RAF pilot assists Haiti earthquake survivors

from Government of the United Kingdom
Published on 26 Feb 2010 View Original
A Royal Air Force officer currently on exchange with the United States Air Force was one of the pilots who flew supplies into Haiti just hours after the devastating earthquake struck the island.

Hercules pilot Flight Lieutenant Calvin Bailey, normally based at RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, is on exchange to the 15th Special Operations Squadron of the United States Air Force.

Just hours after the earthquake struck the Caribbean island of Haiti a month ago, he flew medical supplies, equipment and 20 medical personnel into Haiti. He said:

"Wearing a gas mask and nuclear, biological, chemical gear is never fun, and following nine days of a NATO evaluation, I was glad to be heading into work without having to don clothing filled with charcoal.

"Just as we were about to walk out to our aircraft, the first reports of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake were starting to appear on TV; 'We'll be there tomorrow then', my loadmaster said as we left the squadron building.

"Sure enough, by the time we had landed, the squadron had already stood up its unit coordination centre and placed four crews into crew-rest, with the plan to be airborne eight hours later; my crew was to be crew number five.

"I sat at home, on alert, hearing that aircraft one, two, three, then four, departed in front of me.

"By the time aircraft number four had departed, Haitian airspace was becoming dangerously congested with the vast number of aircraft trying to get to Port-au-Prince to provide assistance.

"The team of ten combat control team operators, using a picnic table as their air traffic control desk, were landing and departing aircraft as quickly as they could clear space on the ground; however, with a multitude of aircraft arriving unannounced, this was taking longer and longer."

Whilst all of this was going on in Haiti the first aircraft returned to base to be swiftly turned around and reloaded so that it could make another return trip. Flt Lt Bailey continued:

"Finally, just prior to 1000 Central Standard Time, I alerted my crew and we headed into work. It took us about an hour from arriving in work to being sat in the aircraft with 18,000lbs [8,000kg] of medical supplies and equipment, the 20 personnel from the 1st Special Operations Wing's specialist medical teams, and now I was ready to start the engines.

"The airspace was surprisingly quiet, the chaos during the day having abated, but most of the arrivals hadn't informed the combat control team of their arrival, and in the dark of the night, amongst the mountains, the aircraft jostled and duelled for airspace whilst the controllers tried to ascertain where exactly each asset was, using only their observations and the charts they had with them. We sequenced in easily, allowing the fuel-critical arrivals in front of us.

"As we taxied in, the congestion was hard to believe. Each aircraft was parked with minimal wing-tip clearance, and in front of the parking line there was a throng of journalists, rescue teams and potential evacuees.

"Special Operations aircrew travel light and all the crew get involved in ground operations, assisting the offloading of the passengers and freight, reconfiguring of the airframe and the loading of the outbound freight.

"Typically, what we expected to extract had changed, and the whole crew found themselves assisting the loadmaster to set up the casualty evacuation stanchions at the rear of the aircraft so that we could take some injured people to hospitals back in the USA.

"Missions of this kind can be emotional; whilst my crew worked to adjust the aircraft configuration, I spoke with the surgeons about the passengers they hoped for us to move.

"Whilst there, my attention was drawn to one young boy who was almost inconsolable. The medics briefed me that he had lost one of his parents in the earthquake and asked if we could take him to Fort Lauderdale where arrangements would be made for him to be reunited with his father.

"I tried to console him with small-talk about flying and aircraft. I gave him my union patch and a chocolate bar and he seemed slightly less agitated, but the episode affected me emotionally and I found myself rather teary-eyed."

It took the team approximately 30 minutes to convert the aircraft from a cargo plane to a medical support platform with stretcher stanchions, and so before they knew it, they were preparing to leave:

"As we took off I looked down into the deep black void where there should have been a well-lit town, and wondered how my seemingly inconsequential effort would actually improve the situation and lives of the people that must have been sheltering in the darkness," Flt Lt Bailey said.

"I couldn't tell, but at the end of our long 18-hour day, I knew that I would go back 12 hours later and do it all again.

"Being an exchange officer is an amazing privilege and the greatest privilege comes from seeing the US machine acting in times like this from within. Over the air traffic control airwaves, controllers would tell us, 'Thank you for helping the people of Haiti, you are doing a great job out there, we are very proud of you'."

Flt Lt Bailey, of 47 Squadron based at RAF Lyneham, has been on exchange with the United States Air Force (USAF) since 2007.

He has deployed with the USAF in support of US operations all over the world including Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

Two C-130J Hercules from RAF Lyneham deployed to provide assistance to the UK aid effort in Haiti on 23 January 2010. Flt Lt Bailey offered support to the UK aircraft by providing a situation report following this first trip.

He also briefed the aircraft on routing and arrival procedures, who to contact on and prior to arrival, and most importantly on how to mitigate the risk of collision in the air and on the ground at Port-au-Prince.