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Air Force’s management of Haiti airport essential to humanitarian operations

by Paul F. Bove, Air Force Public Affairs Agency

On Thursday, Jan. 14, U.S. Air Force Maj. Jason Daniels, director of operations for the 720th Operations Support Squadron and Lt. Col. Brett J. Nelson, Commander of the 23d Special Tactics Squadron (23 STS), 720th Special Tactics Group (720 STG), Hurlburt Field, Fla., participated in the DoD Blogger’s Roundtable (listen here). They were online to discuss the U.S. Air Force’s role in opening the Port au Prince airport, the only airstrip in Haiti, after its tower collapsed during the recent earthquake. The 720th is also playing an integral part in supporting overall humanitarian operations. They are accomplishing this with a triple capability approach that includes 1) airfield, 2) medical, and 3) weather.

HurlburtThe STS and STG teams, which fall under Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), arrived around 8:00PM EST on January 13 and immediately established 24-hour control of the damaged airport so that planes could continue to fly in and out. This was no small task because the airport had been in a state of disarray with flight coming and going with little planning. Security forces also helped secure the airport perimeter and there have been no breaches thus far.

LtCol Nelson clarified that recent reports of the airport being closed are not true. “We have experienced a significant slowdown primarily due to the support capacity in Port au Prince. Specifially, the ability to process aircraft and the cargo they’re bringing in. There are only two fuel trucks and two towbars available at Port au Prince airport,” said LtCol Nelson. Therefore, if a plane needs to be moved around or fueled, processing takes much longer. LtCol Nelson stated that at one point there were 44 aircraft on the ground but the air staff continued to make progress in getting them in and out of the airport. Reports of the airport needing to be closed due to darkness are also untrue because the lighting is working and portable lights were also brought along.

LtCol Nelson verified that the pararescumen conducted “a number of collapsed structure rescues in coordination with the U.S. Embassy and are counting seven specific rescues through that process.” The team will continue to work on prioritization with the U.S. Embassy so as to be placed in the most urgent areas first. hurl2

Prioritization is also necessary to the ability to process cargo and the 720th  is working with the FAA to establish priorities so that the most urgent capabilities and supplies are brought into Port au Prince at the right time.

At this point, the 23d STS and and 720 STG have successfully taken control of the Port au Prince airport and are now focusing on marshaling and parking airplanes, maximizing how many can be on the airstrip at one time, and making sure that planes can land and take off. The successful management of the airport will be necessary for humanitarian aid as planes will need to fly in and out to bring supplies and fly out the injured. The 621st Contingency Response Wing from McGuire AFB deployed late this afternoon to Haiti to expand and oversee the airport ramp capabilities at Port au Prince and provide support to the 23 STS and 720 STG.

For more information about the Air Force’s participation in the Haiti Earthquake relief effort, visit http://www.af.mil/humanitarianrelieftohaiti/index.asp.  For a compilation of official U.S. Government Twitter accounts following Haiti relief, click here.

Photo Credits (top to bottom):

Air Force Special Operations Command Airmen load onto an MC-130H Combat Talon II before departing for Haiti, Jan. 13, 2010.  These Airmen will participate in the U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster relief mission in Haiti. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Matthew Loken/Released)

U.S. Air Force Technical Sgt. Chuck Massing, a C-130 loadmaster assigned to the 6th Special Operations Squadron Hurlburt Field, Fla., unloads gear to be loaded onto a C-130E before departing for Haiti, Jan. 13, 2010. Airmen assigned to the 1st SOW will be part of a U.S. humanitarian relief mission to the earthquake stricken country. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jason Epley/Released)