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Canada earns its wings

Haiti's slender lifeline is 4,000 km long

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JACMEL, Haiti -- The moment the chain-link gate opened, Beatrice's cries rose to a fran­tic pitch, the sound bouncing off the crum­bling walls of abandoned buildings and flooding the tents at the Canadian Forces field clinic.

Those plaintiff cries ensured Beatrice was the first patient admit­ted to the clinic. Just a few months old, Beatrice continued shrieking as a Canadian medic looked her over and asked the mother a few questions. The medic suspected a respiratory ailment.

As Beatrice made her way into the clinic, more than 100 other patients jos­tled to be next. There were some angry words and violent pushing near the end of the line, which had dissolved from an orderly column into a surging throng. A triage medic scanned the crowd before summoning an elderly man whose legs shook violently and a younger man with a badly infected leg that had swelled up to twice its normal size.

It is a scene that has become familiar to Maj.

Annie Bouchard, a military physician and the commanding officer for this clinic. It is the fifth day the clinic -- part of Canada's Disaster As­sistance Relief Team (DART) force -- has been open. For days before that, Canadian military doctors and medics worked tirelessly in the rubble of Jacmel's only hospital. The clinic is now the only source of primary health care in Jacmel, a seaside city of 40,000 in southern Haiti well-known to Canadians as the childhood home to Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean.

Two weeks has passed since the earthquake rocked Haiti, but the patient load is increasing, not decreasing. There are fewer trauma cases related to the earthquake, Bouchard noted, but there are an increasing number of serious earthquake-related afflictions: pneumonia, de­hydration and malnutrition, raging infections.

"The first day we were open, we had 10 pa­tients," said Bouchard, one of four emergency­room physicians working at the clinic. "Yester­day we had 350 and it's going to keep going up."

The tempo and magnitude of Canada's pres­ence in Haiti is remarkable, especially when you consider there are limited avenues to get supplies and personnel into the impoverished country.

And yet, Canada has moved more than one million kilograms of aid and mission support materiel into Haiti since the quake hit Jan. 12.

How did they do it? "It was air force support," Bouchard said. "We could not have done this without the air force."

***

Every arm of Canada's armed forces has its own unique chip to shoulder.

The navy, for example, often complains Canadians do not know it even exists, as most of its more exotic tasks, like pirate-chasing near Africa, take them far away from home shores and the public consciousness.

The army complains with some justification it bears most of the grunt work and casualties when Canada is asked to contribute to a mission. And the air force often expresses a concern that lost in the stories of peacekeeping and pir­ate- chasing is the work of the men and women who keep Canada's military aircraft in the air.

Haiti may change that. An impoverished is­land nation with very little internal transporta­tion infrastructure -- there are few paved roads connecting major communities -- Haiti has required round-the-clock air support to bring aid and supplies in and evacuees out.

Even within the country, air transportation is considered the only reliable way to bring help to those who need it the most.

After having been criticized for a tardy re­sponse to the devastating 2004 tsunami, Canada has jumped into the Haiti disaster with both feet. The first C-130 Hercules aircraft landed in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 13, just 18 hours after the earthquake hit.

The backbone of Operation HESTIA, Can­ada's contribution to the crisis in Haiti, is a round-the-clock, 4,000-kilometre "air bridge" that links Trenton, Ont., with Port-au-Prince, Jacmel and Kingston, Jamaica.

Canada is using its entire fleet of aircraft in Haiti: the aforementioned Hercules; the C-150 Polaris airbus that can carry both cargo and passengers; the Griffon search-and-rescue heli­copter; and the pride of the air force, the C-177 Globemaster, now considered the gold standard for military/humanitarian/search and rescue aircraft.

The on ramp to the air bridge is at 8 Wing in Trenton. Currently, Trenton is burning through 500,000 litres of fuel a day to meet all its obliga­tions.

