Controlling the air traffic in Port-au-Prince

There are scores of stories coming out of Haiti every day.  Most are tragic.  The destruction is simply overwhelming and the infrastructure wasn’t really all that great to begin with.  Watching the recovery efforts over the past several days has been gut-wrenching in many ways, but also incredibly cool in at least one: Air Traffic Control.

The airport in Port-au-Prince is small.  It has a single runway and only space on the ground for about 10 planes to park and load or unload.  That isn’t much room when it comes time to handle hundreds of relief flights each day, especially since the planes coming in are larger than most of the commercial service that the airport regularly sees.  And, yet, in the past week the airport has seen more flights and bigger planes than it has seen in years, thanks in large part to to a US Air Force Special Operations forces known as the Combat Control Team.

The Combat Control Team (CCT) is made up of folks trained in just about everything that Special Ops handles, plus they are all certified as Air Traffic Controllers by the FAA.  They are the first group to arrive on the scene when the armed forces need to be able to get aircraft in to a theatre, often while simultaneously defending themselves from hostile parties.  They are also some of the first on the scene when a disaster strikes, showing up to manage the airspace around the crisis scene.  So it should come as no surprise that on the evening after the earthquake in Haiti a group of guys showed up on the side of the runway, set up a folding table with a few radios and began transmitting words that the air traffic in the area was in desperate need of, “This is Port-au-Prince tower.”

Since that time the crew has coordinated the arrival of close to 1,000 planes carrying supplies critical to the search and recovery efforts.  On Friday, January 15th United States control of the airport received the blessing of the Haitian government – there was nothing they could do any better considering the damage done to the tower in the earthquake – and so the FAA began issuing landing slots and coordinating the flow of traffic into Haiti. 

There is no fuel available on the ground at the airport so inbound aircraft are required to bring enough with them to ensure that they can depart once they are unloaded.  The 10 ramp positions were originally counted based on typical commercial aircraft that serve the region, not on the jumbos that are arriving on a regular basis.  And there aren’t really ground control crews available to work, meaning that every now and then a CCT member hops on a motorcycle and rides across the field to lead a plane to a parking position. 

They’ve even bent the rules a bit in terms of which types of planes are permitted to land.  The runway is apparently not quite up to spec for the super-jumbo cargo craft such as the Anatov An-124.  But the CCT guys are bringing them in anyways.  They need the supplies and in critical situations the rules tend to flex.

It is one small glimmer of hope and progress in the midst of a terrible tragedy.  And it is an amazing display of coordination and logistics management under horrible circumstances.  But the CCT is living up to its motto of “First There” and putting on one hell of a show on the ground at the airport.


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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.