Sunday, May 09, 2010

Overdue Recognition

In the desperate days following the Haiti earthquake, a small group of airmen were largely responsible for keeping the aid flowing. We're referring to Air Force combat controllers; they were among the first military personnel to arrive in Port-au-Prince, and they played a vital role in keeping the airfield open. As we wrote back in January:

"...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.

Now, the combat controllers who played such a vital role in Port-au-Prince are receiving some overdue recognition from a rather unlikely source: Time magazine. Among those on its annual "Time 100" list of the "People Who Most Affect Our World" was an Air Force combat controller, Chief Master Sergeant Tony Travis. The brief article that described Travis's decisive actions in Haiti was written by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, hero of last year's "Miracle on the Hudson."

When Chief Master Sergeant Antonio "Tony" Travis arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport shortly after January's earthquake, there was only one usable runway, the air-traffic-control tower was structurally unsafe, and 42 aircraft were grounded in a space designed for 12. Time was of the essence: the Haitians were in dire need of supplies that had to be brought in by air, but the damage meant that far fewer planes could be accommodated.

In only 28 minutes, Chief Travis set up a makeshift air-traffic-control operation located midfield. Working from a card table, often standing on chairs, he and his team deftly took control of the arrivals and departures. Under his leadership, planes were able to take off and land every five minutes, bringing in 4 million lb. of supplies. For Haitians unable to get to the capital, his team surveyed and controlled four remote drop zones, providing 150,000 bottles of water and 75,000 packaged meals to people who had no other means of survival.

Combat controllers represent one of the smallest "career fields" in the Air Force. Just over 300 enlisted personnel (and a handful of officers) wear the scarlet beret. Their motto "First There," is fitting, since the controllers, inevitably, lead the charge into a hostile landing zone or airfield.

Chief Travis's addition to the Time 100 is certainly commendable. He is certainly deserves the "Hero" accolade bestowed by the magazine, and the Chief is a fitting representative for all the Combat Controllers who kept airfields open--and saved lives--in countless hotspots around the globe.

On the other hand, some of the other "heroes" on the Time list (Bill Clinton; a model who serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for the WHO; tennis star Serena Williams) were dubious selections, at best. Of course, the magazine has a rather broad definition of what a "hero" is supposed to be.

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