Tomorrow marks four months since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion on April 20th. To make sure we keep talking about the issue—even after it leaves the front pages—I interviewed Tom Hutchings, a pilot for SouthWings who has kept watch over the spill—from the air—since it first happened. Find out below what he’s seen:
Tom: To be completely honest, it was sickening. While seeking permission to fly to the site three days after the rig sank, I had been given the run around by BP representatives and was told that I did not have permission to fly there. I knew from their response that it was bad but I wanted to get out there to document what was happening. After discussing the situation with a representative of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), I decided to fly. Despite what BP and the U.S. Coast Guard were saying, we found an oil slick 15 miles wide and 30 miles long. I knew then that this spill was going to be the biggest environmental disaster the Gulf of Mexico had ever seen.
CL: SouthWings is an aviation non-profit that provides flights to people who spread the word about conservation and other environmental issues. What kinds of people and groups have you taken up into the air to see the spill?
Tom: Writers, photographers, videographers, and reporters from all over the country—some have been the most talented and well-meaning ecologically minded thinkers I have ever met. One common thread: they have all been blown away by the magnitude of this event and the ineffectiveness of our response to it. The one thing I require is that they share the information they see in a timely and purposeful manner. I want the story out and I want it to be the real story, not just a sound bite or a short visual image.
CL: What have you seen that most people haven’t?
Tom: A line of helicopters dropping sandbags across an 150 foot wide inlet in south Louisiana, with a mile wide opening into a bay adjacent to it while nesting birds are sitting in oil beside the marsh. Also, literally thousands of miles of ineffective booms with oil on both sides of them.
CL: You’re a native to Mobile, AL, a biologist by trade, and an environmentalist by choice. Why did you want to become a pilot?
Tom: So I could get a true perspective of the environmental issues people were talking about. In my prior environmental advocacy work, I learned the value of showing decision makers—from the air—what the issues at hand looked like and also the simple beauty of the earth.
CL: Regarding the spill, what would you like to see moving forward?
Tom: As the media loses interest and this story wanes, what I hope most is that we don’t forget the lessons learned. I hope that through this experience of great loss we reevaluate our dependence on oil and begin to move toward the use of more sustainable fuels. As a country made up of six million human beings, we must wake up and collectively decide that we are going to climb back to the top and lead the world in developing safe new sources of alternative energy. We must accomplish this in a manner that respects the place where we live and the creatures that live here with us.
Check out photos from our Coastal Living trip to the Gulf in May, where we were lucky enough to take a special flight with SouthWings too. To view, click here.
For more information on SouthWings and to find out how you can help, visit their website at southwings.org.