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NEWS | Jan. 20, 2010

Charleston AFB aircrew conducts first air delivery over Haiti

By Staff Sgt. Daniel Bowles 628th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

The first C-17 air delivery mission flown to Haiti during Operation Unified Response was conducted by a Charleston AFB aircrew Jan. 18, supporting U.S. Southern Command relief efforts.

At approximately 5 a.m. the day of the flight, Maj. Jeff Daniels, the mission aircraft commander with the 437th Operations Support Squadron, said he received word of the air delivery. Three hours later, he and his crew were off and on their way to Pope AFB, N.C, for a mission brief and to pickup supplies for delivery.

The initial air delivery mission was conducted as an experiment, Major Daniels said. The method has been proven effective in the past when proper ground coordination is available secure delivered supplies and to distribute them, he said, and the experiment would help decide if the earthquake ravaged environment was stable enough to support those conditions.

According to AMC officials, Haiti's damaged infrastructure has significantly slowed the delivery of supplies and workers, and air delivery is an alternative the international community is exploring to create alternate distribution points that will enable aid to reach people more quickly.

The mission was set to fly out of Pope AFB round trip to Haiti, delivering 14,000 Meals Ready-to-Eat and 14,000 quarts of water during a seven-hour mission. Joint Task Force Haiti secured the air delivery area and planned to distribute supplies with the help of U.S. Agency for International Development and other relief personnel.

When the Charleston aircrew landed at Pope AFB, they immediately began mission briefings to prepare for their takeoff to Haiti scheduled for approximately noon. The aircrew themselves were not directly involved with the mission preplanning at all, Major Daniels said, and they had a few hours to become familiar with the entire mission. The major said he needed every minute, because he'd never been to Haiti and never seen the landscape of where he would soon be flying.

Because of such little time between arrival and take off, another member of the Charleston AFB team, Lt. Col. Jesse Strickland, who is currently deployed to Pope AFB working in a planning cell for air delivery missions to Haiti, joined the aircrew on the mission as an advisor to ensure there were no miscommunications.

"We showed up and Colonel Strickland and his planners up at Pope had put together a very complex plan for us, and no kidding, even up until the last minute before we were getting on the bus to go out to the jet to launch we were getting live updates on this plan," Major Daniels said.

"We actually had more than one challenge. It wasn't just the [air delivery.] The [delivery] was just the final portion of this gauntlet we had to run to get to Haiti," he added. "The first part was basically getting into such a confused airspace system right now that we have in Haiti, with aircraft coming from everywhere with limited aircraft control capabilities around Port-au-Prince. It's not necessarily the most organized flow right now. It's better now that the Air Force is helping run the operation, but it's still a lot of uncontrolled flying out there."

At the same time the mission brief was taking place, back at the aircraft a frenzy was being unleashed to load the Charleston AFB C-17 with Meals Ready to Eat and water, equating to 40 "bundles" of supplies which weighed more than 69,000 pounds and filled the C-17 to its maximum capacity for air delivery.

The bundles are built by palletizing the goods in a specialized manner, with a shock absorbing base of material underneath. They are wrapped in a thick plastic wrap or canvas material, netting and a parachute package on top. Major Daniels said the parachute package used for the air delivery was the container delivery system, or CDS, which meant the bundles had no built in guidance system to help them land on target. That task would solely be left to the aircrew performing the delivery.

"The most that we had was some imagery ... that had been brought into the planners' software. We had a few things that we were looking for, like a road, and we were really focused on making sure that we were going to [deliver] those bundles exactly where we were supposed to."

Major Daniels said the mission was a personal first, having never flown a humanitarian air delivery mission before, he said. In fact, he had just recently re-qualified as an air delivery pilot. Despite being out of the delivery seat for a few years, he said all the skills and training he had tucked away came right back from the word "go."

Upon reaching the Haitian airspace, the operating environment was filled with a soup of communications, which required both Major Daniels and two of his crew members to filter through. Each was assigned to monitor a different source of communication. Major Daniels talked with personnel at the delivery site on the ground, a second crew member talked with a Navy Hawkeye flying in the area, and the third stayed in contact with Port-au-Prince air traffic controllers.

To begin the air delivery approach, the aircraft had to enter a new dimension of challenges as it descended to delivery altitude at 600 feet above ground. A main concern, said Major Daniels, were the mountains in the area, but what he didn't expect was to find a Navy ship parked directly under his flight path as he approached the Haitian coastline.

"We had one last unexpected challenge, and it was a minor challenge, but as we were gearing down to 1,500 feet over the water and about to turn toward the shore and our [delivery] zone, I'm looking out in front of me and I see the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier right in my flight path. I'm pretty sure I shouldn't fly over an aircraft carrier. So, I had to adjust my flight path to make sure I remained clear of the aircraft carrier and then re-intercept my flight path for the [delivery] zone."

After correcting back onto is flight path, the crew readied to perform the last step of the mission - releasing the supplies. In about six seconds, they exited the C-17 like a freight train with all 40 parachutes deploying and each bundle landing on target.

"It was an astounding success," Major Daniels Said. "It was a good day for the Air Force and a good day for the United States."

"It was also very rewarding" he continued. "My personal comfort rests in the fact that some food and water made it to some people who needed it."

The major said even after his mission was complete, the work was not done. The crew flew back to Pope AFB, and with the mission planning team, they sat down, reviewed their notes and offered "lessons learned" in the hopes of collecting the best information for use toward possible future missions.