MTPP airfield flow and relief operations

Main apron of Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport, Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Taken by the GeoEye-1 satellite from 423 miles in space at 10:37 a.m. EST on Jan. 16, 2010.

Over at the Flea’s place I left a lengthy comment about how some online observers have some pretty silly ideas about how fast aid can be delivered into a nation with tightly constrained infrastructure.  In Haiti’s case, the sheer volume of aid that has to get in, and evacuees that have to get out—and all of it combined with the lack of high-volume airport infrastructure country-wide—means there are going to be bottlenecks for a very long time.

In MTPP with a single taxiway, the departing craft has to sit on the ramp itself. It can’t position at the departure end because the turnaround bays at either end are too small for the wingspan of a med/heavy aircraft. Likewise it can’t position on the single taxiway because the arriving aircraft needs to use that taxiway to exit the runway.

And because the taxiway is in the middle, arrivals need to backtrack the runway in order to reach the taxiway. Similarly, departures also need to backtrack the runway in order to position at the departure end.

…You would be lucky to get one aircraft movement every ten minutes under such a system, or 144 movements per day. Assuming the movements occur like clockwork, nobody has to remain on the ramp for any longer than it takes to unload, and everybody tankers their own return fuel aboard and does not require refueling from one of the airfield’s two trucks.

Pearson airport, in contrast, handles about 1200 movements a day, and it slows down considerably after midnight due to aircraft class noise restrictions. Haiti will never handle 1200 movements a day, not even if every single airport in the nation were pressed into service. There are six of them, and all have single-runway, single-taxiway designs. Only two have runways long enough to cope with international transoceanic flights.

Now compound that with tons of aid arriving, and literally about a hundred thousand foreign nationals requiring evacuation (that alone would be about 300 flights) and you’re looking at a recipe for unimaginable delays for a very long time.

Skimming the news articles today, I found some confirmation of the airport’s throughput capacity.   This article notes that since AFSOC’s arrival on January 13th, MTPP has handled in excess of 600 aircraft movements.

“We arrived the first evening with three U.S. aircraft. Within 28 minutes we established command and control, airfield management, and were able to land aircraft that night,” said Col. “Buck” Elton, Joint Special Operations Task Force commander. “On a typical day, the Port-au-Prince airport lands about three aircraft. Since we landed Wednesday, over 600 aircraft have landed and taken off.”

— Salanitri, David [Sr. Airman, USAF].  “AFSOC Airmen save Haitian earthquake victim, land more than 600 aircraft on island.”  Air Force Special Operations Command Public Affairs, 17 January 2010. [Emphasis mine]

If we gauge that the story was filed and published on the same date, then that gives us a time frame (13-17 January, or five days) for those 600+ aircraft movements.  This means then that the airport handled in excess of 125 movements per day, or slightly better than five per hour—one every twelve minutes, which is remarkably close to my estimation.  And, I think, a rather fantastic achievement by the men and women on the ground, given the state of the facilities.

Also of note in the AFSOC article:

  • Haitian air traffic controllers have returned to work and are handling “long range control”; which I interpret to mean high-altittude enroute traffic passing through the Port-au-Prince FIR (MTEG), while USAF combat controllers handle arrivals and departures in the terminal zone.

Also interesting: From the image that caps this post, you can see the Port-au-Prince airfield as it was on January 16th, 2010.  I want to draw your attention to the C-17 parked at the western end of the ramp.  You might assume that this would be from one of the usual military C-17 operators (USAF, CF, RAF, RAAF) and it is, after a fashion.  It is a Qatar Air Force asset, and although dedicated to military airlift duties, this aircraft is the only C-17 to wear both a civilian paint job (as Qatar Airways) and a civil aircraft registry code, A7-MAB.

BREAKING: SecDef Gates’ noted on Friday that DoD did not conduct airdrops of food and water in Haiti because it feared the possibility of riots and fighting on the ground.  That decision has apparently been reversed; this afternoon I have received information that USAF will conduct its first airdrop of food and water this evening, into a drop zone that has already been secured by U.S. military personnel.  The exact location of the DZ will, of course, be protected so that there is no possibility of riots or violence arising from foreknowledge of the event.

UPDATE 190530Z JAN 2010: The airdrop occurred five miles north of Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport and, according to CNN, 40 pallets or bundles of MREs and water (55,000 lbs total) were released by one C-17 operating from Pope AFB, NC.  I think CNN has their nomenclature confused, because while a single C-17 is capable of delivering 55,000lbs of payload, it can only accommodate 18 standard Army/Air Force 463L pallets (in two parallel rows).  An airdrop of forty 463L pallets would thus require three C-17s, at minimum.  C-17s can carry, however, 40 container delivery system (CDS) bundles; they are typically loaded in two parallel rows of twenty, so it is probable that CDS bundles are what is actually being employed.

UPDATE 191315Z JAN 2010: Airfield flow at MTPP appears to be improving.  LTG Ken Keen, Commander Joint Task Force Haiti, notes that throughput has increased every day for the past six days, and Monday’s total was 180 aircraft movements (with no delays!).   This means the airfield is generating 7.5 aircraft movements every hour, or one every eight minutes.  The general’s discussion of challenges at the airfield is illuminating.

One challenge in getting aid to Haiti has been the backlog of airplanes trying to land on the airport’s one runway. Keen said it was like “pushing a bowling ball through a soda straw.” He said the U.S. Air Force helped the Haiti government get its airport operational within 24 hours of the earthquake and the service is now helping to manage the air traffic control with the Haitian government determining the priorities of which planes should land first.

In the days that followed the disaster, some planes, carrying much needed emergency supplies, doctors and field hospital equipment, were turned away because there were delays in getting planes on the ground to take off. That created a backup of other planes that were flying in and needed to land.

“There were planes that were scheduled to land but didn’t,” he said. “The pilot at some point has to make a decision about continuing to burn fuel or divert to the Dominican Republic. . . . That’s unfortunate and not what we want to see.”

Another problem at the airfield, Keen said, has been that air traffic control officials often didn’t know what was aboard incoming planes so that made it difficult to prioritize which ones should land first — an issue that he said is being fixed. And there was only one forklift at the airport when U.S. military arrived to help. More equipment has been brought in to help quickly unload planes.

Keen said the airport’s flow of planes has improved since the first days when only 13 flights a day were landing. Monday, he reported that 180 flights used the airport with no delays.

— Hedgpeth, Dana.  “U.S. task force commander for Haitian relief says logistics remain stumbling block.” Washington Post, 18 January 2010.

A simple mechanical fault on any one of the arriving or departing aircraft could derail the entire airport, though.

His biggest nightmare: A plane delivering supplies has a flat tire on the one runway at the airport. “I’m out of business,” he said. “That blocks the whole runway and we don’t have the equipment to move it.”

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