Air Force asset used to assess damage, needs

  • Published
  • By Capt. Rebecca A. Garcia
  • 459th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
After a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the capitol of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, last week leaving severe structural damage and an unknown death toll, the Air Force was tasked to provide imagery through the use of an observation aircraft.

The OC-135B Open Skies, belonging to Air Combat Command's 55th Wing and stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., is specifically tailored for the enforcement of the "Open Skies" treaty of 1992, which allows unarmed flights over the territory of "Open Skies" signatories for observation of military forces and activities.

Saturday the aircraft was used for a different type of observation mission, to gather imagery over Haiti for a damage and resource requirement assessment. The aircraft left Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to fly over Haiti, gathering images for approximately 3.5 hours on before flying to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where the film was processed, digitized and made available to the public.

The aircraft and crew were a great fit for this mission, said Army Lt. Col. Mary Bell, the mission commander with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

"Although several aircraft are available for gathering imagery, the OC-135B is a desirable platform because its imagery is unclassified," Colonel Bell said. "We didn't have to revamp our mission in order to support. This is a role we play on a day-to-day basis in our normal treaty mission."

This is not the first time this aircraft has been used after a natural disaster. The observation capability of the OC-135B also proved useful after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, said Maj. Ryan Lubinski, a navigator with the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron at Offutt AFB.

The aircraft is also unique in aircrew demographics. The plane is flown by Air Force personnel, but the observation staff is composed of military members from every service and civilians who are assigned to DTRA.

"I think it is amazing we have the opportunity to help people that are suffering from the quake," said Staff Sgt. Agne Mileviciute, a interpreter sensor operator. "I hope that we will be able to support Haiti even more."

Capturing quality imagery over Haiti was not the only concern faced by the crew. Flying in a non-radar environment with several aircraft bringing aid occupying the same air space, the aircraft's traffic alert and collision avoidance system proved useful to backup the pilots, Major Lubinski said.

Not all of the aircraft are emitting, so the aircrew had to be especially vigilant in visually looking for any potential hazards, he said.

Within the confines of an "Open Skies" treaty mission the imagery is unclassified, but not for general public release. For humanitarian support, the imagery is releasable and will be made available to the Department of State for use in its overall humanitarian assistance mission and to the public.