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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Offshore Notebook: Fish Spotters

Flying helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico can give one a sense of ownership of our low-level airspace. I mean like when we cross the beach outbound in our helicopters for distant oil rigs, why would you think of airplanes cluttering up the sky at 1,500 feet or less? We share those altitude levels around airports of course, and some utility patrols and perhaps weekend recreational flying. But over the ocean, in single engine airplanes, without floats? The answer: fish schools for commercial purposes.

A “pogy” is a 12- to 15-inch fish that runs in schools numbered in the thousands. The Gulf surrendered 379,727 metric tons in 2009 and will probably exceed that number in 2011. Once processed, the fish product is used as a very high protein additive to numerous products such as animal feeds for poultry, cattle, swine and pet foods.

During my flying days over the Gulf of Mexico, I often admired the business-like efficiency of the fish spotter airplanes at work. In hindsight, I can think back and recall more than a few instances when I inadvertently came upon their intense flying patterns above a bevy of fishing vessels, not really understanding what it was all about. Recently, in talking with other active helicopter pilots in the Gulf area, it has become obvious that I was not alone in my ignorance.

The major player for pogy fishing on the Gulf coast is a company called Omega Protein, headquartered in Houston, Texas. I interviewed the company’s chief pilot, Duane Davis, and safety pilot Joe Fain, both long-time employees. They began by explaining how a typical fishing operation was conducted. The airplanes they fly are Cessna 172 RGs and Cessna 182s, all with long-range fuel tanks. The airplanes take off from scattered bases along the Gulf at first light. They are assigned different altitudes, roughly from 5,000 feet down to 1,000 feet. They search for fish, usually from the beach out to three miles. On rare occasions, they go as far as 25 miles out. Omega Protein will usually field up to 20 airplanes a day, initially dispersed from Alabama to Texas.

They are searching for a “rip” or a school of pogies that have surfaced which they usually do in the early morning. When they find enough in one area to be commercially viable, they call in the “steamers” to begin netting operations. These ships are from 150 to 180 feet long and have two “purse net” boats resting on their sterns. When launched, the purse boats let out a 1,500-foot net that will encircle the school of fish.

The hard part of the Cessna pilot’s job begins when the steamers arrive at the fish site. First, he must call in the other airplanes to assist him. It is up to the pilot to guide the steamers to the fish and position it to maximize the catch. Winds, tides and currents can complicate this procedure and it requires a high degree of concentration by the pilot to fly the airplane and work the steamer. He is actually working three boats, the purse boats and the steamer. When the other airplanes arrive, each pilot will work one steamer, and they can number as many as 10, stacked similar to an IFR holding pattern. Often, at the same time, helicopter traffic will begin to build as they leave shore bases and head out to sea, usually on direct routes to a destination. Most are VFR, some IFR. As it happens, these routes will, on many occasions, take them through a netting operation.

This activity then becomes the critical point for air traffic alertness, especially so by the helicopter pilots operating in or transiting the area. By now it should be obvious that the airplanes are making left turns in a counter-clockwise direction, at scattered altitudes, most of their attention directed to the boats below them. Even though there are airspace agreements in place between the helicopter operators and the fish spotters it does not always work out. I asked Davis what he thought is the biggest threat for potential airspace conflict. First, he made it clear that he is aware of about 20 close calls per week during the season. He defines a close call as any time they have to make an aggressive maneuver for avoidance.

Most of these involve helicopter flights over the boats. The spotter airplanes use altitudes at 500-foot increments and the helicopters use the HSAC recommended altitudes in quadrants starting at increments of 700 feet. Many of the helicopter pilots use GPS latitude/longitude for position location when nearing a fishing operation. When southbound, a departure point would be of much more value. They have no time to be looking up coordinates on a sectional.

It’s important to note that helicopter pilots could be more helpful in the courtesy arena by not looking down at the fish and saying, “Wow, you guys sure have a lot of pogies down there.” It’s a very competitive business and you’re basically announcing, via VHF to the other fishing companies, the location and amount of fish. All of the competing companies use radio scramblers for locations and rendezvous points in an effort to keep the competition uninformed.

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