Port-au-Prince, before and after

Len, 767 captain and author of Views From The Left Seat, has crafted a pair of posts that amply illustrate some of the problems with Haiti’s aviation infrastructure.  Haiti’s weak national government and longstanding social malaise are well-known and well-documented, but it is informative to see that the lack of rigour extends even into the highly disciplined arenas of air traffic control and airside management.

The first, written on December 4th, 2009 (before the earthquake) paints a picture of what we in North America might generously call “relaxed” operational and security discipline.

The climb up to FL 370 was uneventful. 600 miles later and approaching Haitian airspace, we said “goodbye” to Miami Center and gave Port Au Prince Control a call.

No response.

Five more calls and they finally answered. Had they not answered we would have been forced to hold at the boundary of their airspace. Glad they answered since we had a small thunderstorm to contend with right along our route.

While descending, we passed an opposite direction outbound airliner 1000 ft below us and wondered why we weren’t advised? A call to Approach Control about that went unanswered.

…We parked, set the brakes and once the ground crew had positioned the boarding stairs, the cabin crew opened two cabin doors. Out flooded the passengers onto the ramp with wild abandon! They all knew where to go but it was almost comical to see so many unattended people on an airline ramp with absolutely no security concerns whatsoever!

—  Len.  “Third World Operations.” Views From The Left Seat, 4 December 2009. [Emphases are mine]

The second post, written on March 20th, 2010, illustrates what air traffic control services were like after the quake—and after Haiti’s own controllers took over from the combat controller services provided by the US Air Force.

It was business as usual until we had to switch over to Port-au-Prince tower.

Descending in, we were cleared for an ILS to runway 10 with a circle to land on runway 28. But we were only given a clearance to descend to 5000 ft and to report inbound on the ILS. OK fine…So we continued on in and reported inbound but the controller was apparently too busy or distracted to hear us. We kept calling until he finally answered us and asked where we were? “We’re overhead the field at 5000 ft” was our answer! He seemed surprised and promptly cleared us back to the initial approach fix and gave us instructions to hold and await further clearance.

20 minutes later he cleared us for the same approach and for us to call the field in sight and to enter a downwind for runway 28. So we did all that and set up for the landing. Meanwhile he cleared a Canadian Air Force C-17 to back-taxi for takeoff on runway 28. As we turned final, the tower amended the C-17’s enroute clearance which resulted in them not being ready for takeoff. With us now on short final and the C-17 still on the runway, we had to execute a go-around and get back in the pattern.

So now we’re back on final and the tower has cleared the C-17 for takeoff. It all was looking good until the C-17 aborted their takeoff with some sort of mechanical issue. We had no choice….another go-around!! We broke off to the right and started a climb. Just then we received a traffic alert on our TCAS with instructions to “CLIMB, CLIMB”. I looked out and saw a Cessna Caravan doing a steep turn to avoid us as we were climbing and turning in the other direction. That was close!

We asked the tower for instructions and all he could tell us was “go hold east of the airport somewhere”. He was completely flustered and not in control of his airspace. Now a clearance like that in the real world is just unheard of! We were clearly on our own this day.

After several minutes of us circling low over the city, he told us to come on in and land. By then we had lost sight of the airport so we had to rely on some basic VFR skills and dead reckoning to re-acquire the airport.

—  Len.  “Port-au-Prince (After The Quake).” Views From The Left Seat, 20 March 2010. [Emphases are mine]

Now to be fair, aircraft convergence conflicts are not entirely uncommon.  Close calls with little (or not forceful enough) warning from air traffic controllers can happen anywhere—in fact a similar incident involving a United Boeing 777 and an Aeronca 11AC occurred near KSFO on Saturday.  Planes travel at hundreds of miles an hour, so you may have only seconds to identify that little dot at your 11 o clock before it ends up in your lap.  This is why large aircraft have onboard radar and TCAS systems, and smaller “pocket” versions (using transponder signals) are available for GA pilots.

The more worrisome aspect is that the controllers (before the quake) were lackadaisical about answering calls from aircraft; this says something unkind about their professionalism even under ideal circumstances.  In the “after the quake” situation, the controller got overwhelmed, lost the picture, and did not give proper radar vectors (i.e. “turn left heading 060, maintain 8,000, follow published missed approach procedure and hold”).  That could have had disastrous and fatal results, especially if the converging aircraft lacked TCAS equipment.  Fortunately, Len survived to blog about it; not every pilot is so lucky.

The problem isn’t just that Haiti has lax standards, or even lax enforcement of rigorous standards (whether in aviation, building codes, or otherwise).  As Publius at Gods of the Copybook Headings pointed out some months ago, Haiti had no economy to speak of, even before the quake.  It is the poorest country in the Americas; with GDP per capita running at a paltry USD $1,300—or three and a half bucks per person, per day.  Government corruption is rampant, which lead the United States (among others) to end aid in 2000.  The BBC reported in 2004 that “that some 70% of assistance [to Haiti] found its way into the pockets of corrupt officials”.  It’s important to note that without foreign aid, the government of Haiti would literally cease to function.

Haitians themselves need to understand how institutionalised corruption (and social tolerance of it) retards their country’s economic and social prospects; if they cannot bring about significant political reform, all the money in the world cannot drag their country out of entropy and into modernity.

RELATED: Robert Kiltgaard of AEI offers a prescription for tackling corruption in Haiti’s government.

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