Monday, January 25, 2010

Coronet Oak aircrews respond to Haiti earthquake

by Master Sgt. Stan Coleman, 35th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron

MUNIZ AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Puerto Rico (AFNS) -- "After Afghanistan, we thought our Coronet Oak assignment would be a two-week vacation," said 1st Lt. Casey Fallon, a 35th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron co-pilot, assigned from the Ohio Air National Guard's 179th Airlift Wing at Mansfield, Ohio.

Lieutenant Fallon didn't expect the earthquake that occurred on the Caribbean island shared by the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, on Jan. 12. Nor did anyone else. The lieutenant's aircrew recently had returned from Southwest Asia.

Within six months after completion of his flight training, the new pilot had just finished his first combat airlift tour and was now experiencing an event that required humanitarian support. The earthquake occurred less than five days after Airmen from the 179th AW reported for duty in support of Operation Coronet Oak, the U. S. Southern Command's continuing airlift mission directed and controlled by the 35th EAS at Muniz Air National Guard Base near San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Coronet Oak provides the United States Southern Command with logistic and contingency support throughout Central and South America with Air Force Reserve Command, Air National Guard and active duty C-130 airlift capability. Aircrews, maintenance and support personnel rotate in and out of Muniz every two weeks.

Two hours and 33 minutes after the earthquake in Haiti, Col. Julio R. Lopez, the 35th EAS Commander, received a call placing aircrews supporting the Coronet Oak mission on alert. At 4 a.m. of the next day, Colonel Lopez received a call to launch aircraft supporting the disaster-relief mission. "Fourteen hours and 11 minutes after we were notified to provide airlift support the first 35th EAS C-130s landed in Haiti," said Colonel Lopez. "We provided the first aircraft on the ground within 23 hours of the earthquake. That was a huge accomplishment."

The disaster-relief operation for the Republic of Haiti was named Operation Unified Response.

The heart of the Coronet Oak aircrews going into Haiti was the desire to serve. However, they were not sure of what to expect. "We didn't know the condition of the airport at Port au Prince," said Major Eric Hensley, 35th EAS C-130 navigator, assigned from the 179th AW. "We didn't know if the runway had lighting or if there were control personnel in the tower. But we knew we could land on the runway. Our night vision training provided us with confidence that we could land in a blacked-out situation."

Fortunately there was lighting. But there were other concerns. Arriving aircraft were holding up to three hours. "We knew that quite a few aircraft would be waiting to land to provide assistance on the one runway at Port au Prince Airport," said the major. "That was another challenge we were facing."

"When we arrived at the Port Au Prince airport, we found that there was only one guy controlling everything," said Lt. Col. Ken Pecoraro, 35th EAS pilot, assigned from the 179th AW. "This guy provided the air traffic control and the ground control on where the incoming aircraft would park. The single Port Au Prince controller was able to envision where each aircraft should be parked on the runway ramp.

"While landing we noticed some devastation with cracked windows in the tower and crumbled buildings in the distance," said the colonel. According to Colonel Pecoraro, "Years of experience provide you with a sense of situational awareness--you stay calm and alert to what's going on."

The two 179th AW aircraft, supporting the 35th EAS Coronet Oak mission, were the first aircraft airlifting emergency supplies to Haiti. Colonel Pecoraro's aircrew flew a total of six missions in support of Operation Unified Response--delivering supplies and transporting Haitian evacuees and U.S. citizens from the Dominican Republic side of the island.

'The long days were challenging," said Staff Sgt. Nate Morehead, 35th EAS loadmaster, assigned from the 179th AW. "Nearly half of our missions involved transporting people."

The Puerto Rico Air National Guard's 156th Airlift Wing, co-stationed at Muniz with the Coronet Oak mission, briefly interrupted their operational readiness inspection to support the 35th EAS operations with airlift support--transporting a Puerto Rican search and rescue team to Port au Prince International Airport and airlifting evacuees back to Puerto Rico from Haiti.

Airmen from the Minnesota Air National Guard's 133rd Airlift Wing at St. Paul reported to Muniz for their Coronet Oak rotation on Jan. 16, four days after the earthquake. "To date, our Guardsmen, assigned to the 35th EAS have completed four missions and are currently performing missions flying to and from Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla.," said Lt. Col. Jim Bixby, the mission commander for the Minnesota Guardsmen. "From Homestead we deliver medical supplies and other needed items to the military presence in Haiti and the Dominican Republic," he said. "We've transported more than 78 tons of cargo and 168 passengers and evacuees."

"Coronet Oak is a team effort of reservists, Guardsmen and active-duty Airmen," said Major Todd Franks, 35th EAS Director of Operations. "Our Guardsmen and reservists who support the Coronet Oak mission are performing 12 to 18 hour missions flying from Puerto Rico; picking up water, medical supplies and other cargo at Homestead; and delivering those items to Haiti and/or the Dominican Republic. Our 35th EAS Airmen have either returned to Muniz Air Base with Haitian evacuees and/or U. S. citizens or flew back to Homestead to complete another airlift.