A US Navy airship was en route to the Gulf Coast on Monday to help recover the massive oil spill fouling once-pristine shorelines, officials said.


The MZ-3A Airship, the first to be used in the massive response to the worst environmental disaster in US history, was expected to reach the Gulf Coast on Tuesday, depending on weather conditions, the Joint Unified Command overseeing the efforts said in a statement.

It will detect oil, direct skimming vessels and look for wildlife that may be threatened by oil from a mooring three miles (4.8 kilometers) from the Mobile Bay shoreline in Alabama.

The aircraft presents several advantages over helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, including being cheaper to operate and being able to stay aloft longer, up to 12 hours.

The Unified Command said the commercial A-1-70 series blimp will "play an important role in achieving the goal of saving a way of life with the massive response." It began its flight to the Gulf last month in Yuma, Arizona.

"The airship will operate relatively close to shore, primarily supporting skimmers to maximize their effectiveness," said US Coast Guard Captain Kevin Sareault, the deputy area commander for aviation.

"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."

Officials said the airship, which travels slowly, would help observers locate marine mammals and other wildlife that may be trapped by the brown-orange oily mess.

Electro-optical, infrared and radar sensors are being considered for the airship. Sensor packages are due to arrive next week and will take several days to install, test and evaluate, according to officials, who noted that there were no current plans to use any other airships in the spill response.

Built in 2006, the MZ-3A Airship has flown missions in Greece, where it contributed to security operations for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games.

It has also been used by US government agencies for atmospheric testing and naval and marine mammal research.