Airlift Reality Check

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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.

Comments (7)

A guy on NPR this week (I think he was a Marine) was frustrated that the relief efforts aren't simply dropping in supplies from the air, a procedure that he says military air crews have perfected. This would eliminate (or at least ease) the whole problem of runway access and get stuff closer to the places its needed, much faster. I don't know the answers but seemed like a good question.

Posted by: Mary Grady | January 16, 2010 9:04 AM    Report this comment

It is because of utter collapse of Haitian goverment. No Army, no Police, no nothing means no safe places to collect and distribute airdrops. Just dropping supplies around Haiti means:
1) someone on the ground will be killed by falling supplies, sooner or later
2) the distributiobn will be chaotic, with ordinary people trying to get as much as possible, leading to fights among them. As there is a big tension inside the Haitian nation, bullying of ordinary pepole and firefights among throngs of bandits over supplies are likely.

First, an order has to be restored, Second, the relief efforts can reach people. If this not happens, the relief supplys can be dumped into the ocean with very similar results in terms of reaching those who are really in the need.

Why there were 2000 Marines sent first in?

Posted by: Jiri Hubka | January 18, 2010 1:51 AM    Report this comment

I don't know if anyone who could substantively help Mr. Bouley will happen upon this post, or if other organizations who might be able to benefit from your readers would think to post in here... would AvWeb consider setting up a blog topic specifically as a clearinghouse for such requests? Maybe a dumb idea for lots of reasons, but then again, if it hooks up someone in need with someone who can help, why not?

Posted by: Glenn Killinger | January 19, 2010 4:17 PM    Report this comment

Disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, clearly demonstrate the utility of big planes like the C-130, C-17, and whatever C-5's are still operational. So I believe we should continue to keep C-17 and C-130 production lines available for operation, so new airframes may be produced as needed.

If I had my druthers the American aerospace industry would manufacture new C-5's, as it has capabilities no other aircraft has. And finally: I would like to see the B-52 put into production again. It was the greatest warplane we ever had.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | January 20, 2010 8:15 AM    Report this comment

As far as medium/light aircraft goes, aren't there other options than Port Au Prince? Why not have a secondary field for "business class" type traffic?

Posted by: Jon Devine | January 20, 2010 9:32 AM    Report this comment

Some flights are going into Jacmel airport.

Posted by: Jonathan Egeler | January 20, 2010 11:52 AM    Report this comment

I've been privileged to fly an AirNow EMB110 into Haiti for a while now in this relief effort, and can say from experience that Port au Prince logistics have come a long way and the operation is running smoothly. Smaller outlying airports at Cap Hatien, Les Cayes, and Jacmel are also being effectively used by the smaller craft. Keep the donations coming; people are being blessed and saved. Thanks, all.

Posted by: John Somero | January 31, 2010 2:39 PM    Report this comment

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