He was 23,000 feet above the ground in an HC-130J Super Hercules, en route to California supporting the U.S. Coast Guard and a small team of Johns Hopkins University scientists test the aircraft’s mission system upgrade.

Price, an Electronic Systems employee with the Electronic Warfare business, had been airborne in the C-130 before. He is part of the Engineering team that assists the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) with radar data collection and analysis with the Harris-made AN/APY-11 multimode radar used by the USCG since 2007. Price supports the USCG’s mission as the technical lead for radar upgrades which include periodic software upgrades.

Price has helped the USCG track and identify ice in support of international ice patrol missions and oil during both naturally occurring and real oil spills, including the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

But on May 20, what was a routine flight for the technical team took a surprise turn.

Price and the technical team were heading to Santa Barbara, to a location where oil naturally seeps from the Earth – a good place to calibrate the radar’s oil detection capabilities. Suddenly, the pilot informed the team they received a dispatch about a real, 100,000-plus gallon oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara.

“What started out as a standard flight test turned into a real mission very fast,” says Price.

As the crude seeped from a ruptured subterranean pipeline into the water, blackening beaches and creating a nine-mile slick in the Pacific Ocean, Price and the team used the radar’s imaging capability to track the spill, mapping the slick to determine its size and rate of spread.

The team produced images of the spill zone using the radar’s StripSAR mode. The geo-referenced images provided precise coordinates of the spill which were data linked to the ground and overlaid on a digital map to provide a real time operations map to track the spill’s movement.

This map allowed local rescue teams from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others to direct cleanup efforts with speed, precision and confidence while also helping prevent environmental damage associated with delays.

Price and the team tracked the spill from inside the aircraft six to eight hours a day for three days straight and because Refugio State Beach was near the naturally occurring oil spill that had been the original task, they were able to collect data for that site, as well.

Although all oil spills are devastating, due to the swift action of the USCG and other agencies, a quick recovery effort was able to prevent a wider disaster and save hundreds of marine animals including birds, sea lions and elephant seals.

“The real time operations map created with the radar, along with data from other airborne sensors and surface vessels, was a key part of the cleanup effort,” Price says. “Use of a multimode radar has a real impact on the Coast Guard’s mission capability and ultimately, the health of the environment.”