Chief Master Sergeant Tyler Foster is the Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs deployed chief of operations at the Troussaint Louverture International Airport in Port au Prince, Haiti. He and his team are supporting U.S. Southern Command relief efforts in the wake of the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the nation.
Most air traffic controllers work in an air conditioned state-of-the-art facility with a panoramic view of the airfield they manage. They put in their 8 hours, jump in their car, head home, kiss the kids and wife and maybe even enjoy a nice cold brew in front of the tube.
I did say most, right?
Most of the time, combat controllers are deployed into war zones. These tip-of-the-spear battlefield Airmen manage air traffic while dodging bullets and shooting bad guys. There’s no office. They don’t even shave most of the time because there’s not enough water. The cushiest part of their job are the knee pads built into their uniforms. The commute to work? How about a free-fall drop from 10,000 feet? Not your cup of tea? Maybe the 10-mile ruck march into 14,000 foot mountains with 120 pounds on your back? That’s a typical day in the Air Commando CCT’s office.
Here, it’s a little different. They walk to work here. It’s only about a quarter mile to the office … a fold up table and some chairs in the middle of the infield at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport. No air conditioning. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s noisy. And rather than directing air strikes on hostile forces in Afghanistan, they’re controlling hundreds of flights per day bringing life saving supplies for the people here who need them.
Normally, this airport handles about 35 aircraft per day. Last Saturday, we managed about 240. For you math whizzes out there, that’s one aircraft every 6 minutes. If you’re a history buff, then you’ll remember the freshly minted U.S. Air Force had it’s “3-minute beat” during the Berlin Airlift back in ’48-’49 … landing one aircraft every 3 minutes. We’re moving some serious tonnage into this LZ. To date, it’s about 3.5 million pounds … that’s water, food and medical supplies for the millions of Haitian survivors here. Not one fixed or rotary wing aircraft hits the tarmac here without a combat controller’s DNA on it.
With this level of logistical movements, ramp space comes at a premium sometimes. When we first got here … 7 hours after the President of Haiti requested humanitarian assistance … this LZ was in utter chaos. There were 42 aircraft jammed into a parking ramp designed to accommodate 9. They were parked under each other’s wings, nose to nose, on the taxiway, even on the runway … it was pure mayhem. It took this team of pros a full day to untangle that mess. By then, we were landing one aircraft every 30 minutes or so. As this op matured, combat control teams worked with planners at the newly stood up Haiti Flight Operations Coordination Cell at Tyndall AFB, Fla., to design a system to avoid air traffic and ramp space congestion and conflicts. We call it a “slot” system.
It’s really pretty simple as long as everyone follows the rules. Call up the HFOCC, reserve a slot time, fly here on time, land, off-load your cargo and passengers, then get out of Dodge on your reserved take off time. Simple, right? Sometimes, not so much. For whatever reason, an aircrew may spend more time on the ground than they’re allotted. That affects other aircraft in the holding pattern waiting to land. Sometimes they run low on fuel and have to divert. Sometimes we have the maximum number of aircraft on the ground here at the airport … can’t land more or we go back to day 1 … not good. So flights are diverted … as they are at every airport … for safety reasons. There’s no favoritism. A plane is a plane to us.
Still some people just don’t get it and bust their reserved times. Think about it like this: have you ever made reservations for dinner at a nice restaurant? Maybe you’re running late, so you call. They hold your table for 20 more minutes. You show with your lovely lady, enjoy dinner, wine and pleasant conversation. You run up a nice $300 tab. You’re there an hour and a half … 45 minutes past your reserved time. Now there’s a couple who’s celebrating their 10th anniversary waiting for their reserved table … you know, the one you’re sitting at. They are late to seat and eat, so that has a ripple effect on down the line. Ultimately, other customers leave and eat elsewhere because, well, it’s just rude to make people wait that long when they’re hungry and wanna eat. In the end, customers are ticked, and the restaurant loses money.
Here, the same principle applies. Only instead of money, every busted minute over the allocated slot time may mean a life is lost because much-needed supplies didn’t make it here on time. It’s an easy fix. Get here on time. Get your cargo offloaded in time to make your takeoff time and get out of the next guy’s way. We’ll bring you in and get you out … you have to do everything in the middle quickly.
We’re all here to help, and that includes helping each other too.
Top right: A U.S. Air Force Combat Controller from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, Air Force Special Operations Command, Hurlburt Field Fl., exits a helicopter on a drop zone in the outer lying area of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where humanitarian aid will be air dropped and distributed by members of the United Nations Jan 21, 2010. Department of Defense assets have been deployed to assist in the Haiti relief effort following a magnitude 7 earthquake that hit the city on Jan. 12, 2010.(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.)
Lower left: A U.S. Air Force combat controller from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., assesses a potential relief supply air delivery drop zone during Operation Unified Response in Port au Prince, Haiti, Jan. 19, 2010. The U.S. Department of Defense contingent is part of a larger national and international relief effort led by the U.S. Agency for International Development in response to the Jan. 12, 2010, 7.0 earthquake here. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dennis J. Henry Jr.)