The Big One: Naval Aviation Brings Relief to Earthquake-Ravaged Haiti

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) arrived off the coast of Port-au-Prince within days of the 12 January 2010 earthquake.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) arrived off the coast of Port-au-Prince within days of the 12 January 2010 earthquake.

In the late afternoon of 12 January 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the island nation of Haiti. The quake’s epicenter was 16 miles to the west and more than eight miles underneath the capital of Port-au-Prince, a city of more than a million people. In response to the devastation—an estimated 230,000 dead, more than 300,000 injured, and 1 million made homeless—governments and organizations from around the world sent aid. Naval Aviation played a crucial part in the overall U.S. response to the disaster—entitled Operation Unified Response—with 32 aircraft and 57 helicopters providing mobility to materiel and personnel that simply could not be moved any other way over Haiti’s rugged terrain. More than 20 Navy vessels, centered on USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), participated in the operation. In total, U.S. military forces brought more than 17 million pounds of food, 2.6 million liters of water, and treated nearly 10,000 patients. This special section presents the role Naval Aviation played in Unified Response from several perspectives.

Ironhorse Does the Heavy Lifting
By Capt. Paul Clarkson, USMC

On 12 January 2010 an earthquake devastated Haiti, bringing chaos to what was already the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The next day, II Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) reformed the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) with HMH-461 as the aviation combat element and ordered an immediate deployment to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. A composite squadron was built around the CH-53E and its heavy-lift capabilities: Marines from HMH-461 and HMLA-467 embarked eight CH-53Es, four UH-1Ns, and detachments from Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 29, Marine Wing Support Squadron 272, and Marine Air Control Group 28 aboard USS Bataan (LHD5) to form HMH-461 (-)(Rein) within 72 hours. The squadron was placed under the command of Lt. Col. Sean Salene, commanding officer of HMH-461. HMH-464 also provided two of the eight Super Stallions that comprised the aviation combat element. 

The extremely brief period of mobilization and the nature of the mission presented Ironhorse Marines and Sailors of HMH-461(-)(Rein) with a tremendous challenge. Flight operations began on 18 January with the launch of a section of CH-53Es conducting a reconnaissance of Haiti’s devastation. The following day, the squadron launched a division of CH-53Es and a section of UH-1Ns into an earthquake ravaged area, assessing the damage and delivering much needed relief supplies. UH-1Ns and CH-53Es worked hand in hand throughout the operation. The Hueys provided vital aerial reconnaissance to leaders and planners, helping to maximize assistance by identifying tenable landing zones that could facilitate safe landings for CH-53Es where rotor wash would not harm people on the ground. “Big Iron” transported palletized cargo that included water, MREs, and medical supplies to people in need throughout Haiti. Maintainers and combat cargo loaders who internally loaded and unloaded five to six pallets per aircraft each time wheels hit the flight deck and the ramp came down on a Super Stallion.

Effective crew resource management was critical in the dynamic flight environment in Haiti. With the rapid influx of aid and military assets from around the world, and consequent the difficulties in coordinating different agencies, the pilots and aircrews of HMH-461(-)(Rein) quickly realized they were operating in over-crowded and under-regulated airspace. This situation required them to be at the top of their game every time they pulled power in their aircraft. The demands of operating at high gross weights in the  country’s sweltering heat called for weight and power numbers to be checked and rechecked constantly to ensure aircraft were operating within safe power margins.

Flight operations were continuous for HMH-461(-)(Rein) until the end of March. The unit conducted a variety of missions throughout what would eventually be called Operation Unified Response. In particular was the CH-53Es’ transport of special operations sport utility vehicles to more remote regions of the country. The vehicles proved to be valuable assets to military and civilian teams that were on the ground assessing the impact the disaster and identifying areas in need of more aid. Both CH-53Es and UH-1Ns transported large numbers of medical professionals and aid workers to areas that were difficult to reach by ground because of Haiti’s damaged roads. 

Marines assigned to 22nd MEU carry bottles of much-needed water onto a CH-53E Super Stallion with HMH-461. (Photo by MCS2 Julio Rivera)

Marines assigned to 22nd MEU carry bottles of much-needed water onto a CH-53E Super Stallion with HMH-461. (Photo by MCS2 Julio Rivera)

Aircrews and maintainers excelled in employing and maintaining their aircraft during this intense operational tempo, ensuring all missions were on time and successful. The contribution HMH-461(-)(Rein) made to Unified Response was significant: pilots and aircrews flew nearly 650 hours, moved almost 3,500 passengers, and delivered more than 530,000 pounds of relief supplies to Marines and aid workers on the ground for distribution to the people of Haiti. In addition, the squadron’s maintainers performed more than 7,000 maintenance man-hours on the aircraft to ensure all assets were available to support every mission, every day, for nearly three months. 

The success of this mission also signified a historic deployment for the heavy lift community. HMH-461 was the first East Coast CH-53 squadron to assume the command element of a composite squadron. The performance of the Marines and Sailors of HMH-461(-)(Rein) was nothing short of spectacular, and was in keeping with the professionalism and proficiency the Marine Corps has come to expect from the “Big Iron.”

Capt. Clarkson is the aviation safety officer for HMH-461.