General Burke and “Operation Unified Response” in Haiti: Towards a Normalization of Airfield Operations

In an interview on February 15th, 2010 with Sldinfo, Brig. Gen. Darryl Burke, the 12th Air Force (Air Forces) Southern Vice Commander, provided an update on the Air operation in support of Haiti relief. General Burke arrived in late January to lead members of the Air Component Coordination Element supporting Joint Task Force (JTF)-Haiti. The team’s primary function is to liaise between the JTF, Joint Forces Air Component Commander and related staffs coordinating the flow of air traffic during Operation Unified Response.

Photos credits: Photos 1-7 – USAF; Photo 8 – 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)

A “Controlled Chaos” : Surging From 20 + Operations to Up to 150

Sldinfo: It’s just an impression, but it seems that the AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) people from the Eglin Air Force Base complex handled the initial air traffic control problem, or challenge, and that you basically are the follow-on to that and working the transition back to the civilian side. Is that a correct impression?

Brigadier General Darryl Burke: That is true. Within 24 hours we had our Air Force Special Operations team on the ground from Hurlburt Field, Florida. Part of their team consists of Combat Controllers which are Airmen that come in and open up an airfield. For the first two weeks, we had Combat Controllers set up in the infield of the airfield controlling the flow of traffic in and out.

Sldinfo: Although referred to it as air traffic control, I refer to it as card tables near an airstrip with the boys working radios. That’s what it looked like.

Brigadier General Darryl Burke: Exactly, you’re spot on! I’ve got a great photograph of it. It was literally a couple of Airmen sitting in the infield with a mobile radio clearing traffic to land. The traffic separation was established through a structure based on timing. Additionally, they handled the ground control piece.

To put it in perspective, Port-au-Prince Airport’s normal operations were at about 25-30 operations per day. They didn’t even use a ground control function. But, there was so much traffic in those first couple of weeks, it was almost, and I hate to make the comparison, a “controlled chaos”. We were using every inch of the ramp that we possibly could to increase efficiency and capacity while concurrently sharing the field with major helicopter operations.

The Navy assisted with an Air Boss on the ground. I remember, when I stepped off the plane about a week into this operation, that I was amazed at the number aircraft, vehicles, helicopters, and people transiting the ramp. I had never seen anything like it before.

Sldinfo: It was chaos, not a CAOC (Combined Air and Space Operation Center), is a good way to probably put that.

Brigadier General Darryl Burke: Yeah, a kind of chaos. Controlled, but not what one normally sees on a military flightine. Our Airfield Operations team was getting the maximum capacity out of an airfield that normally has about ten to 12 parking spots, depending on aircraft size. With single runway operations and one taxiway you’re already constrained in what you can do. We were able to get the capacity up to about 120 aircraft per day. Although, our high day was around 150, normally, we tried to maintain a slot capacity at 120 a day to keep the environment under control.

Coupled with the assistance from 1st AF at Tyndall, we tapped into their experience with Katrina and through use of a Maximum on Ground (MOG) tool and a system they developed to initiate slot times, we were quickly able to prioritize and maximize the efficiency of the system.

“Our Airfield Operations team was getting the maximum capacity out of an airfield that normally has about ten to 12 parking spots, depending on aircraft size. We were able to get the capacity up to about 120 aircraft per day.”

Managing the “Beast”

Sldinfo: So you’ve managed this transition from the initial insertion of the AFSOC to trying to get to the point where one can have some commercial traffic in country and start some kind of normalization process. Tell me a little bit about the kind of air traffic you’ve had to manage?

Brigadier General Darryl Burke: Everything from a small helo or commuter type aircraft to a 747 or AN-124. So you have to have balance and flexibility in the system. Initially, we had times where the MOG on the ground had reached capacity and aircraft had to divert. We were able to get that under control quickly after the Haitian Government allowed us to help manage the system.

With all the traffic we were always cognizant of the fact that if anything happened to the runway, we would be out of business. During the initial stage of the operation, the airfield was the center of gravity. With that in mind the oversight was critical, compelling us to lean forward to ensure the viability of the only avenue to provide aid and assistance early on.

