Natural disasters may occur anywhere around the world, yet they always seem to happen in locations where the poorest, least prepared people are living. The earthquake in Haiti devastated people who were already very poor. They had nothing, and in a few short minutes lost even more. Friends, family, mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters perished as buildings collapsed around them while they were just trying to maintain a meager existence. They were left without the infrastructure needed simply to survive. Large amounts of relief supplies would normally arrive by sea, but the deep water port became unusable when much of it fell into the sea. As a result, the airport at Port au Prince has become the epicenter for the arrival of supplies and relief workers. The airplane and helicopter are the engines that make it possible.
Our second relief flight to Haiti began in Germany, where we picked up 44,000 lbs of supplies, along with 2 doctors, one medical student, 2 psychologists, and one interpreter. The supplies included medicine, food, clothing, diapers, tents, shovels, and wheel barrows. It was loaded on 9 pallets in the cargo bay of an A340-300, which had been set up with a roller system to quickly move the cargo on and off.
An overnight stop was planned in France so we could depart in the early morning hours and arrive in Port au Prince at daybreak. But with a large number of airplanes arriving, getting a slot time wasn’t easy. We quickly discovered that we would have to accept any available slot time. Even though we had the phone number for the USAF coordinator of inbound flights, the line was continuously busy. I set up my computer to redial the number every 60 seconds. It took about 40 minutes to connect, and I spoke with an Air Force Captain, who checked the latest cancellation list, and found us a slot about 48 hours out. Overnight that night, the French attaché in Fort de France, Martinique was able to find an earlier slot, and we were able to depart at 1140 am the next day, which would put us overhead Port au Prince about 3pm EST (total enroute time would be about 10 hours).
The mission was planned with 4 pilots, so we could rotate duty on the flight deck to provide crew relief along the way. We were led by a German pilot, who had been an astronaut and spent time on the space station Mir. Besides myself, the other two pilots were a Frenchman with experience in cargo aircraft, and a Canadian-born US citizen who had once flown for the Snowbirds formation aerobatic team. We had two engineers aboard and a flight engineer, who had worked tirelessly to configure the cargo hold, add seats to the cabin, and provide food and water for the trip. Also aboard were a flight operations specialist, 8 maintenance technicians, and 2 security people.
I was scheduled to be one of the primary pilots for the return trip, so while the first two pilots coasted out toward the Azores, there was an opportunity for me to do a quick interview with the volunteers from Germany. The first person I spoke with was Dr. Roland Kracht, a 38 year old pediatrician. He learned about the mission through an organization called “Haiti Kinder Hilfe, e.v.” (meaning Haiti Children Relief), which is associated with the Social Service Agency of the German Protestant Church.
Next were Frank and Claire Hofer, both psychologists in their 50s, who had taken time off from their normal jobs to serve in Haiti. They also had heard about the mission through the Haiti Kinder Hilfe. The second doctor aboard was Dr. Franz Wilhelm Twardy. He is retired, and for many years practiced family practice. A strongly opinionated man, he lamented that the family practice is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in Germany. He learned of the mission on Monday morning, for a planned Thursday departure.
Justus Scheder-Biershin is a medical student at Munich University. He is 3 years into medical school, and will need another 3 years to complete his studies and qualification to become a surgeon. However, he mentioned to me that he was about to experience in Haiti may change his thinking about becoming a surgeon. Justus learned about the Haiti mission through Facebook, just 2 days before we departed.
Last was the interpreter, who has knowledge of the Creole version of French that is spoken in Haiti. She speaks German, French, and English and is a single mother living near the French border with her 4 year old daughter. She learned about the mission through the internet on Tuesday prior to the Friday departure. Friends had volunteered to take her by car to meet the flight in northern Germany, but due to the snow on the roads, she ended up taking the train. To summarize, the people we took to Haiti all learned about the mission just a few days before. They strongly felt the need, and made the decision to go. All of them expected to be in Haiti for about 3 weeks. None of them knew how they would make it back to their homes in Germany.
Our departure from France was in good weather, and good weather prevailed for the entire trip. I settled into the right seat to provide relief for the first crew as we passed northeast of Lajes in the Azores. At that point, the sea was rough, with rolling waves and whitecaps, but as we continued southwestward toward Haiti, the sea assumed the look of tranquility, with gentle waves and swells. After 3 hours, I headed back for some sleep. We had all brought sleeping bags and air mattresses, which we laid out in the cabin to get some rest.
