248th at Work in Haiti

By: John Matthews, WLBT-TV
By: John Matthews, WLBT-TV

Since the earthquake in Haiti, private and military rescue air missions have been the life blood, supplying aid to the nation. But a group of Mississippians serving in the Air National Guard is keeping the heart beating, getting relief flights in and out of the country.

The beautiful sunrise at 34,000 feet gives way to the clear blue waters of the Caribbean. An hour later, the noisy, fume choked chaos of the Port-au-Prince airport. Helicopters and planes of all sizes are stacked up in a traffic jam overhead.

"Coming in today we held for about 30 minutes… there were four planes ahead of us and three behind," said Lt. Col. Scott Ditto of the 172nd Airlift Wing.

Before the earthquake this tiny airport took in about 12 flights a day. Since then, hundreds of relief missions have flown into Haiti creating a logistical nightmare.

"The volume of air traffic here at Port-au-Prince is pretty enormous," Ditto said.

To the busy confusion, add a control tower, broken and empty.

"Absolute destruction," said Master Sgt. Clifton Hollis of the 248th Air Traffic Control Squadron in describing the condition of the airport facilities.

Bring on the fixers, the Meridian-based 248th Air Traffic Control Squadron.

"We pretty much had to start from scratch, said Sgt. Jerry Ivey of the 248th. "By far this is one of the most challenging things we've aver done."

From a temporary control tower next to the runway, members of the 248th bring order to a chaotic situation, and in less than ideal conditions.

"We're limited on ramp space here as you know," said Ivey. "There's just not enough room for these big jets. Worst case scenario, we spin them around two or three times on the way down. It's just a jigsaw puzzle down here and when we find room, we bring them in."

Another problem is a language barrier, and for once, it's not the Southern drawl that's the problem.

"The other day we had a guy that did not understand the language very well and he departed onto the runway without clearance and took off in the wrong direction with an aircraft on final," Hollis said.

With no immediate plans for a new tower, these Mississippians are digging in.

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