Thursday, January 21, 2010

Berlin & Haiti's Rescues from the Sky

The ramp at Port au Prince Haiti. US Defense. A high res version of the image is available here.

As I write, it is a week since the huge earthquake that hit Haiti, and more shocks were felt yesterday. There has been a great deal of coverage of this natural disaster, and some has touched upon the challenges of getting aid into the airport at Port au Prince, the capital. The massive effort, driven by the USA, although led by the UN, to address the current issues involves a huge airlift, one which reminds us perhaps of that which sustained Berlin against the Russian blockade in 1948-9. Obviously a direct comparison is neither viable nor useful, but it is interesting to tease out some of the similarities and different issues faced by the airmen and airwomen and ground operators in these two events.

(An important caveat is that the current operation into Haiti is an evolving one, and one subject to change, and currently, to confusion. Therefore this post makes no offers of guaranteed accuracy.)

The Haiti Airlift
We are lucky that a correspondent of ours, Brad Pilgrim, a Loadmaster in the USAF, currently working on the run into Haiti in a C-17, posted on the WIX forum in response to my questions. Firstly these are Brad's comments in response to the situation, not official views. Some background:
My squadron is a training squadron. Our sole purpose in life is to teach pilots and loadmasters how to operate the C-17. We do not have a deployment commitment and other than the very occasional loan of a person to another squadron, we have nothing to do with the "real world" stuff the US military is involved in. The US commitment to this operation in Haiti is high enough that ten crews and six airplanes from my squadron are flying missions in to Port au Prince from North Carolina. We have dropped the training level of students to an extremely low level, using the few crews we left at home, so that we can support this mission. Measures this extreme have not been taken since way before I came in the Air Force. I think that speaks volumes about the US commitment to the humanitarian side of things. Between Port au Prince and Pope AFB last night, I saw C-17s from five different bases and Canada.

Brad Pilgrim

I landed there last night. I unloaded 130,000 pounds of rolling stock and food. We expected to carry out 250+ passengers. We were told that no passengers were on site. While we were getting ready to leave, a guy ran up and asked how long we could wait. I checked with my pilots and told him we had about an hour. He said a bunch of passengers had just shown up unexpectedly and they wanted to put them with us. I told him to get me as many as they could. I'm not sure what all processing is involved with deciding who goes on the plane but I was told they could run about 100 people an hour through the system. I ended up with 94 women, men and children in seats and strapped to the floor, we took off and carried them to Florida. It isn't the US military that is in charge of that process. They assist with the logistics of it but civilians (many nationalities) are running it. I was told there would be 40-50,000 people (American citizens) going back to the US before this is all over. During the daytime, the airport is full of passengers and we get thousands a day out of town. At night, I was told, people are afraid to travel so they don't come out to the airport so the number of passengers drops to a trickle of what we are capable of moving.
Brad's aircraft was used by a Charlotte, North Carolina news crew who field a TV report here (worth a look for some background). Brad is seen briefly marshalling a truck off the C-17's ramp, and in the WCNC news crew's photo in the slideshow here.

WCNC News.

One of the key problems has been the congestion at Port au Prince airport. While the airport can take upto 747 size aircraft on the runway, what's not initially obvious is how small this airport is, lacking even taxiways (so the single runway has to be used for aircraft to backtrack after landing) and having very limited ramp space.

Port au Prince International airport. Via WIX.

On ABC, Philippe Couturier, with Médecins Sans Frontières, who are doing much good work on the ground there says:
It is extremely frustrating for patients and aid workers to know that we have managed to get skilled doctors, surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses as well as support staff on the ground who know what is needed to save lives - but that the supplies necessary are circling in planes above their heads without permission to land.
Initial problems were obviously the destruction of the earthquake itself crippling power, the airport's infrastructure and air traffic control (ATC). There was also the matter of who was responsible to take a lead - the UN, US, USAF or the Haiti government? After a period of some confusion and understandable but frustrating issues, United States Air Force Special Tactics personnel landed at the airport and assumed ATC duties as well as much of the operation of the airport.