Col. Russ Williams, the commander at 8 Wing, said the base has been humming in recent weeks thanks to the fact it is supporting three major tasks right now. In addition to Haiti, 8 Wing co-ordinates resupply for Canada's mis­sion in Afghanistan and air support for the Vancouver Olympics, which has a significant military presence.

Although there have been long hours and weeks, Williams said his personnel are thriving on the urgency of the mission. In peacetime, many military personnel spend their entire careers in training. Haiti and Afghanistan have changed all that.

"This is what keeps everyone going," Wil­liams said. "It's what carries us through the fatigue."

But of all the contributions the Canadian air force has made in Haiti, nothing describes the sheer determination and stoicism like the Aerodrome de Jacmel. It is the little airstrip that could.

***

Maj.-Gen. Yvan Blondin kneels and runs his hand over the pebbly asphalt of the Jacmel airstrip, located in the northern part of the city at the foot of the Chaine de la Selle mountain range.

As commander of Winnipeg-based 17 Wing, Canada's air force command headquarters, Blondin alone made the decision to convert Jacmel's too-short, too-narrow, too-soft runway into a fully functioning airport to support disas­ter assistance efforts.

Blondin said Canada needed Jacmel because Port-au-Prince airport was overwhelmed. Now under U.S. control, the airport is receiving up to 180 flights a day. However, despite its proximity to the tiny island and connection through Haitian diaspora, Canada had just four of those.

In a search for that alternate route, Blondin and his staff identified Jacmel, just 30 kilo­metres to the south of the capital. However, the Americans in particular were convinced that at 3,300 feet, it was too short and provided too little margin for error for landings. They also believed the asphalt was too soft and would be torn to shreds by the weight of cargo planes.

Foothills to the north and tall trees to the south further complicated matters.

Blondin dispatched a military engineer to Haiti to examine the runway first hand. Around 4 p.m. on Jan. 17, Blondin got the call.

The engineer said the airstrip could withstand the pounding from a C-130 Hercules as long as its total weight (aircraft, fuel and cargo) did not exceed 100,000 pounds (45,359 kg). The C-177 was too much for the tiny runway to handle.

Blondin made a decision on the spot. The first C-130 Hercules loaded with mission support supplies and humanitarian aid landed the next day.

Blondin said there was risk for his flight crews but also for the Haiti mission. One mis­hap could undermine Canada's entire effort.

"He said it would be tight, but it could be done. I decided right there and then to go for it. You know, you make decisions 3,000 miles away and all you can hope is you made the right decision."

After visiting the airstrip first-hand on Jan.

26, Blondin could only shake his head in amaze­ment at what his flight crews had accomplished. At just 975 metres, the Hercules had to hit its spot bang-on. The plane needs up to 305 metres to touch down, and then 640 metres to stop. The asphalt is so soft (airport runways are normally made of concrete) the planes must be careful when turning not to get too close to the edge, or risk sliding off into a ditch.

The pilots refer to the landings and take­offs, which are particularly risky, as "sporty."

Blondin agreed the aviation jargon does not adequately express the danger in this task.

"You know, with the size of aircraft and the length of the strip, there is no margin for error here. You have to make a perfect landing, every time. I have to give it to my guys. They're mak­ing it work."

How long they can make it work is another question. The high-tempo emergency response is likely to last up to 60 days. So far, the air force has been lucky with Jacmel, but there are signs that luck may run out.

At the north end of the runway, Blondin found a small damp patch in the asphalt. Closer inspection revealed a hole about the size of a bagel. Blondin reached down, and dug out a small handful of black asphalt that had the con­sistency of mashed potatoes.

"This is what we are afraid of," Blondin said.

"We're going to tear the strip up. We don't know if we can continue to use the airport here if this gets worse."

And in an ironic stroke, Blondin said he was contacted by the U.S. air force, which is so im­pressed with what the Canadians have done in Jacmel they want to bring in an 100 additional flights over the next two weeks.

"That is going to be a real challenge," Blondin said, staring at the runway surface. "A real challenge."

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

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