I returned to the flight deck about 4 hours later and we were already over the Dominican Republic east of Haiti. As planned, we would be over Port au Prince 15-20 minutes earlier than our slot time. Although our computer flight plan took use directly over the Port au Prince VOR, we were vectored to the south of the island, and then to the holding pattern west of the airport. From our vantage point at 16,000’, we were unable to see damage to individual buildings, but because the underlying earth on the island is nearly pure white, we could see where large sections of hillside had sheared off and slid into the sea, or into the valleys below.
As we headed northwest to the holding pattern at 16,000’, we began to notice the large number of ships just to the west of the city. It was the US Navy, and they were there in force. We noted an aircraft carrier steaming west away from the city. We could see the hospital ship USS Hope anchored 5-6 nm off shore, with a helicopter ship standing by for support. And to the south of the island, a second aircraft carrier and another ship were maintaining station.
The approach controller needed time to create ramp space for us, and he already had 4 C-17s and a C-130 on his already too-small ramp. As we sat in the hold, two smaller relief airplanes reported in, and the controller brought them in below us, and cleared them for the approach. We had fuel enough to hold for over an hour, then divert to Martinique and land with sufficient reserves. But we began to seriously calculate how long we could stay in the hold over Port au Prince before diverting. After 40 minutes in the hold, we were cleared to descend to 6,000’, and would soon start the approach.
About 15 miles from the airport, we were cleared to descend to 3,000’ and intercept the ILS. Fully configured, and passing 1500’, we could see a C-17 take the runway ahead of us. Normally, this would not be a problem, except that the runway entrance is at about mid-field, and the C-17 would have to back taxi toward us and turn around to use the full length. The tower controller told us to do a left orbit at 1500’, so we turned left to the opposite heading and cleaned up to an approach flap configuration. The controller then cleared the C-17 for takeoff and told us to turn inbound. We watched the C-17 takeoff ahead of us, with more than enough spacing.
Now fully configured again, we could begin to see real detail on the ground. We could see two ships sitting in port, except there was no dock. In every open spot, we could see small clusters of tents. On short final, I could see hundreds of people walking along a road, away from the city, perhaps returning from trying to find relief supplies. We could not directly see any damage to buildings from the air, or from our parking location on the airport.
The single runway at Port au Prince has no parallel taxiway, so on landing rollout, we would have to use one of two turn-around pads and back-taxi to the ramp entrance. These turn-arounds have simple sighting devices for large airplanes to begin the turn and stay on the hard surface. As you turn off the runway, there is a taxi line that leads to two small poles, which the pilot lines up for perfect positioning. There are two additional poles placed to the left, and when the cockpit is exactly abeam the poles, a full tiller turn with a little thrust on the outboard engine will bring the airplane back to the runway centerline in the opposite direction.
With the turn quickly completed, we taxied to the ramp turnoff, and were guided to parking by a USAF ground crew. We would be parked to the left of a C-17, and ramp operations were very professionally handled. Our ground crew exited the airplane from a ladder extending from the avionics hatch, a non-standard but necessary procedure. We soon had a set of portable stairs to deplane, and by the time the flight crew was on the ground, the Air Force was already unloading cargo from the aft cargo door.
There was just enough of the roller system to unload 5 pallets from the rear, so we needed to move some of the rollers to the front of the airplane to move the remaining 4 pallets forward and out from the forward cargo door. The two Air Force technicians operating the loader and fork lift were just great. They had to configure the front of the loader to be flush with the airplane, then put it squarely in position so we could roll the pallets off. All of this with a bunch of people crawling around on the loader and in the door of the cargo deck. Once the loader had backed away and was lowered, a large fork truck took the pallets off and placed them in front of the airplane.
Looking around, we could see that the US military had set up a small city between the ramp and the runway. It was self-contained, with living areas, mess facilities, meeting spots and a motor pool area for vehicles. We all have to be proud of the way our military is performing the mission. Everyone I met had volunteered for the duty. They were all clean-cut, serious, polite, and tuned in to their duties. Despite what may be reported in the press around the world, the US military is doing a terrific job to make sure that aid arrives in Haiti and expeditiously handed to the agencies distributing it.