But why were expected aircraft held off? Brad again.
All that most people on the ground know is that the airplane hasn't landed. What they don't know (this probably isn't their fault and I certainly understand their frustration) is that the reasons can very well be beyond the control of the aircrew, the airport or the US and Haitian governments. It doesn't take many airplanes on a ramp to max out the capacity. From the ground and air it can look like there is plenty of room to put a plane but what you don't see is that the access points to the parking spots are blocked by other airplanes' wingtips or tails sticking out. One or two broke airplanes on the ramp can waste the parking space of five airplanes. I can tell you that just taxiing in Port au Prince is a dangerous sport because there are so many vehicles, people, fuel trucks and other airplanes moving in a small space. Just last night I had a UN truck drive under the tail of my airplane, while we were backing up. He missed hitting the ramp by about ten feet. Flying in and out at night is bad but it's downright scary in the daytime!

Brad Pilgrim.

Airplanes from all over the world are arriving constantly. If you are scheduled to arrive at 1800hrs in a C-17, then that is based off of (among many other things) the assumption that you have a parking space. If the IL-76 sitting in your space was supposed to leave at 1745hrs is still sitting there, then you don't have a parking spot. The only choice is go back home or circle. You can circle until you have a parking spot open up, or you can circle until you run low on gas and have to go home. Why is the IL-76 still sitting in the C-17s parking space? Maybe it's broke. Maybe the crew can't get permission to take off due to airspace congestion and the only place to put the airplane is in that spot. Moving out to the runway or taxiway will just block other planes. Usually, the plane didn't get unloaded or loaded in a timely manner and they can't move until it’s completed. That puts the load teams in a bind so even when the IL-76 does move and the C-17 gets in parking, the load team hasn't been able to position to download all the cargo from the C-17 so now you are already behind even though you haven't started.
WIX Member Dan Jones added insight to the early stages of the lift:
The issue with planes circling (holding) was that there were far more airplanes there than could be landed. Parking is still very limited, and Haitian ATC was in ruins. I made one of the early civilian flights into the field and we were advised to expect up to 1.5hrs of holding to get in - the traffic was just flooding MTPP [Port au Prince airport]. As it turned out we lucked out and came straight in on the approach because two C-130's had departed just ahead of us. Nobody anticipated being able to get fuel there - in fact just today were civilian aircraft finally able to get fuel if required. Planes are being controlled coming into Port-au-Prince now by flow control slot times by the Haitian Flight Ops Coordination Center in Miami. So now instead of having to pack an extra seven or eight thousand pounds (in my case) of fuel to potentially hold, that weight can now go towards payload. While the airport is now under US military ATC control (thank Christ!) the surrounding Haitian airspace is still run by some of the locals and has no radar. As soon as Miami center turns you loose going into MTPP and you're Joses inbound, it's the wild west! It certainly was this morning! Once they turn you back over to the US ATC control on the field you are comparatively safe again. If the USAF wanted to run all of Haitian airspace by AWAC or ship, it would certainly get mine and my crew's votes!
Meanwhile over on the ARC Air Discussion forums, Flight Engineer Mark in a C-130 Hercules posted about his first trip:
F/E Mark

Here are a few pics from my first trip in. We only spent 30 minutes on the ground, and were down on the east end of the airport at the U.N. ramp. That place is incredibly busy. We had to hold over the harbor for one hour before they had the space to let us in. We left empty, mostly because we were at the U.N. ramp, but tonight we took 65 people out. Almost exclusively women and children.

F/E Mark

This was a tough mission, but very satisfying. The passengers were escorted out to our aircraft, and when they saw the ramp and door open they almost rushed the plane to get on board. Their escorts held them back, and they obeyed, but you could see it in their eyes how badly they wanted to get on, and what that C-130 meant to them. Quite an experience.
It is clear that the terrific challenge was huge, and that it has taken time to get control of the situation and to start to develop logistical structures that work in an essentially unprecedented situation. But in some ways there was a precedent.

Berlin's Airlift
The story of the Berlin Airlift - Operation Vittles for the US forces, Operation Plainfare for the RAF (and Operation Pelican for a small group of RAAF crews) - is a fascinating and well documented achievement of 'simple' logistics over force majure. A brief overview from Wikipedia: "The Berlin Blockade (24 June 1948 – 12 May 1949) was one of the first major international crises of the Cold War. During the multinational occupation of post-World War II Germany, the Soviet Union blocked the Western Allies' railway and road access to the sectors of Berlin under their control. Their aim was to force the western powers to allow the Soviet zone to start supplying Berlin with food and fuel, thereby giving the Soviets practical control over the entire city. In response, the Western Allies organized the Berlin Airlift to carry supplies to the people in West Berlin. The over 4,000 tons per day required by Berlin during the airlift totaled, for example, over ten times the volume that the encircled German 6th Army required six years earlier at the Battle of Stalingrad."