The Air Force flew in its heavy lifter the C-17 along with the venerable C-130. About 42% of the airlift coming in was logistical support to sustain, what I sometimes refer to as the “beast”… the boots on the ground and the deployed infrastructure. And then approximately 23% of it was water and relief aid that was critical in the early going. The remainder was 20% medical, 10% food and then 5% was in support of the security piece on the ground.

Of course, with the STRAT Lift (long-range strategic airlift capability), we had to then bring in a capability to manage the functions of a normal airfield. So, we called in one of our Air Force, Contingency Response Group’s from McGuire Air Force Base (CRG). Intrinsic with this capability come an aerial port, contractors, finance, security forces, controllers, air field operators and more. Everything to run a bare-base operation.

The CRG requirement is diminishing as we transition to “Big Air Force” capability. Our Air Expeditionary Group (AEG) stood up shortly thereafter and has allowed the CRG to redeploy to prepare for future contingencies. The AEG is currently comprised of:

  • four squadrons an air-base squadron
  • security forces squadron
  • operations support squadron
  • and an expeditionary medical squadron.

Both of these groups have supported the 2,678 sorties that have flown this past month.

“About 42% of the airlift coming in was logistical support to sustain, what I sometimes refer to as the “beast”… the boots on the ground and the deployed infrastructure. And then approximately 23% of it was water and relief aid that was critical in the early going. The remainder was 20% medical, 10% food and then 5% was in support of the security piece on the ground.”

Seabasing as the Center of Gravity

Sldinfo: This is a significant challenge and this included not just American aircraft and engagements, didn’t it?

Brigadier General Darryl Burke: I would say there have been 62 nations that have supported by flying in supplies. We’ve had to prioritize those missions with other NGOs and civil agencies that have participated.

The other thing that we’ve had to do was turn every available U.S. military asset delivering support to Port-au-Prince into transportation home for American citizens. This included floor loading passengers to maximize each aircraft’s capability. We have flown over 21,000 U.S. Citizens and a number of non-citizens and adoptees putting the total well over 25,000. Additionally, we have flown 260 air medical evacuations.

As you are aware, the Navy ship, the USNS Comfort, is anchored just off the coast. Patients are treated aboard the Comfort and when ready for transition back into Haitian civilian care or transfered to the United States for further care, they are delivered to the USAF Expeditionary Medical Squadron (EMEDS). The EMEDS also handles emergency cases on a daily basis. They are capable of performing x-ray, surgery, pediatrics, triage and other standard medical care. A Colombian contingent of 30 medical personnel have joined the squadron to assist in their efforts.

As we continue to build, we also continue to evaluate what we don’t need and redeploy what is no longer necessary.

This has been a significant combined, joint, inter-agency effort. US AID has the lead and DOD functions in a supporting role. It has been pretty impressive to see everything that’s been accomplished in just four weeks. Just yesterday, I took a tour into Port au Prince and it is improving every day.

Haiti had a number of challenges before the earthquake. Those challenges have been magnified exponentially with the devastation and the aftermath of 230,000 dead. Every family has been affected. Challenges remain with debris removal, shelter, and the establishment of settlements. The good news is that the Haitian people have been resilient and I think it’s all goodness as we move forward.

Sldinfo: Well, I think from an American point of view, the kind of sea basing capability we could move in, the kind of air management we could move in and just the lift that we’re able to mobilize have really been indispensable to the Haitian people.

Brigadier General Darryl Burke: That is correct and obviously, now, the surface shipping brings the most capacity to the effort. I sit next to Admiral Perez in our Joint Operations Center whose responsibility and challenge is getting the ports back open and operating at peak efficiency. They are making great strides repairing a port that was severely damaged. With the air traffic now decreasing and sealift the center of gravity it gives us the perfect opportunity to transition to commercial air operations at the airport.

The Haitians are going to have to build a new control tower and they’re going to have to make some improvements to the airfield and its infrastructure. That said, getting American Airlines back, getting Delta, Air Canada, Air France, and Spirit all back will generate the required revenue to fund those improvements. As we take down the contingency airspace structure, the Haitians can reinitiate the landing fees, parking fees, and over flight fees to generate the revenue needed to return to normal operations. In addition, the influx of goods will contribute to the overall economy which obviously will assist with the recovery effort.

“As we take down the contingency airspace structure, the Haitians can reinitiate the landing fees, parking fees, and over flight fees to generate the revenue needed to return to normal operations.”
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***Posted February 22nd, 2010

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