McChord flights carry aid to Haiti

Editor's Note: Staff reporter Christian Hill traveled to Haiti on Sunday with a crew from McChord Air Force Base. You can read more about the trip at www.theolympian.com/haiticrisisblog.

CHARLESTON, S.C. - McChord Air Force Base has sent four C-17 cargo jets and crews into quake-devastated Haiti, dropping off aid workers, bottled water and other supplies and bringing Haitian evacuees back to the United States.

Master Sgt. Dean Miller, a spokesman at McChord, said the fourth plane flew out of the base south of Tacoma on Monday evening, after three others departed Sunday.

Miller said additional flights could be tasked out of McChord at any time.

On board one of the first two Haiti-bound flights, crew members talked about how the humanitarian mission is a departure from their normal duty.

Flying supplies and people in and out of war zones has become commonplace. Staff Sgt. Tom Johnson, 25, one of two loadmasters on the jet, called flights into Iraq and Afghanistan an “almost daily routine.”

The routine was broken for the crew of five aboard the C-17 early Sunday when it began a nine-hour first leg to assist the relief effort.

A five-hour flight was followed by four hours on the ground at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia as the crew loaded equipment and personnel. It was then off to the Caribbean nation devastated by Tuesday’s massive earthquake.

After more than two hours on the ground in Haiti, the crew airlifted more than 180 evacuees to Orlando, Fla., before flying to Charleston.

Humanitarian missions aren’t new for McChord airmen.

Most recently, they flew 15,500 pounds of equipment to New Orleans in preparation for Hurricane Gustav in 2008. In October, they transported nine Federal Emergency Management Agency members and 17,000 pounds of cargo to American Samoa in support of tsunami relief efforts.

Airmen on the Haiti flight said the change of pace presents some challenges.

Johnson, of Wilmington, Del., said the the crew will “press a little bit more to get the mission complete,” adding stress and forsaking sleep.

Master Sgt. Steven Courson, 36, of Tacoma, is one of three airmen responsible for securing crew members in flight and protecting the crew and jet on the ground in unsecured locations.

On the way to Haiti, he said the situation there, where frustration is high over the slow pace of relief efforts, would put the airmen on alert. One of his jobs is to ensure people who board the jet are authorized to do so.

“We don’t really know what to expect,” Courson said. “That makes it a little different.”

The jet was barely on the ground at Langley before airmen were loading it with equipment. The biggest addition to the cargo hold was a massive vehicle known as a palletized loading system, which can rapidly load and unload supplies and transport them through difficult terrain. Also loaded were a floodlight system, a small 4 x 4 vehicle and numerous smaller supplies.

Boarding at Langley were six members of an Army unit, the 688th Rapid Port Opening Element based at Fort Eustis, Va. In Haiti, it will help unload arriving aircraft and get the equipment and supplies to relief agencies and military teams assisting in the relief effort.

The McChord crew packed in as much equipment as possible while ensuring the weight was evenly distributed and there was enough leg room for passengers.

“We have to do a pallet dance on the ramp because there’s limited spacing,” said Staff Sgt. James Harp, the other loadmaster.

The loud drone of the jet’s generators was broken by the rattle of chains as crew members worked to secure the loads to the metal floor.

This was the first humanitarian mission for Capt. Anthony Cappel, 33, of Cincinnati, Ohio, the jet’s pilot and commander who has flown several missions to the Middle East.

Those flight patterns and procedures are “set in stone” he said, while the Haiti mission offers new challenges, such as congested air traffic at the Port au Prince airport.

“You have to be ready for the unexpected,” Cappel said. “It’s not like you can park on the side of the road and pull out a map. Things keep moving whether you want them to or not.”

McChord airmen are contributing to Operation Unified Response, a humanitarian effort led by U.S. Southern Command.

“McChord Airmen are proud to be part of this humanitarian effort,” said Col. Kevin Kilb commander of the 62nd Airlift Wing, in a statement. “Our ability to conduct these operations is due to the partnership and expertise of both the active-duty and Reserve airmen here at McChord.”

Christian Hill: 360-754-5427