In the early hours of U.S. military response to the Haiti earthquake, two Air Force MC-130s touched down at Port-au-Prince Airport. Along with relief supplies, the Combat Talons brought badly needed expertise in the form of medical teams, security personnel and combat controllers.
While the mission of the medics and the security specialists was both urgent and demanding, the combat controllers faced (perhaps) the greatest challenge of all. With power at the airport out--and air traffic control non-existent--the controllers were charged with re-establishing ATC services in Port-au-Prince, allowing relief flights to continue. They were also charged with scouting landing zones where aid could be disseminated by airdrop or helicopter.
Such missions are nothing new for combat controllers, who have participated in virtually every major combat operation and humanitarian mission since World War II. They are among the most highly-trained airmen; earning the coveted scarlet beret takes a minimum of 35 weeks, and the program includes everything from air traffic control and combat controller school, to airborne and dive training. As you might expect, the training is rigorous, equal to that of other special operations personnel; the wash-out rate approaches 70%.
But the controllers who make it through the pipeline are simply indispensable, both in combat and relief missions. Combat controllers routinely deploy with special operations teams; the first Air Force Cross winner in Afghanistan was a controller, TSgt John Chapman, who was killed during Operation Anaconda. Chapman was credited with saving his team after their helicopter was shot down by Al Qaida insurgents.
Combat controllers continue to serve with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq, but they have also been recognized for missions closer to home. Controllers were among the first military personnel to reach the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, and they led the charge into Haiti this week.
But the list of unsung Air Force heroes doesn't end with the combat controllers. Another group of early arrivals were aerial port specialists from Joint Base McGuire and other installations. With air traffic control restored at Port-au-Prince, the aerial port teams were charged with organizing the flow of cargo, equipment and aircraft. They also brought the equipment needed to off-load pallets of supplies; many of the transports delivering cargo for non-governmental organizations are converted airliners, and can't be unloaded without special equipment. Without the aerial port teams, much of that cargo could not be unloaded.
At this point, aid to the Haitian population is little more than a trickle. But that trickle will become a flood in the coming days, thanks to the U.S. military and in particular, the combat controllers who re-opened the airport, and the aerial porters who made it functional again.