoonard and his team spotted shiny patches of oil sheen and several flat, orange oil blobs - called "pancakes" - in the area.

Schoonard, who has been spotting from Florida National Guard aircraft for about a week, explained that satellites can only gather limited data, especially on cloudy days, but from a plane flying at about 1,000 feet "we get a better idea of what the product is, how heavy it is, what kinds of sheens are out there."

After the data is collected and analyzed, they can then plan for cleanup and determine if the threat is severe enough to close a fishery.

Farther out the team spotted larger patches of darkish-orange and dark-brown oil, and even thick tar mats "the size of swimming pools" in the blue Gulf waters.

"The C-23 allows us to chase the farther stuff out and it allows us to know what's coming in," he said, noting the value of using the Guard aircraft. "We're not just limited to state water; sometimes we can go out farther. Sometimes 50 to 60 miles and look at this."

Chief Warrant Officer Jay Burke, a pilot of the C-23 Sherpa, said that these missions in support of the oil spill response really prove the worth of the fixed-wing C-23 Sherpa and its usefulness in emergency-response missions.

"It's a great opportunity for us to show that we are a viable asset, and they we need to be around for things like this," Burke explained. "We could even be doing other things like moving people around, or cargo if needed...We've been doing this for two weeks, but we could be doing it for six months."

More than 80 Florida National Guard Soldiers and Airmen are directly supporting Operation Deepwater Horizon, with missions including liaison support, aviation support, public affairs, communication support and reconnaissance of coastal areas, under the direction of the Florida Division of Emergency Management and U.S. Coast Guard.