19 January 2010

AFSOC Combat Controllers direct 800+ planes at the Haiti airport from a folding table

Air Force special-operations troops control Port-au-Prince air traffic from a table next to the runway. Photo: Michael M. Phillips, The Wall Street Journal.

Air traffic control is a stressful job under the best conditions, but for this you've gotta have nerves o' steel:

What was a dangerous aviation free-for-all in the disaster's immediate aftermath, with aid planes jostling for space on the single runway, is now being tamed by a small team of Air Force special-operations troops who control air traffic from a folding table set up on a patch of dirt beside the runway. ...

The airmen have been here since the evening after the earthquake, when they found that aid planes were landing randomly. They brought enough landing lights for the 10,000-foot runway, although the existing lights were still functioning. The control tower, however, was too badly damaged to be used. So the airmen put their table out next to the runway and, within 20 minutes of arriving, they began contacting airplanes with the message, "This is Port-au-Prince tower." They have been there since, working and sleeping in 12-hour shifts.

Rules have been established for incoming aircraft.
The U.S. government has ordered that all arriving planes be issued landing slots before take-off, and that all aircraft arrive with enough fuel to circle for 90 minutes, land, depart and reach their next destination. "All operators are advised that fuel and other ground-support services may be unavailable," the order read.

Elsewhere at the airport, Haitian aviation officials, assisted by American and Canadian traffic controllers, now contact planes 30 or 40 miles out, keeping order as the aircraft head toward Port-au-Prince.

This is one of the best articles I've read on the airport challenges.

Update: I've added the photo of the airport below. Tiny. No wonder it's a bottleneck. It's difficult to imagine about 200 flights coming through here each day.

Airplanes wait to be unloaded in support of earthquake relief efforts at the Port-au-Prince, Haiti, airport, Jan. 17, 2010. Port-au-Prince was hit by a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Stumberg.

Meanwhile, the intrepid Team Rubicon continues working on the ground. See last night's post from Jesuit Brother Jim Boynton, "Descending into Hell".

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