Douglas C-54 Skymaster, called Spirit of Freedom, which is currently operated as a flying museum full of information regarding the Berlin Airlift. Steelerdon, Wikipedia.

"The United States Air Force, Royal Air Force, and other Commonwealth nations flew over 200,000 flights providing 13,000 tons of food daily to Berlin in an operation lasting almost a year. By the spring of 1949, the effort was clearly succeeding, and by April the airlift was delivering more cargo than had previously flowed into the city by rail. The success of the Airlift was humiliating to the Soviets, who had repeatedly claimed it could never work. When it became clear that it did work, the blockade was lifted in May." More detail here.

Contrasts and Comparisons.
The most crucial difference is, of course, size. In 1948, the western powers were trying to keep 3/4 of a city alive. Berlin's population had been reduced by war from a pre-war 4.6 million to 2.8 million. In Haiti, the current population is given as 10 million, however UN Spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told the BBC: "We are trying to run an operation for three million people, the task is huge and the coordination is immense."

Berlin was a city in ruins due to war, but people had adapted and many services and infrastructure worked - even the black market was systematised and effective. While Haiti is also looking like 'it has been bombed' there are key differences in the effect on infrastructure, and it has been clear from news reports that in many essentials law and order as well as governance have broken down.

Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948. United States Air Force Historical Research Agency via Cees Steijger.

There are many similarities. Although the Berlin Airlift was primarily a joint military operation, it did initially have a number of civilian fliers, as does the Haiti operation today. From Wikipedia again; "British European Airways (BEA) co-ordinated all British civil aircraft operations. Apart from BEA itself, the participating airlines included British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and most British independent airlines of that era - eg Eagle Aviation, Silver City Airways, British South American Airways (BSAA), the Lancashire Aircraft Corporation, Airwork, Air Flight, Aquila Airways (with flying boats) Flight Refuelling, Skyways, Scottish Airlines and Ciro's Aviation. Altogether, BEA was responsible to the RAF for the direction and operation of 25 British airlines taking part in Operation Plainfare."

While both operations are seen to some degree as being almost 'turn-key' in deploying existing resources in pre-planned and trained-for scenarios, that is actually not the case. The US military has an experienced airlift capability, with current operations underway, but I doubt that a scenario like this - with the scale and joint operation requirements as they are - is something even they would have planned for. Morale was an issue in 1948, due to the initial poor utilisation of the crews and aircraft and postwar wind downs of all the forces. Today the complex politics of a significantly wider multi-national and civilian and military operation causes frustration and issues for the planners and crews. Logistics and addressing bottlenecks by improving those logistics (by many extempore and new ways) were, and are, absolute priorities in both cases.

While there is gunfire and looting, there is no armed standoff with a recently combat-hardened army and air forces, as there was against the Russians in 1948. One factor that must have been in the minds of all aircrew, groundcrew and the Berliners and planners was what were the Russians going to do next? Harassment was carried out by Russian fighter aircraft, with collisions and loss of life. It is one of the quirks of history that not only did the Western Allies face down the Russians, but that no one at the time probably seriously expected the Russians to fold as they did.

The difference between an accidental collision by a potential enemy trying to scare you and an accidental collision between two aid aircraft in the wrong place at the same time is nothing - and the crews flying into Haiti are facing a remarkably similar challenge, despite the half century gap. However the modern crews at least do not face the threat of a suddenly unleashed overwhelming attack from the East.

Brad Pilgrim

In the case of Berlin, not only were there several airports (Tempelhof and Gatow Airports, as well as Tegel Airport, built during the airlift) but also the RAF used Short Sunderlands and Hythe flying boats to fly supplies into the Havel river, and thanks to their anti-corrosion protection, they were used to carry the vital baking and other salts. Today there is a very different maritime element being provided by the carrier the USS Carl Vinson steaming offshore. Currently there is only the main airport in use in Haiti, although it is hoped to bring a second smaller one into use as well as an airport in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. It is also hoped to bring ports and ground transport into play as soon as possible, and part of the modern airlift is bringing in heavy equipment to do so.

