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Combat controllers crucial to Haiti earthquake relief

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. J. Paul Croxon
  • Defense Media Activity-San Antonio
Thanks to a specialized group of Airmen used to working in austere locations, airlift operations in Haiti were possible in the initial days after an earthquake destroyed much of the capital, and since then these Airmen have made the airport one of the busiest in the world.

Combat controllers are used to working in locations devoid of functioning air traffic control. Armed and trained to set up and help secure new airfield operations, these Airmen have made aerial resupply missions to Port-au-Prince International Airport possible.

"One of our primary jobs (here) is to take over and set up an airfield in an austere environment and provide air traffic control for follow-on aircraft, and it's really just the same (as other missions) except we're not getting shot at," said Staff Sgt. Joshua Craig, a combat controller from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla. "We came in, we set up an airfield in an austere environment, and immediately after 20 minutes we started bringing in aircraft and aid to Haiti."

An now, more than a week after the earthquake, they are preparing to turn over air traffic control operations but only after they made the airport the busiest in its history.

"In the initial days there were so many aircraft and (so much) humanitarian aid coming in, they compared it to the Berlin Airlift with aircraft every three minutes," Sergeant Craig said. "In first days (after) we got here there were aircraft coming in every five minutes. Right now, with another airport opening up and the port opening up, it's lessened traffic."

Though operations are more streamlined, there are still a number of difficulties these Airmen must overcome.

"The only problem now is that the language barrier is kind of difficult," said Sergeant Craig. "We have pilots from all over the world trying to talk and we're trying to use the same phraseology, air traffic control phraseology, but sometimes it's hard to understand pilots from different nations."

Another difficulty is the limited physical space to park aircraft at an airport that was never designed to handle more than 100 aircraft per day.

"It's a small airport and we've got so many aircraft coming in it's kind of hard to find the coordination between (radar approach control), which are the guys brining them in, out, and holding, to the amount of space we have available here at the airport. We're trying to put (aircraft) in the grass, utilizing as much space as we can in the airport."

Though it's difficult to find space for known aircraft, Sergeant Craig and the other combat controllers also must find places for aircraft they've never seen before.

"We get birds in with types that we've never heard of so we have to ask them, 'what's your wingspan, what kind of a bird are you, how fast are you,'" he said.

With a portable tower being erected, the combat controllers will depart when the tower is up and running.  However, Sergeant Craig and his fellow combat controllers will bring (the replacement controllers) up to speed before departing.

"Once that tower is up we're definitely going to do a handover with the air traffic controllers," he said. "We're probably going to take no less than 96 hours. The first day we're going to do it and let them watch. The second day they're going to integrate a little bit. The third day we're going to let them do and we're going to watch. The forth day we're going to let them do it all and we're going to give them a hand if they need it."

Though Sergeant Craig and his fellow Airmen have proven crucial to Operation Unified Response, with the more permanent and capable tower nearly ready it's time for them to abandon their card table in the grass and go to where they are needed next.

"Our job is austere airfields so once they set up towers it's time for us to go," he said.