Air Operations and the Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport
Within a couple of days, US Navy P-3 and USAF Global Hawks were providing extremely detailed imagery. U-2 and Predators also added to the imagery and video available to assess the situation. Working in conjunction with Google and other satellite imagery providers, Haiti was within a few days, one of the most imaged places on Earth.
Whilst the runway was a very good 3,000m, other facilities were less well provisioned.
It was clear that any rapid response would need an airport, the earthquake had destroyed the airport control tower and damaged a number of buildings, although the runway was relatively unaffected. All communications equipment was housed in the control tower and airport lighting was inoperable due to the lack of power.
The first air traffic control was actually carried out by personnel on the US Coastguard Cutter Forward.
She coordinated the first reconnaissance overflights of the airport and surrounding areas.
From the air, it was difficult to assess the state of the runway and so the first order of business was to obtain that information.
The Joint Task Force – Port Opening was to;
JTF-PO tasked the 1st Special Operations Wing’s Joint Special Operations Air Component quickly tasked 15th Special Operations Squadron and 720th Special Tactics Group with the requirement to establish the state of airport facilities and begin to coordinate the expected significant uplift in aircraft arrivals.
By this point, first responders were arriving, search and rescue teams from Iceland, Cuba and Peru being the first. 26 hours after the earthquake, two MC-130H’s from the 15th arrived at the airport, flying from Hurlburt Field in Florida.
Within 30 minutes of arriving the combat air controllers assumed command of air movements, setting up shop in the open air using a couple of folding tables. Aircraft were guided to their parking spots using motorcycles.
Although the USAF had full authority from the Haitian Prime Minister to assume airspace control it did create some tension with the civilian responder community.
The day after, additional personnel and equipment arrived and the 817th Contingency Response Group was formed, from the 621st Contingency Response Wing of the USAF, a unit specifically tasked with opening and operating airfields for Air Mobility Command.
On the 14th, a Joint Assessment Team (JAT) arrived.
They determined that international relief flights were landing faster than they could be unloaded, ramp space was severely limited and getting supplies out of the airport perimeter was being hampered by the lack of suitable equipment.
A management centre was established at Tyndall Air Base in Florida called the Haiti Flight Operations Control Center (HFOCC) to ensure only aircraft with landing slots entered Haitian airspace. Evacuating civilian personnel, securing the airport and establishing expeditionary life support for deployed personnel were also priority tasks.
Prior to the earthquake, the airport was handling 12-15 flights per day, daylight operation only. 3 days after, it was operating at over 60 flights per day, 24×7, and this increased over the following days to movement intensity almost equalling that of the Berlin Airlift, all from a single runway.
The runway did not have a parallel taxiway and the main ramp area had a single entry and exit point, creating challenges for free flowing traffic. The ramp itself only had parking locations for 2 large aircraft and 6 smaller.
The HFOCC operated in conjunction with the Government of Haiti, World Food Programme and United Nations to ensure the correct balance between cargo and personnel aircraft. A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) was issued by the International Civil Aviation Organization that detailed administrative procedures for flights into Port au Prince.
After the initial telephone access system to HFOCC started to show the strain, a web based system was quickly implemented and this improved matters considerably, particularly in transparency issues to ensure no accusations of priority could be levelled. There were complaints that military flights were being prioritised and the usual media commentators with zero understanding of air logistics took to the air to criticise the USAF.
It was all completely unwarranted.
Air despatch was used on a number of occasions, on the 18th of January for example, a C-17 from the 437th Airlift Wing from Charleston Air Force base air dropped 14,000 MRE’s and 16,000 Litres of bottled water on a seven hour round trip.
Security on the drop zone was paramount and this required additional personnel to ensure safety.
The aircraft handling capacity was not necessarily the bottleneck, the issue is not with landing and taking off, but landing, unloading and taking off. Mechanical handling equipment, pallet stillages and equipment operators were at a premium.
Additional fork lift trucks were flown in, and lighting and generators to enable 24×7 operations, also.
In the USA, all manner of units and locations contributed, air tanking played a critical role and various ISR aircraft continued to operate to support imagery and other data for responders.
Between the Special Forces combat controllers, personnel at HFOCC and the personnel of the 817th Contingency Response Group, small miracles were achieved.
The chart below shows the number of missions per aircraft type;
A total of 14,098 tonnes of supplies were offloaded and 15,495 passenger onloaded.
On the 19th February, civilian control of the airport was returned.
Although the focus was on Port au Prince, additional capacity was established at airports in the Dominican Republic and a Canadian team opened the 1,000m Jacmel air strip in southern Haiti which provided an invaluable divert location for smaller aircraft.
Personnel from 2 Air Movements Squadron, 8 Air Communications and Control Squadron and 8 Air Maintenance Squadron contributed to the air component of Operation HESTIA.
The image below shows Captain Suzan Carignan and Captain Rod Zeaton controlling air traffic in the improvised tower at Jacmel Airport.
Trees at the runway edge meant that initially, only C-130’s could access the runway, but after work from combat engineers, the first C-17 landed on the 20th of February. Lighting and other enhancements expanded the capacity of the airfield considerably, up to approximately 160 aircraft movements per day at the peak.
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