I arrived at the air base at 0730 for an 0830 departure on board a Bell 212 helicopter operated by Evergreen Aviation and chartered by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). I was traveling with one of WFP's emergency ICT teams, also known as a Fast IT and Emergency Telecommunications and Support (FITTEST) team, who were on their way to install a repeater at the top of a mountain on the Ile de la Gonave. The island is sparsely populated and lies approximately 75kms West-North-West of Port-au-Prince.
by Jonathan Thompson
If successful, the install would provide continuous VHF radio coverage to the entire west coast of Haiti for UN and NGO community. The communications advantage would be massive and would provide coverage to staff in some of the most remote locations in Haiti. The central location, elevation, clear line of sight and the vast stretches of salt water which serve to amplify the signal make the mountain top location an ideal repeater site. As team leader Michael Dirksen puts it, "This is a communications specialist's dream."
The Bell 212 is a twin bladed aircraft is lighter than the Russian Mi-8's which serve as the workhorses of the UNHAS fleet. Because the Bell is so nimble it is able to access tight spots with its payload of passengers and cargo. It was perfect fit for this sort of mission. Normally, pilots Tim Fallis and Gary Neely spend their time dropping fire fighting teams into remote forests of North America and shuttling personnel and equipment to offshore oil platforms but now they were prepping to deposit our group at a location for which they only had a GPS coordinate. Both native Texans, their causal demeanor and slow, steady drawl gave us the impression that today's mission was just another day of extreme helicopter flying.
When we arrived at the base the gear had already been loaded but before we could depart a call for an emergency medevac came in and the UNHAS team immediately discharged the ICT cargo and redirected the air crew to a remote location 20 minutes away. We stood down until the helicopter returned with patient, discharged her to a waiting ambulance and then reloaded the gear. It was all in a days work for Stig Larrson, Mark Bonnell and Kevin Halsey - the UNHAS flight team that runs the air operations.
As we flew over the coast, which runs north from Port-au-Prince, the beauty of Haiti became apparent. Below us the verdant groves of banana trees gave way to sandy beaches and turquoise water. Small, local sailing vessels were visible anchored offshore while immediately to the east mountains rose sharply, their peaks shrouded in grey, swirling clouds. Once we hit the narrowest gap between mainland and the island we banked hard to the west and headed out across the deep azure blue sea. Small wave crests were visible as we made our way toward the distant island.
We crossed the gulf and rose into the mountains. Farms became visible and it was not long before we located our destination - a remote tower and concrete structure atop a gently rounded hill. With no apparent open area the pilots set the aircraft gently on a footpath running between two farmers' fields. It was an incredible feat to watch as the pilots nestled the skids into a furrow at the edge of the path. Community members immediately gathered and as the engines wound down the doors were open to allow in cool mountain air. It was the first time I had felt cool, unprocessed air in weeks.
As soon as we landed the FITTEST team set to work transporting their equipment to the base of the radio tower while our MINUSTAH escort coordinated with the tower's lone security guard. Within the team had assessed the existing structure and set to work crafting an rig from metal tubes, brackets, and several oblong shaped antennas which they hooked to over one hundred feet of coaxial cable. While Michael handled the fabrication, team member Lwin Naing Oo from WFP's Myanmar office and John Bursa, from WFP's regional Bangkok bureau, prepped for a tower climb and tested the power supply. Soon Lwin was making his way up the wind swept tower, attached to the ladder with various claps and ropes. It was not long before they were hoisting their new antenna into place and fastening it to the tower in a North-South direction.
The work was hard and the team worked in shifts to completion their mission. While some worked the rigging, others restored the main generator which had stopped working only days before. Several hours later, with power restored and a clear signal from Port-au-Prince and Gonaive, the team wrapped up their work as our mandatory departure deadline approached. With a few quick goodbyes the team loaded their kit onto the helicopter and we quickly climbed aboard. It was not long before we were airborne and dropping over the edge of the mountain on our to the coast and open sea.
We retraced our path out over open water and then south down the western shore. The shone through clouds as it dropped toward the horizon and a group of tired passengers gazed into the distance and through about the day's achievements. Sunburned but satisfied the team arrived back in Port-au-Prince just in time for the pilots to refuel and head out to their resting place for the night. We shook hands with Tim and Gary and headed for the gate. The UNHAS flight crew loaded the FITTEST team's gear into the back of one of the newly donated Clinton Foundation trucks and gave a lift the final distance back to the Log Base. We rolled in just before sunset and just in time to board the buses back home.
The mission was a success and the FITTEST team is happy with the results. Had the UNHAS team not had a helicopter available to carry the FITTEST team to the island the entire process would have taken days rather than hours and involved numerous trucks, boats and all terrain vehicles. Few people know that in addition to the regular shuttle flights and air cargo movements UNHAS also participates in life saving medevac operations and these sorts of challenging and highly specialized missions that have a significant impact on WFP Logistics operations across Haiti. Without their air assets and expertise, WFP's successes in Haiti would not have been possible.