Order from Chaos: 601st AOC supports Haiti relief

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Stephen Davidson
  • 601st AOC Regional Air Movement Control Center
On Jan. 12 at 4:53 p.m., the most destructive earthquake ever recorded on the small island nation of Haiti occurred and brought widespread devastation to more than three quarters of a million people.
Port-au-Prince's main seaport was destroyed and most roads were impassible, leaving airlift into Toussaint Louverture International Airport as the only lifeline for relief to the Haitian people.
With the control tower destroyed and airlift arriving from every corner of the world, the volume of air traffic arriving into the airport instantly exceeded its normal average of 25 flights per day, and became unmanageable. The lack of organization resulted in desperately needed medical supplies, water, and food being diverted because of congestion at the airport.
At the request of the Government of Haiti, the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron from Hurlburt Field, Fla., arrived within 24 hours of the quake, bringing some order to airfield arrivals. An average of 50 aircraft per day was being accommodated, but excessive holding times, frequent diverts and poor airflow management still caused significant delays for relief to reach the Haitian people.
Enter the 601st Air and Space Operations Center's Regional Air Movement Control Center, manned by the 101st Air Operations Group of the Florida Air National Guard, which became ground zero for the management of airflow into Haiti for relief operations. This small team established a provisional coalition organization re-designated as the Haiti Flight Operations Coordination Center (HFOCC) and was credited with streamlining a worldwide multi-national airlift operation that rivaled the Berlin Airlift.
Recognizing an airflow management system vacuum and because operations were on a global scale, the organization evolved into a provisional multi-national organization. Within three days of the disaster, the Haitian Government signed an agreement with the U.S., allowing the HFOCC to control airflow into Port-au-Prince through a slot coordination program.
Despite the expertise being poured into the mix, the challenges were many. United States Northern Command's Regional Air Movement Control Center concept was designed for a domestic contingency, not one to be employed at a sovereign nation's busiest airfield.
Coordination went beyond the normal Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Homeland Defense agencies to include the United Nations World Food Programme, U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of State, the Haitian Government and countless other nations, just to name a few.
During the first three days, slot requests exceeded 1,000 and aircraft arrival rates jumped to 130-175 per day. Nearly 3,400 people were evacuated including 2,997 American citizens, and 2,452 short tons of cargo along with medical personnel, supplies, food, water, and other essential items were delivered.
Unexpected challenges constantly threatened to derail this well-oiled machine. Aircraft were continuously arriving unannounced without slots. Others would spend longer than allocated time on the ramp, impacting inbound aircraft. Some aircraft broke for extended periods of time, occupying valuable ramp space already designated for scheduled arrivals.
Priority deployments had to be accommodated. To stabilize growing unrest and to protect aid workers in the first 72 hours of the operation, the 82nd Airborne Division required a massive rapid deployment into Haiti. Numerous flights required insertion into an already jammed schedule while minimizing impact on international and civilian missions.
Despite these obstacles, the HFOCC's critical ramp coordination with JTF-Port Opening resulted in only two aircraft with slots diverting in the first 72 hours. Given that aircraft were arriving in a conveyor belt like-fashion every five minutes, it was an incredible feat by any standard.
The HFOCCs ability to smoothly coordinate slot times and airlift would not have been possible were it not for the herculean efforts of the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron and the JTF-PO. These professionals turned airplanes with unbelievable speed while operating on 18-hour shifts and interrupted sleep in extremely austere conditions.
On Feb. 22, the 601RAMCC and the 101AOG turned over the HFOCC operation to the 612AOC at AFSOUTH. From Jan. 13 - Feb. 22, more than 4,500 slot requests were processed with thousands of missions flown, delivering 15,392 short tons of cargo, relocating 27,131 passengers, and evacuating more than 20,000 American citizens.
It was an incredible opportunity for Florida Guardsmen to take the experiences learned from hurricane responses and use the same processes to support another command on the international stage.