On WIX, also Chris Trott outlined some of the differences.
1) Distance. Miami (nearest large airport) to Port Au Prince is 620nm. Munich to Berlin is 251nm. Much different amount of fuel needed, especially considering they were using pistons versus now primarily jets (thus volume of fuel used is higher). In addition, for flights heading to Haiti, there are only a few divert airfields requiring more fuel to be loaded to ensure that if they can't get into Port Au Prince, they can go somewhere else safely.

2) Physical infrastructure. PAP is smaller than any of the Berlin airports used.

3) Public Opinion. With the Berlin airlift we were just finishing WWII, we were facing a defined enemy, and public opinion was demanding the military intervene. Now, we are fighting two wars (although airlift demands have relaxed somewhat), but public opinion is not as demanding now to throw everything we have at this problem.
These are all good points. It worth noting that one airport (Tegel) was built in Berlin during the airlift. The distance and fuel requirements are important also. If an aircraft missed its landing in the Berlin Airlift, it was required to fly back to its starting point, a very different requirement to Haiti, but there the option of heading into Dominican Republic - which is presumably feeling a good deal of pressure itself. The Berlin system was based on one way routes in aerial corridors, and essentially the British and American airlifts operated in parallel but separately; obviously much more workable than trying to integrate multiple airline aircraft and air force machines and their different procedures.

The Port au Prince ramp, with a Turbo DC-3 (centre) C-54 (right) and USAF C-17 (left) The DC-3 and C-54 were also used over half a century ago in the Berlin Airlift. Historical Flight Foundation.

I suspect that the Berlin airports were physically smaller than Port au Prince's, but that's not the point. The issue is the ability to land more aircraft on more runways (in different locations helps to decongest the tight inbound flights) and the Berlin airports were designed to handle the aircraft they received, albeit not in the numbers that they did in 1948-9.

Chris' third point about public opinion is also thought-provoking. The Russians were a defined military organisation, but in 1948 the Cold War was just starting, and after six years of one of the greatest wars in history, few would be prepared then to bet on who would do what. As we know today, the Russians were faced down by the airlift's success. But they could have chosen to act differently. They were undertaking well-publicised military 'manoeuvres' around Berlin in the period.

Public will in the west in 1948 to support the capital of the recently defeated enemy must have been ambivalent at the very least. Communist Russia had been an ally through the latter part of W.W.II, and there was a substantial communist lobby in the west, and support in goods (such as the delivery of Rolls Royce Nene jet engines) from Britain's Labour government. There were not clear, simple alliances. Today the US faces, as Chris says, a "perception of the 'Big Bad USA' exerting its will on others." The history of Haiti and its relationship with colonial and current powers, particularly the USA is a difficult one.

As ever, it is simplistic to see history or current events as sets of 'white hats' and 'black hats' or to fall into the trap of assuming a pre-determined outcome to events in the past. Berlin's airlift could well have had a very different result and effect on history.

Another thread between the two airlifts is airdrops. In 1948, the aircraft landed and stopped to unload. But the fascinating story of Little Vittles was a small, but morale-boosting event in the bigger picture.
Gail Halvorsen, one of the many Airlift pilots, decided to use his off time to fly into Berlin and make movies with his handheld camera. He arrived at Tempelhof on July 17 on one of the C-54s and walked over to a crowd of children who had gathered at the end of the runway to watch the aircraft. He introduced himself and they started to ask him questions about the aircraft and their flights. As a goodwill gesture, he handed out his only two sticks of Wrigley's Doublemint Gum, and promised that, if they did not fight over them, the next time he returned he would drop off more. The children quickly divided up the pieces as best they could.

