American service members unload gear at Port au Prince airport (USAF pic)
The U.S. Air Force’s 23d Special Tactics Squadron, 720th Special Tactics Group has been at Haiti’s Port au Prince airport for less than twenty-four hours—they landed at 8pm EST on Wednesday night—but they’re doing their best to coordinate the massive influx of aircraft flying in relief supplies to the devastated city.
The 720th, based out of Hurlburt Field, Fla. is a force designed to be rapidly deployed to provide the tactical ground-to-air communications required to link up air assets with special operations missions on the ground, and in Haiti, they’re running the show until more help arrives.
Speaking with reporters on a conference cal this afternoon, Lt. Col. Brett J. Nelson, Commander of the 23rd / 720th, said that when his team arrived, “the airfield from a structural perspective was in good condition, but… there were uncontrolled operations going on there for at least twenty-four hours prior to our arrival, so it was in quite a state of disarray on the ramp in particular. The first priority was to get that efficiently organized in some way and we continue to work that effort.”
Nelson couldn’t say how long it was after landing that his team was able to establish control of the airport, but said that “my men got on that airplane with radios on their back, and walked off that airplane ready to start talking to airplanes. The first priority we had when we got on the ground was to asses the airport and make sure it was safe for non-military landing. That was the first priority…. Once that was done we were able to establish airhead operations immediately.”
Nelson was unable to give any numbers on how many airplanes have come in or out, but did say that “air operations continue, but certainly we have experienced a significant slowdown primarily due to the support capacity at the airport,” referring to the ability of the airport to process the aircraft and the cargo they’re bringing in. Alarmingly, there are only two fuel trucks and two tow trucks available to unload the planes coming in, and to refuel those that need to get aloft, and out of the way.
At the height of operations today, Nelson said that there were forty-four aircraft on the ground, all offloading equipment and taking on evacuees. When the team arrived on Wednesday night, Nelson said that the scene at the airport was “kind of a mess,” since no one had been coordinating the arrival or departure of flights. The biggest problems now are clearing space for incoming flights, finding equipment to unload aircraft, and fueling planes that need to take off.