Airlift Reality Check
I got an e-mail yesterday from my friend Ed Scott at the United States Parachute Association. He was explaining that a skydiving operator with an airplane based in Jamaica tried to get involved in the relief effort in Haiti only to get tangled up in the knotted ball of aircraft trying to operate in and out of Port au Prince's single runway.
If you've ever followed any kind of disaster relief story, you know that this sort of thing happens following virtually every calamity of this magnitude. Given modern communications, the world has become terrific at answering the call for humanitarian need, almost within hours. Although Facebook and Twitter move at the speed of light, the world of airplanes and the trucks that haul the stuff they deliver hasn't evolved much during the past 62 years.
I use that year reference because when the Berlin Airlift began in 1948, it was chaos on a far grander scale than anything going on in Haiti at the moment, complicated further by the appallingly bad winter weather in Northwestern Europe. With time—and not that much time, actually—the Air Force sorted it out and the Berlin Airlift became a relatively smooth running, efficient pipeline.
The airlift planners quickly learned several critical lessons. One was that things had to be kept moving. If an airplane couldn't land, it got in queue to go back where it came from as standard procedure, without much intervention from ground controllers. Second, ground transport was critical. If the stuff couldn't be moved off the airport as fast as it arrived, the entire enterprise would choke itself to a halt.
Third, when runways and airspace are limited, a few big airplanes are more efficient than a lot of little ones, which is why the airlift tilted more towards C-54s and less toward C-47s. I suspect that same lesson is being relearned in Haiti, which is another way of saying that a full-up global heavy airlift is probably not the right time for Twin Otters and King Airs to be chipping in. Smaller aircraft are suitable for survey work and personnel transportation, but if you want meaningful amounts of food, water and critical supplies, you want C-17s, C-5s and C-130s. The critical use of smaller airplanes has to be metered carefully.
Of course, at some point, probably in a few weeks, these heavy lifters will have flown so much stuff into Haiti that there will be surpluses sufficient to clog the system. (Don't be surprised to see supplies flown out.) At that point, smaller aircraft will again come into their own and become the best airplanes for the job.
From the comforts of our couches, it's easy to wonder why such massive relief efforts have to be so chaotic from the start. But they just are. It's the way of the world. It's a complicated, uncertain business and once the U.S. military gets its arms wrapped around the logistics, it will smooth out. By then, surface transport will have caught up and—unfortunately—Haiti will again sink below the fold.
That's the way of the world, too.