As relief supplies and support continue to pour into Haiti, the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Contingency Operations Group has been one of the key elements that has helped to ensure a steady flow of help into the areas that need it.
Airmen from the Kentucky National Guard's 123rd Contingency Response Group help to offload wounded Haitian refugees and medical personnel from Puerto Rico National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters at the air hub in Barahona, Dominican Republic, Jan. 25, 2010. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Dennis Flora
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Operating out of Barahona, Dominican Republic, the unit has set up an airfield to provide an alternative for air traffic bound for Haiti’s overwhelmed Port-au-Prince airport.
The unit has been able to oversee the safe movement of cargo into the airfield, where it is then moved by flatbed trucks across the border and into Haiti, said Air Force Lt. Col. Kirk Hilbrecht, public affairs officer for the Kentucky National Guard.
“So far we have moved approximately 575 tons of supplies, medical equipment, actual live donor organs and plasma into the Haitian area,” said Hilbrecht, who’s with the 123rd in Barahona.
The unit also has assisted with getting supplies off of U.S. Navy vessels docked at nearby ports.
“We have helped facilitate the movement of [equipment from] some of the Navy’s roll-on, roll-off equipment that has come through,” Hilbrecht said. “There has been a lot of hospital equipment that is required at some of the facilities and clinics deep into Haiti. We’re working in tandem with the port to ensure that all supplies get out as fast as they can to where they need to go.”
That means consolidating convoys from both the seaport and the airport. “We’re working together to create one big convoy that our team of security forces are escorting across the border,” Hilbrecht said.
When the unit first arrived, the airfield required some setting up before planes could land.
“The airport has been closed for 12 years. … We had it opened up, and we are now running 24-hour operations,” Hilbrecht said, adding that even after reopening, it initially was closed to night operations because of a lack of runway lights.
Before the 123rd COG arrived, personnel from U.S. Southern Command and Air Mobility Command assessed the airfield to ensure it was suitable for the types of aircraft that would be sent in.
“That ensured that the tarmac or the runway was able to sustain the heavy aircraft as they landed, that the runway was long enough and the ramp where we are actually off-loading the equipment was wide enough to do our job,” Hilbrecht explained.
Within two hours of arriving, the unit had aircraft landing at the airfield, he said.
“Once we got here, we were able to quickly off-load our generators,” Hilbrecht said. “We came in with three trucks, and we were able to take out all the equipment we needed to and set up nighttime operations. From there, we set up communications with the tower to ensure we knew who was coming in, and then we had all our ramp operators and heavy lifters ready for the first planes that came in two hours after we arrived.”
The size and scale of the aircraft that have been landing — mainly C-17 Globemaster IIIs and C-130 Hercules — took many who live in the area by surprise, Hilbrecht said.
“It has definitely brought a lot of the townspeople out, as they were not anticipating that large of an aircraft ever on this airfield,” he said.
The ability to land large aircraft in the Dominican Republic has made a difference in getting supplies to Haiti.
“I know we’re making a big difference, specifically when it comes to giving the flow and the dissemination of the much-needed material into the country,” Hilbrecht said.
The location of the airport, roughly 30 miles east of the Haitian border, has allowed cargo and relief supplies to be brought into outlying communities that have been affected by the earthquake, but may not be accessible from the Port-au-Prince side.
“The road conditions from the east to the west are not as dire as the roads going from the west to the east,” Hilbrecht said. “Coming in from the east makes a lot more sense, because most of those roadways are a lot more operable and traversable. And from there, we can get into the areas and clinics that happen to be farther out to the east [from Port-au-Prince] anyway.”
The airport also has welcomed UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 111th General Support Aviation, staging for medical evacuation missions.
“There are approximately 20 women and children that came from the Puerto Rico Army National Guard Black Hawks two days ago, and those people are right now getting the medical care they need,” Hilbrecht said.
Hilbrecht described conditions at the airfield as austere and said that though he served with the Army in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, what prepared him most for this mission — now called Operation Unified Effort — was responding to state missions in Kentucky.
“We’ve had some natural disasters in Kentucky over the last year or so, to include an ice storm last February that pretty much took out [power to] 700,000 houses and homes,” he said. “The part of it that I was not expecting during a routine ice storm was how desperate people could get. There were some parts of Kentucky where they were really in harm’s way and trying some makeshift ways to heat themselves.”
The roughly 50-person Kentucky contingent is scheduled to remain in place for about 120 days, said Hilbrecht, who added there is nowhere else he’d rather be.
“It’s been one heck of a fulfilling operation here,” he said.