Operation HESTIA to aid Haiti
Jan 15, 2010

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Despite a temperature of –25°C and a biting wind, Holly Bridges watched in fascination as everything from diapers to medical supplies and a refueling truck was loaded into a giant C17 Globemaster and strapped down for airlift to Haiti. Technicians at CFB Trenton had been working around the clock to prepare, build, load and unload more than 2.5 million kilograms of humanitarian relief supplies and equipment since January 13th.

“Some have worked 16 days straight, working 18 to 20 hours a day,” she would later write. “The pace of operations here at 8 Wing Trenton, although starting to steady, has been break-neck with everyone pulling out all the stops to get the aid moving.”

The Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) are employed in multiple roles. CF firefightes are working tirelessly to demolish damaged buildings and help in cleaning up the Haitian city of Jacmel.

As the world knows, on 12 January 2010, Haiti was struck by a massive earthquake registering 7.3 on the Richter scale and aftershocks registered as high as 5.9. The epicenter of the earthquake was only 15km from the centre of Port-au-Prince. The Red Cross estimates some 3 million people, one third of the country’s population, were affected by the quake. The word “pancake” became the media sound bite of the day as everything from tin shacks to the grandiose Presidential Palace, the National Assembly and hospitals collapsed. The city’s roads, chaotic in normal times, no longer existed. Frightened mobs choked the streets as Haitians remained outdoors, too frightened to seek shelter in the buildings that remained. The main road from the airport into the city was choked with debris and refugees. Only airlift, conventional and rotary, could get through.

Less than 24 hours after the quake hit, thanks to ground crews working all night, the first flight of Operation Hestia rolled down the runway at CFB Trenton carrying the Canadian Forces Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) advance team.

The first of the giant C17 Globemasters followed early the next day, laden with medical elements, engineers, a Griffon helicopter with SAR crew and equipment, a security element, rations, water and tents. A CC144 Challenger also took off, delivering personnel and additional supplies, then transporting evacuees out of the city.

The CF is no stranger in Haiti. The first rescue mission by CF in that war torn country dates back to 1963, and a litany of operations have followed. As more than 1,400 members of the Canadian Forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – were in the process of deploying to Haiti and Jamaica, Operation HESTIA was added to the list.  Hailing from various wings, naval and military units, they include firefighters, search and rescue technicians, logisticians, construction engineers, tele­coms technicians, aircraft technicians, air traffic controllers and radar specialists.

On January 17th, the Government of Canada ordered the Air Force to rapidly establish Jacmel Airfield as an operating location to provide a vital additional means for the delivery of personnel, equipment and supplies. Within 24 hours, the tiny, dilapidated airfield was brought up to an operating capacity to support CC130 Hercules and helicopter operations under both day and night conditions. The first Herc flight landed at Jacmel Airfield on 18 January, at 11:30 a.m. (EST).

By the end of January, the constant flow of CF aircraft shuttling between CFB Trenton and Kingston Jamaica, Port-au-Prince and later Jacmel had become a 4,000 kilometre “air bridge.” Since the arrival of the first Herc to Haiti on 13 January, CF air operations made full use of the four daily slots that had been allotted to CF aircraft. The total number translated to: three Globemaster III aircraft, each with a crew of 11; two Hercs, each with an aircrew of seven from 8 Wing Trenton and 14 Wing Greenwood; a CC150 Polaris, with a crew of about 13 from Trenton; six CH146 Griffon ­helicopters, each with a crew of three or four from various squadrons in Trenton, Bagotville and Gagetown; a Sea King helicopter, with a crew of three or four from 12 Wing Shearwater aboard HMCS Athabascan; and a CC144 Challenger with an aircrew of four from Ottawa.

With streets clogged and port facilities destroyed, the helicopters that had been transported to Haiti by aircraft and ship came into their own. The SAR configured Griffons transported on the C17s not only gave crucial support to SAR and medevac missions but also provided another means of transporting personnel, equipment, and supplies throughout the Canadian Area of Operations.

A Sea-king helicopter onboard HMCS St John’s, takes off for Chardonnière, in Haiti, with her load of 1000 kilograms of corn soya blend.

In a situation like this, reliable sources of fuel for rotary operations are crucial. The large carrying capacity of the Globemaster provided the Air Force with a means of delivering fuel directly from Canada to Haiti. The fuel is off-loaded and stored in a re-fuelling tank attached to a CF Heavy Logistics Vehicle Wheeled (HLVW) until CF helicopters operating in the area need it. The helicopters operating in Haiti also have a second option of re-fuelling on board either of Canada’s two Navy frigates deployed to the area: Her Majesty’s Canadian Ships Athabascan and Halifax.

On the ground in Canada and Haiti, hundreds of determined personnel, mainly from 8 Wing Trenton (augmented by members from other wings), had been working tirelessly to execute the massive operation.

The work of pushing and pulling loads on and off the aircraft, time and time again was backbreaking. Corporal Andrew Tobin, 29, of Nanaimo, B.C. was one of them. Taking a break in the coffee room, he spoke to Holly Bridges. “First it was the equipment for the Disaster Assistance Response Team, then food, water, medical equipment, stretchers, tents, medical shelters, load after load after load,” he listed. “As fast as we can load the aircraft here, our traffic technicians in theatre unload it so we can get more flights going in and out. Slot times [at the airport] in Haiti are very tight so we have to work fast so the aircraft can get away on time.”

It’s a gargantuan task that many members of the Air Force haven’t seen in decades, yet one they accepted as if it were routine. And it was not only manual labour. A vast operation like this meant there was a corresponding amount of paperwork involved – for instance calculating the kind of restraints needed to hold a 12,000 kilogram vehicle in place. The job of coordinating the continuous flow of aircraft – and crews to operate them to and from theatre fell to the wing operations staff that worked around the clock. “ The white dry erase board that greets those coming into command post is filled,” Bridges would write from Trenton, “ line by line, with arrivals and departures. They are written in by the hour or airframe, depending on word from the crews either in Trenton, Haiti or Jamaica. The phones ring constantly with updates on slot times and whether crews are reaching their maximum flying hours for the day. E-mails flow in from around the wing, updating duty staff on aircraft serviceability and the status of loads being built. These are just a few of the transmissions constantly being tracked.”

She interviewed Major Steve Camps of Prince George, B.C. the deputy wing operations officer, “It’s been extremely hectic in here,” he said. “The people here have done an outstanding job working the issues, getting things coordinated. The first couple of weeks it was absolute pandemonium with up to eight people at once all needing to coordinate things at the same time, around the clock. We tuned out what we needed to tune out to get the job done and focus on the task at hand. Everyone knew their role, it worked extremely well.”

Canadian Forces (CF) members secure Canadian evacuees aboard a CF Globemaster aircraft at the Port-au-Prince International ­Airport in Haiti. Globemaster number CC-177703 is from 429 Squadron based out of 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario.

When complemented about the Air Force commitment in Haiti, the Chief of the Air Staff, Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, responded with pride: “Haiti is the Air Force at its best.” At CFB Trenton Cpl Tobin put it no less eloquently: “It makes me feel good knowing I am doing something to help the people of Haiti. They need so much.”
Peter Pigott is a journalist and accomplished author.
© FrontLine Defence 2010