Before he left them, a child asked him how they would know it was him flying over, and he replied, "I'll wiggle my wings." The next day, on his approach to Berlin, he rocked the aircraft and dropped some chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief parachute to the children waiting below. Every day after that the number of children increased and he made several more drops. Soon there was a stack of mail in Base Ops addressed to "Uncle Wiggly Wings", "The Chocolate Uncle" and "The Chocolate Flier". His commanding officer was upset when the story appeared in the news, but when Tunner heard about it he approved of the gesture and immediately expanded it into Operation Little Vittles. Other pilots participated, and when news reached the US, children all over the country sent in their own candy to help out. Soon the major manufacturers joined in. In the end, over three tons of candy were dropped on Berlin, and the 'operation' became a major propaganda success. The candy-dropping aircraft were christened 'raisin bombers' by the German children.
Today airdrops are one way the military gets materiel into difficult places. Initially the USAF didn't want to undertake any airdrops due to the many issues in doing so into a civilian disaster zone, rather than to trained allied troops. Some of the issues are outlined by Brad:
People wonder why we don't do more airdrops of supplies. Some of that has been done and the capability to do a lot more certainly exists. Six of my crews flying on this are airdrop crews (including me) and we are hoping we get to do it! But where do you drop everything? People don't realize what all goes into the securing of a drop zone large enough to use. People don't know how many soldiers it takes to keeps 4 million hungry people away from the food long enough to get it unpacked and distributed. Not to mention having to keep people off the drop zone so they aren't killed by falling containers! Even if everything lands and nobody is hurt in the process, you still have to get the supplies distributed.
While the remarkable LAPES option is no longer available (having been developed after the Berlin airlift and essentially redundant today) there is another option Brad touches on:
Brad Pilgrim.

Another option that C-17s and C-130s have that isn't being utilized is combat offloads. It only works with palletized cargo and even though it's not really practical you can unload massive amounts of cargo in a very short time. Basically, you lower the ramp, pilot runs up the throttles, loadmaster unlocks the cargo, pilot lets off the brakes, plane drives out from under the pallets and cargo lands on ramp. That's where the biggest problem comes in. Now you've got all this cargo sitting on the ground, blocking off a parking ramp, taxiway or runway. It gets the plane out of the way faster but you still have lost the space. Then you have the problems of getting the forklifts to clear the area in a timely manner, distributing the supplies, gathering all the pallets back up, stacking and strapping them, loading them back on another airplane at a later date and taking them back stateside to be used again. So, like many other ideas in this operation, it's a good just doesn't really work!

Douglas C-47s at Templehoff. Although the C-47 and Dakota was vital in the lift, they were supplanted as far as possible by larger aircraft. USAF Museum.

There then, there now.
Amazingly, there are at least two direct links between the Haiti airlift and the Berlin one. Hundreds of C-47s and Dakotas - the military versions of the DC-3 - were vital in the Berlin operations for the British and the Americans. At least one DC-3, an ex-W.W.II veteran aircraft operated by Remote Area Medical (RAM an all-volunteer charitable organisation), is flying into Haiti. Photos also show a Guatemalan Air Force Turbo-engine DC-3 on the grass at Port au Prince. It is an old aviation axiom that the only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3, but yet again the old 'Goony Bird' is there when it counts, for real.

Florida Air Transport's Douglas C-54 N406WA with a USAF C-17 in the background at Port au Prince. Historical Flight Foundation.

Secondly, Florida Air Transport have been operating a DC-4 and a DC-6 round the clock to get supplies to Port-au-Prince. On the Historical Flight Foundation's website, they add; "One more DC-4 will be en route to OPF by the end of the week to expand the fleet and the lift power for relief efforts. There is a possibility one additional DC-4 will join the fleet as well." The DC-4 was the C-54 in military service, and another type integral to the Berlin airlift.

While the DC-3s and all the other younger aircraft are vital, it is the crews and the vast support network of others who keep them and their aircraft able to fly that make it all possible. Thanks must go to them, both then, and now.

[A month later, I've just added a follow up post on this story here.]

1 comment:

  1. Cheers, JDK.

    I was reading the reports of the Public Safety Branch of the Control Commission for Germany the other day (as you do). During the airlift, they put all the water police vessels on duty on the lakes, keeping the landing path for the flying boats clear. So they too had ground control problems.

    WRT Haiti, I can't help thinking that, cool as it is, a DC3 is taking up a landing slot that a C130, with in with a seriously larger payload, could use (let alone a C17). So count me unimpressed with that particular bit of an otherwise impressive story.

    Chris Williams