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American Forces Press Service

Air Guard Controllers Watch Haiti's Skies

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Jan. 28, 2010 – The recent arrival of Air National Guard air traffic controllers in Haiti has greatly increased the number of flights that are safely entering and leaving the country’s air space.

“The test of how well we are assisting and helping with the ongoing operation can be found in the numbers,” said Scott Duke, chief of the Air National Guard’s airfield services division. “Before our presence, the daily count for arrival aircraft was around 90 per day.” By yesterday morning, he added, the number of daily operations had jumped to 120.

“That is impressive and when you add the complexity of finding parking spaces for these aircraft on an airport not designed for that many airframes,” he said. “You can immediately see the benefit.”

Twelve Air Guard air traffic controllers and an airfield operations officer are deployed to Haiti, Duke said, and additional air traffic control assets from the Air Guard are scheduled to arrive within the next few days.

“Once they arrive at the airport, 50 percent of the Air National Guard’s air traffic control squadrons will be directly supporting air traffic control operations at the airport,” Duke said.

An airfield management team also is scheduled to be sent to the devastated country to help in developing effective parking plans for aircraft, control vehicle traffic and manage flight plans for arriving and departing aircraft, Duke said.

The role of the controllers is more than simply telling pilots when to take off and land, he noted.

“In the case of Port-au-Prince, the capabilities of the air traffic controllers will be on display as they establish landing sequences to the airport, coordinate departure routes, and do all the kinds of things one would see at a typical airport,” he said. However, he added, the airport in the Haitian capital isn’t a typical airport.

“Obviously, the conditions on the ground at the airport present different challenges to the controller force, as well as our airfield managers, as they both orchestrate the many moving parts of airport operations in a manner that keeps things safe and moving efficiently,” Duke said.

The Air Guard controllers are trained and equipped to negotiate those challenges. Many of them, he pointed out, are Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers in their civilian careers. They also have the kind of tactical equipment needed to stand up air traffic control operations at an austere landing environment, or, in the case of Port-Au-Prince … at an airport that has lost air traffic control capability, he added.

“The Air National Guard comprises 62.5 percent of the Air Force's deployable [air traffic control] mission,” Duke said. “The ‘embarrassment of riches’ we have in our community makes us the logical choice to turn to in time of disaster.”

The Air Guard’s controllers have plenty of experience running missions after disasters. In 2005, they were sent to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore.

“We deployed our air traffic controllers and mobile control tower to the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport [in Mississippi] and began to control traffic while the FAA worked on restoring the fixed control tower,” Duke said. “These kinds of missions are exactly why the Air National Guard airfield services mission is so important to not only our wartime requirements, but support of civil authorities in time of need.”

In the Katrina effort, the air traffic control squadrons sent to the Gulf Coast arrived with mobile control towers. When they responded in Haiti, they left their own towers at home station and instead are using an FAA mobile tower, which Duke acknowledged has created some challenges.

“This change required our controllers to get up to speed quickly on this new system, while at the same time learning all the local area information about the airport, arrival and departure paths, frequency assignments, and geographical lay of the airport,” he said.

The air traffic controllers are scheduled to be in Haiti for up to 180 days, Duke said. Most will do a 90-day tour, and a follow-on group will rotate in for the remaining time.

(Army Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy serves at the National Guard Bureau.)

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