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FEATURE: CRW captain sees Haiti scene unfold from under the brim of many hats

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres
  • 621st Contingency Response Wing Public Affairs
When Capt. Donovan Davis, an airfield operations officer with the 621st Contingency Response Wing here, stepped off of the C-17 Globemaster III and onto the tarmac at the Toussaint L'Ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 14, he was absolutely astounded.

"I remember thinking, 'You have got to be kidding me, right?'" said Captain Davis. Little did he know, he would soon be the linchpin for airfield operations at what would quickly become the key hub for humanitarian relief flown into Haiti following the devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake that had stricken the island nation just two days earlier.

Captain Davis was part of a 125-member Contingency Response Group which joined forces with 50 Soldiers from the 688th Rapid Port Opening Element out of Ft. Eustis, Va., to form a Joint Task Force-Port Opening at the distressed airfield. The JTF-PO mission was to expedite airfield operations in order to land planes and off-load and strategically stage cargo for transport by distribution agencies--a critical link in the delivery of aid to the Haitian people.

"When we landed in Haiti, the scene on the ground was chaos," said Maj. Matt Jones, the JTF-PO deputy commander. "Air Force combat controllers were doing an amazing job of landing planes at the airport, but there just weren't enough resources to get all of them quickly unloaded and back into the air so the air traffic could flow smoothly. We came in to help that process, but it was really up to the Haitians to determine our level of involvement."

Two days after landing in Haiti, Captain Davis was attending a crisis coordination conference at the United Nations compound with representatives from the UN, U.S. Agency for International Aid & Development, the Government of Haiti and key CRG leadership. The CRG had been deployed to Haiti as the U.S. Air Force's answer to this disaster, but as guests in a foreign country, the wing still needed marching orders from the Haitians.

"The Haitian Prime Minister pointed right at me and said exactly what we needed to hear," said Captain Davis. "You have responsibility for the airfield."

This declaration clarified the CRG's responsibilities in coordinating the path out of the chaos at the overwhelmed airport, and as an expert in airfield operations, Captain Davis was the logical choice to synchronize these efforts with the Haitians. He had his work cut out for him.

Help was coming from all around the world, but the international response was immediately more than the single runway airfield could handle. Flights were simply appearing overhead and asking to land on the overcrowded field. Aircraft were stacked in holding patterns five miles high. With limited parking space, air traffic controllers were forced to keep some planes in holding longer than they could stand to wait, causing some aircraft to divert to other locations.

"The international community responded quickly and in mass, but there just wasn't enough room on the ground to bring everyone in at once," said Major Jones. "Planes were parking on taxiways and blocking traffic. At one point there were more than 30 aircraft on a ramp that could safely fit ten."

Lt. Gen. Glenn Spears, 12th Air Force commander, described the situation at the airfield as a virtual catcher with "pitchers throwing balls from all directions all at the same time."

A globally-recognized single authority was needed to act as an umpire, to sort and schedule the hundreds of landing requests for aircraft that were coming in daily. It also had to be a solution the international community could agree on. Since the Haitian government had asked the U.S. to help prioritize aircraft flow, the Haiti Flight Operations Coordination Center was created in the 601st Air and Space Operations Center at Tyndall AFB, Fla.

The HFOCC became responsible for the 24-hour coordination and flow control of all flights into and out of the airport. Due to demand, the waitlist for landing slots ran two weeks long for some of the larger aircraft, but the system was working. While many flights were turned away early on in the operation, once the HFOCC was established, diverted flights dropped to less than one percent.

"We still had planes that would arrive unannounced," said Captain Davis. "There were also instances of planes with either time-sensitive cargo or diplomatically important people that could not wait. When this happened, we would coordinate with the Haitian government and the HFOCC to arrange a landing window to minimize impact on the other aircraft that had sometimes waited days or weeks for their opportunity to land."

The challenges didn't end when the aircraft landed. In his role as airfield operations chief, Captain Davis became a mix of zoning commissioner, traffic cop and diplomat. There were dozens of groups already inside the airfield perimeter and more were arriving daily. If the airfield was a city, this was probably the first time population growth had been viewed as a bad thing.

Before the earthquake, Toussaint L'Ouverture handled an average of 20 flights a day. Immediately following the earthquake this number jumped dramatically. At its peak on Jan. 19, more than 160 aircraft landed and were safely unloaded by the CRW--an 800 percent increase in air traffic from pre-disaster levels. Adding to this daily burden was a constant flow of both military and commercial helicopter traffic.

"Things were extremely busy and unpredictable. However, safety had to remain a priority, and we were seeing things happen that should never happen at an operational airport," said Captain Davis. "We were operating a vital relief hub for millions of desperate people and could not afford to have an accident shut it down."

As people arrived from around the world to support the relief effort, they began setting up campsites all over the airfield. This influx of population combined with the tremendous increase in flight operations created space and safety issues at the already overcrowded airport. There were too many players on the field.

Captain Davis worked closely with his Haitian counterparts to reduce vehicle and foot traffic on operational areas of the airfield. Air Force security forces worked side-by-side with Haitian security to secure airport access points and route traffic to staging areas away from the busy parking ramp.

"A lot of groups weren't happy that they were being asked to move their camp or being denied access to the flightline," said Captain Davis. "There were even some people who accused the U.S. military of trying to take over the airport, but our mission was clear. This was a Haitian airport, and it was our job to help them maintain the crucial air-bridge that was moving critical aid at an ever increasing rate. Efficiency and the safety of everyone on the airfield were our primary concerns."

To stay current on issues affecting airport operations, Captain Davis met twice-daily with the Haitian airfield authorities. He also chaired daily meetings with representatives from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, UN World Food Programme, USAID, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, Canadian Air Forces, French Air Forces and several other agencies to identify potential problems and recommend solutions.

"Early on in the operation, fuel became a critical issue, so we directed aircrews to arrive with enough fuel to stay overhead for up to two hours and then make it home safely," said Captain Davis. "Another issue was that planes were arriving and their aircrews were heading downtown for hours, blocking a much-needed spot. We had to start telling crews to stay with their aircraft at all times. It was a different issue every day and in the end, our meetings made a huge difference."

With the situation at the airport improving daily, and more airport functions being handed back over to the Haitians, it was almost time for Captain Davis and the other 174 members of the JTF-PO to return home.

On Feb. 19, a sign of normalcy returned to the Haitian International Airport. For the first time since the earthquake 37 days earlier, an American Airlines flight arrived from Miami with a full load of paying passengers onboard. As one of the pilots waved a Haitian flag from the cockpit window, a band in the terminal played cheerful Creole music.

The JTF-PO left the next day. It was a fitting end, said Davis.
"I can't think of a better symbol that it was time for us to go home than a commercial airliner resuming scheduled flights into Haiti," he said. "I was proud of what the JTF-PO was able to accomplish. We did exactly what we came to do, what we were trained to do. We helped our international neighbor at a critical time and made a real difference."