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Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti

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Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti

Latin America

Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti

Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti

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A U.S. Air Force cargo plane lands at Port-au-Prince International Airport in Haiti. Subrata De/NBC NewsWire hide caption

toggle caption Subrata De/NBC NewsWire

A U.S. Air Force cargo plane lands at Port-au-Prince International Airport in Haiti.

Subrata De/NBC NewsWire

The facility managing the U.S. military's rescue effort to Haiti is the 618th Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air force Base outside St. Louis.

At the airlift control center inside Air Mobility Command headquarters on Thursday, it looked like a scene out of the movie War Games or NASA's Mission Control in Houston. On one very large wall, a projection screen displayed a map of the world with little colored airplanes. At the moment, about a dozen purple ones pointed toward Haiti.

The room is filled with 100 controllers sitting in front of desks watching multiple flat screen TVs. Thursday they will track more than 950 military flights around the world, including a new theater of operations, the rescue of the Haitian people.

"Air mobility command is responsible for worldwide airlift, refueling and medical evacuation. And the 618th TACC plans, tasks and executes those mission," Capt. Justin Brockhoff says.

Brockhoff concedes the shattered infrastructure in Haiti is a challenge to the relief mission. But he says operating in suboptimal environments is not a problem for them.

"Keep in mind our operations aren't always in a robust infrastructure-type area like an airport. We have folks on the road every day. We land on dirt strips in Afghanistan, dirt strips in Africa. We're taking the show on the road," Brockhoff says.

Tents, medication, food and water will fly in and the badly injured will fly out with other personnel. It is an intricate ballet of very large aircraft and hundreds of airmen and soldiers. Col. Brian Reno is a contingency response element director. It is his job to set up the entry point; in this case, the damaged but usable Port-au-Prince airport.

"The biggest problem initially and what we're trying to work with is re-establishing communication and re-establishing the one big airfield in Haiti, i.e., air traffic control, who's managing the parking spots, who's managing the flood of cargo that's coming in," Reno says.

And although the Air Force has the communications and other equipment necessary to make the entry point work, it's not like the U.S. military can just come in and take control of the airport. Reno knows cooperation with Haitian officials is as important a job as the logistics.

"I just got off the phone with one of our crews that got out and there are many airplanes stacked up in holding waiting to land. They're unloading airplanes as fast as they can," Reno says. "The government of Japan is sending airplanes; the government of Israel is sending airplanes. So we've got an outpouring of support globally that's all focusing on one relatively small airfield."

Reno points out that planes waiting to land on an island can't pull over to the side of the road to wait their turn. The runway at Port-au-Prince is too small for the big C-5 transport planes. The Air Force is using C-17s and C-130s. Air transport is of course fast, but it's expensive and, more important, inefficient. Large ships are the long-term rescue and relief solution for Haiti, but the port has been much more badly damaged than the airport. The large cranes that unload the cargo from the ship's hold have toppled into the water. It sounds like a job for the U.S. Navy.

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