By Maj. Dale Greer, 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Officer
/ Published February 07, 2010
KENTUCKY AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- More than 45 members of the Kentucky Air Guard are playing a key role in Haitian earthquake relief efforts after deploying to the Caribbean last month to set up an air hub, facilitating the arrival of more than 600 tons of critical supplies like medicine, food and water.
The Kentucky Airmen -- all members of the 123rd Contingency Response Group -- established the hub in Barahona, Dominican Republic, on Jan. 22 as part of Operation Unified Response. Wasting no time upon arrival from Louisville aboard C-130 aircraft, they were ready to accept inbound cargo planes in just two hours, according to Lt. Col. David Mounkes, CRG element commander.
The Barahona hub is one of three air terminals currently being operated by the U.S. military to provide humanitarian aid to Haiti, where the Jan. 12 earthquake killed more than 120,000 residents and caused massive devastation.
The Barahona hub and another terminal in San Isidro, Dominican Republic, were established 10 days after the earthquake when the first hub, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, became saturated with staged cargo and could accommodate no more air traffic, Colonel Mounkes said.
Barahona is unique, he noted, because it is the only air terminal in theater to be run by Air Guard personnel.
"It's quite an honor for Kentucky to have the only Contingency Response Group in the Air National Guard that was called up to run an air hub," Colonel Mounkes said.
"This is a mission we're well-equipped to perform, and it's one that we take very seriously. We've been running 24-hour-a-day operations since we arrived in an attempt to get relief supplies to the earthquake victims as soon as possible. Every minute counts."
The Barahona hub is based at Maria Montez International airport, a seldom-used airfield that was only semi-operable when the Kentucky Airmen arrived, Colonel Mounkes said. Although some military aircraft had already flown into Maria Montez prior to the Kentucky Air Guard's arrival, none were Air Mobility Command transports capable of the kinds of heavy lifting needed for humanitarian relief.
"When we first arrived, we met with a joint assessment team from U.S. Southern Command that had been here just over 24 hours," Colonel Mounkes said. "They had already set up minimal operations. But our capabilities added satellite voice and data communications, aircraft command and control, and the personnel and equipment necessary to off-load air cargo, including a 10,000-pound all-terrain forklift. We also established night-time arrivals for inbound aircraft.
"All this allows us to facilitate the handling of AMC and coalition aircraft so that cargo can be rapidly processed and staged for distribution."
Since establishing the air hub at Maria Montez, the 123rd Contingency Response Group has controlled the arrival and off-loading of more than 35 U.S. and coalition aircraft, Colonel Mounkes said. The cargo is being staged at the airport for subsequent transport into Haiti by civilian-contracted trucks.
To speed up cargo processing, airfield workers are pulling pallets of supplies off incoming aircraft while the planes' engines are still running, said Master Sgt. Larry Burba, a contingency response team chief. These EROs -- short for engine-running off-loads -- reduce the amount of time an aircraft sits on the flightline, occupying space that could accommodate another in-bound flight, Sergeant Burba said.
"We're downloading these aircraft in record time," he added. "The other day, we downloaded a C-130 in just 4 1/2 minutes, which is unheard of. The guys are just getting out there and knocking it out."
Among the material already processed for shipment into Haiti was highly perishable human plasma, said Lt. Col. Kirk Hilbrecht, director of public affairs for the Kentucky National Guard.
The plasma had a 24-hour shipping window when it arrived at the hub, meaning it needed to arrive in Haiti by the next day to be of any use in medical care.
"It came in at night and already had a clock ticking on it," Colonel Mounkes said. "Our guys went the extra mile to make sure contracting coordination went through so we could get the cargo into Haiti within the 24-hour time frame."
Personnel from the 123rd Contingency Response Group also have been assisting with the transport of injured refugees aboard Puerto Rico National Guard UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
"This has been a very rewarding mission for everyone involved," Colonel Mounkes said. "All our personnel are highly motivated to be down here, we work as a team, and every person is expected to function safely and efficiently while being proactive to address issues before they become problems.
"This is what we do, and we're very good at our jobs. I think that shows the kind of Airmen we have in the Kentucky Air National Guard -- Airmen who have the experience that allows them to come down here and perform a mission like this on short notice with unsurpassed professionalism. It also speaks to their spirit of volunteerism. All of these folks were able to notify their civilian employers, pack up and be ready to go within 24 hours of receiving notice."
Sergeant Burba, for one, is happy to be of service.
"I feel great to have the opportunity to come down here and help out the people of Haiti," he said. "We're just excited to do the mission. Everyone wants to get that cargo in here, download the aircraft and get it to Haiti as soon as possible. It's an awesome feeling to know that you're making a real difference in the world, for people who really need your help."