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21st OSS Airman helps with Haiti relief efforts

by Monica Mendoza

21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo.  — A four-member Canadian Forces air traffic control team arrived in Jacmel, Haiti, the evening of Jan. 20 and by first light they were directing aircraft into the small, almost make-shift, airport, a week after a devastating 7.0 earthquake destroyed much of the city.

“Our ATC tower, that first day, was at ground level and was comprised of a portable ultra high frequency and very high frequency radio with a telephone handset, sitting on a lawn chair,” said Capt. Rod Zeaton, 21st Operational Support Squadron chief of missile warning and space surveillance systems, current operations flight. “It was very austere conditions to say the least.”

Four months after a magnitude 7.0 catastrophic earthquake rocked Haiti, near its capital Port au Prince, leaving 230,000 people dead and 300,000 injured, Captain Zeaton reflects on his eight-week mission there and said, “I would go back tomorrow.”

The work of military air traffic controllers has not gone unrecognized. In April, TIME Magazine named Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Antonio Travis to the 2010 TIME list of 100 most influential people in the world for his work in the Haiti relief efforts. A team of special tactics Airmen, led by Chief Travis, ran the largest single-runway operation in history using hand-held radios to control thousands of aircraft.

Captain Zeaton worked with Chief Travis’ team when he first arrived. He said seeing the military and disaster relief teams from around the world unite in Haiti was inspiring.

“You could see the entire world on that (Port au Prince airport) ramp just by looking at the tails of the aircraft,” Captain Zeaton said.

The moment Captain Zeaton heard the earthquake hit Haiti, he knew the Canadian Forces would send air traffic controllers. He volunteered to go.

Captain Zeaton, who works at the 21st OSS, had been to Haiti in 1996 working at the Port au Prince International Airport. All of the challenges that Haiti faced before the earthquake were now compounded by the earthquake and the estimated one million people who were left homeless, he said.

Canada deployed about 1,800 Canadian Forces personnel for “Op Hestia,” the Canadian Forces earthquake relief mission in Haiti.

The air traffic control team arrived at Port au Prince airport on Jan. 17 and the next day began work as liaison officers between the Haitian Approach Control air traffic control and the U.S. Southern Command Air Force Combat Control Team, led by Chief Travis. They conducted aerodrome, or landing field, control operations from the infield because the airport’s tower was badly damaged.

“The Haitian Approach Control Unit had already struggled through incredible traffic that an approach control unit without radar is not meant to handle,” Captain Zeaton said. “The control of aircraft provided by the Haitian Approach Control ATC staff into the airport for the disaster relief effort, though not pretty to watch from an ATC perspective, was effective.”

The team worked around the clock for three days before heading to Jacmel, where they set up “Camp Bison.” Their mission was to operate the airfield, provide air traffic control services to relief aircraft, load and unload them, marshal them in and out of the ramp, build the camp and patrol the camp.

The team was busy providing air traffic control services to incoming aircraft bringing in medical personnel, food, water and medical supplies. Adding to the challenge was that most of the pilots coming in didn’t know that the Jacmel airport had its own frequency.

“So, our ground marshallers spent most of the first week advising pilots via the use of cardboard signs to contact air traffic controllers on VHF frequency 118.5,” Captain Zeaton said. “These cardboard signs were the size of an MRE box.”

At their small airport, with its 3,000-foot runway and no parallel taxiway, the air traffic controllers directed aircraft to the ground and air, prevented collisions and organized and expedited the flow of traffic. In the beginning there were more than 80 aircraft a day coming into Jacmel, and slowly decreased to about 25 aircraft a day – everything from C-130s to Cessna 172s.

“We brought order to chaos,” Captain Zeaton said. “We helped make a small difference in the world, along with everyone who stepped off those aircraft.”

The work included working with Haitians for approvals and providing official notices to aircrews – all operational experiences he learned working at the 21st OSS, he said.

“What I took from the wing is the understanding of staff work processes and why they are important to ensure operations go off effectively,” he said.

In Jacmel, the death toll was not as high as Port au Prince, but “it was bad enough,” Captain Zeaton said. The various non-governmental organizations worked non-stop to feed Jacmel’s 4,000 newly homeless and take care of their medical needs.

“It was inspiring and heart wrenching all at the same time,” Captain Zeaton said. “I have found that being part of making a small difference in the world has been a rewarding and very humbling experience.”

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