Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti Military relief flights to Haiti are being coordinated at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Commanders are dealing with a heavily damaged airport in Port-au-Prince that can't handle the military's biggest transport planes. Still, they expect to fly in relief crews and ferry some of the most critically injured to the U.S. for treatment.
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Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti

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Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti

Air Force Coordinates Military Relief For Haiti

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Chaos, a U.N. spokeswoman calls it - a logistical nightmare. Getting rescue crews and relief supplies to Haiti is a serious challenge. The airport in Port-au-Prince is badly damaged and so overloaded already that the FAA has suspended all civilian flights. The U.S. military is still flying, however. And NPR's Wade Goodwyn visited the facility that is managing that effort. It's called the 618th Tanker Airlift Control Center at Scott Air Force Base outside St. Louis.

(Soundbite of control center)

WADE GOODWYN: It's just another day at the office at the Airlift Control Center inside Air Mobility Command headquarters. It looks like a scene out of the movie "War Games" or NASA's Mission Control in Houston. One wall, a very large wall, is a projection screen. Part of the screen is a map of the world with little colored airplanes. At the moment, about a dozen purple planes are pointed at Haiti.

Unidentified Man: Cancel the tanker mission. So we're going to just go ahead and (unintelligible).

GOODWYN: Tech Sergeant Steve Harold and Senior Airman Daniel Dickson discuss a refueling mission. The room is filled with 100 controllers sitting in front of desks watching multiple flat screens. This Thursday they will track more than 950 military flights around the world, including a new theater of operations: The rescue of the Haitian people.

Captain JUSTIN BROCKHOFF: Air Mobility Command is responsible for worldwide airlift, air refueling and air medical evacuation. And the 618th TACC plans, tasks and executes those missions.

GOODWYN: Captain Justin 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.

Capt. BROCKHOFF: 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're landing at dirt strips in Afghanistan, dirt strips in Africa. We're taking the show on the road.

GOODWYN: Tents, medication, food and water will fly in and the badly injured will fly out with other personnel. It is an intricate ballet, a very large aircraft and hundreds of airmen and soldiers.

Colonel Brian Reno is a contingency response element director. It's his job to set up the entry point - in this case, the damaged but usable Port-au-Prince airport.

Colonel BRIAN RENO (Director, Contingency Response Element): The biggest problem initially and what we're trying to work with is reestablishing communication and reestablishing 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.

GOODWYN: Although the Air Force has the communication 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. The colonel knows cooperation with Haitian officials is as important a job as the logistics.

Col. RENO: 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. And they're unloading airplanes as fast as they can. 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 in on one relatively small airfield.

GOODWYN: Colonel 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 importantly, 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 which unload the cargo from the ship's hold have toppled into the water. It sounds like a job for the U.S. Navy.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Fairview Heights, Illinois.

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