Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TOP STORY >> To Haiti and back

Master Sgt. Patrick Drozd of Cabot signals a forklift operator to raise the forks to unload the next pallet at the Port-au-Prince Airport in Haiti on Sunday.

Staff Sgt. Jordan Cote checks a manual  in flight to resolve a problem regarding a computer apparently issuing a false alert. Cote stayed late after landing at St. Croix, Virgin Islands, working on the problem.


John Hofheimer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — About 10,000 U.S. troops should be on the ground by now in Haiti to provide security for the enormous earthquake relief effort amidst the mounting chaos, and 46 of those soldiers deplaned at Port-au-Prince on Sunday morning from a state-of-the-art C-130J from Little Rock Air Force Base’s 41st Airlift Squadron.

The 41st, or Black Cat, Squadron, is the C-130J squadron in the 19th Airlift Wing.

This was the second of eight Little Rock C-130s committed to the relief effort by Tuesday, according to Tech Sgt. Kati Grabham, a spokesperson at LRAFB.

Crews included Capt. Sean Callahan, Master Sgt. Patrick Drozd and Tech Sgt. Evan “Elvis” Hendricks, all of Cabot, and 1st Lt. Kevin Bailey of Sherwood.

“We may have more here waiting to go,” Grabham said.

“We will support the effort to the fullest,” she said. “Providing airlift is what we do.”

Since Jan. 13, the Air Mobility Command has flown more than 260 sorties for these relief efforts and delivered nearly 1,600 tons of aid and 2,400 passengers. “We have evacuated more than 600 victims,” she said.

She said AMC had 30 aircraft at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., or en route and had processed roughly 103 tons of cargo.

For those like Callahan’s crew, details of their four-day mission shifted with conditions and in that regard, change was the only constant.

In addition to the combat-ready soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, the stretch C-130J carried two pallets of Meals Ready to Eat packets, one pallet of bottled water and a pallet of gear for the soldiers, already loaded with automatic weapons, ammo clips, knapsacks, water and rations.

The soldiers will be assigned to guard the airport or provide security for the Red Cross or other relief providers, according to one of their sergeants.

Callahan’s C-130J crew had been on a 44-hour standby at Little Rock Air Force Base when they got three-hours notice around 9:30 p.m. Friday to fly to Pope, pick up the cargo and proceed to the airport at Port-au-Prince in Haiti.

Arriving at Pope for a debriefing, however, they were instructed to sleep at the base. But upon returning to the plane to get their gear, their orders changed again. Four pallets — maybe 20,000 pounds — were loaded on and secured by the loadmasters — Drozd and Hendricks — and the soldiers from adjoining Fort Bragg filed in and strapped in.

The plane took off about 5 a.m. Saturday, arriving above Haiti at about 11 a.m. to find planes stacked up in a holding pattern from 1,000 to 15,000 feet.

After circling for about an hour, it left to land at St. Croix, Virgin Islands, at about 12:30 p.m.

Two Raven Group airmen from Pope stayed the night at the plane, guarding the relief cargo and the soldiers’ weapons.

After sleeping at a waterfront hotel, the crew arose at about 2:30 a.m. and returned to their plane, where the soldiers joined them.

The plane left at about 5:50 a.m. Sunday for Haiti, theoretically assured of a landing time at the small, overburdened airport already congested with relief supplies and mercy planes parked wingtip to wingtip.

The State Department is reportedly determining the landing order at Port-au-Prince.

The Air Force is manning the control tower and directing planes on the ground.

Turnaround is quick in order to get other planes out of the air and unloaded.

Parked next to the Little Rock AFB C-130J was a C-130 from the Ohio National Guard and nearby was another from Puerto Rico.

As quick as the C-130J parked, the soldiers departed through the crew door while the rear cargo door folded open and large forklifts arrived within minutes to offload the pallets.

Less than 30 minutes later, the plane was unloaded and could have left, but the crew awaited orders to make sure they weren’t needed to ferry the injured or U.S. residents back to Pope.

Planes of every description were parked there, including a C-17 and a 737 cargo plane from China.

On the bustling tarmac, giant forklifts, more loading and unloading equipment, Humvees, and U.N. trucks dodged and weaved between planes and storage compounds, including one in the infield run by the Air Force. Four-wheelers darted about with smaller loads.

The C-130 from Puerto Rico, taxiing to a takeoff position, had to pause while in its path a small group in civilian clothes took pictures of each other.

Word soon came that the space was needed, so the Little Rock crew buttoned up the plane and the crew, with three accompanying members of the press, took off, back to St. Croix for refueling and crew rest.

About 12 hours later, they left to return to Pope Air Force Base.

There they awaited orders, most likely a new cargo plane and a return flight to Haiti.