After 30 minutes or so, two medium sized trucks appeared to receive take the supplies from the pallets. With our airplane now empty, except for uploading some empty pallets to replace the ones we would leave behind, we began helping the people take boxes off the pallets and hand them up to people on the truck. While we worked from the pallets, one of our pilots was loading the flight plan to Martinique into the FMS, and our ground crew was coordinating for a push back tractor so we could push back and turn to face the taxiway back to the runway
Loading the trucks was done at a frantic pace. We formed two lines, using people from our crew, volunteers on the ground, and the volunteers we had brought with us. A uniformed Haitian policeman was on one of the trucks, and we thought in the beginning that he was trying to screen the material being loaded. But somehow he assumed the role of loadmaster, and directed how and where each box would be placed, depending on size and weight. By 1715, it was beginning to get dark and loading the trucks continued.
With empty pallets loaded and secured, and the cargo doors closed, the arrival of the push back tractor told us it was time to leave. The 6 people we brought to Haiti had been in the air for more than 10 hours, and on the ground at the airport for over 2 hours. The trucks were not yet loaded, and still they had to travel to their destination, and be unloaded. For some, it would be at an orphanage destroyed by the earthquake, where they would sleep outside on the ground. It would not be a restful sleep.
We boarded our airplane and our ground crew drove the push back tractor to position the airplane for engine start. By now, it was completely dark and a full moon had risen over the mountains to the northeast of Port au Prince. With the tractor disconnected and the engine start sequence in progress, our ground crew boarded quickly through the avionics hatch, pulling the extension ladder in behind them. With all the doors closed and slides armed, we taxied slowly for takeoff. Traffic was now very light, and we waited short of the runway for a C-130 to take off. We back-taxied, and used the same sighting system at the end for the turn into position. The alignment poles have lights at the top that make it quite easy in the dark. After 2+15 on the ground in Haiti, we started our takeoff roll for the 1+35 flight to Fort de France on the island of Martinique.
The weather was clear, and since the airplane was very light, we climbed to FL370 to save as much fuel as possible. During descent, we were given a vector to join the localizer for Fort de France. In contrast to Haiti, the facilities at Fort de France are bright and modern, with an Air France B777 at the gate, preparing for the overnight flight to Paris. We refueled and uploaded two pallets of search and rescue equipment that had been used in Haiti, and was being returned to fire departments in France.
After 1+45 on the ground, we started and taxied for takeoff toward the east. While it looked fine and felt fine during the landing, the runway at Fort de France is one of the roughest I can remember operating from. Nearing takeoff speed, I could barely read the airspeed indications to make the V-speed callouts for the pilot flying. We climbed into the night sky and turned to the north along our planned route. Oceanic clearances are normally requested about 30 minutes prior to crossing the boundary of oceanic airspace, and we barely had enough time to request the clearance, which I did through data link to Piarco Control. They responded several minutes later with the clearance on voice, and were given the frequency to contact New York Oceanic.
After two hours in the seat, the pilot flying and I left the flight deck for some sleep so that we could return the flight refreshed for the final portion of the flight into France. I was awakened by some undulations in the atmosphere, and the sound of the auto thrust responding to the changes in speed. Looking at my watch, it looked like time to return to the flight deck and give relief to the other pilots. We were now southeast of Lajes, and although the sun had not yet risen, the sky was rapidly growing bright. Our flight plan took us north over Portugal, across Spain and the Pyrenees, for landing in clear weather in France. At touchdown, our mission was within one or two minutes of 24 hours in duration. Close enough that we declared it so.
I hope everyone reading about this mission to Haiti understands that it takes people to help people who are desperately impoverished. It’s important for everyone to respond with whatever we can do to help others in need. The US military has done an amazing job to stabilize the country and provide a supply channel through the airport. But they need, in military speak, a “force multiplier”, which means you and I, to make the real difference. Today’s relief efforts to Haiti will not bring it out of poverty, or significantly change the standard of living there. But it will bring them the basics they desperately need: food, water, clothing, and medical care.
This month, instead of helping your fellow pilot, find a way to help those truly in desperate need in Haiti. Hey, the weather’s too bad to do much flying, so send some of that aviation fuel money to the people who badly need it.