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Haiti - A Little Perspective

Posted 14 years 37 days ago ago by Admin

By Dave Hardin - If you walk into the AeroAmbulancia hangar at the La Isabella Airport you’ll meet up with the first HEMS company to be certified to operate in the Dominican Republic (DR). If they’re not out on a flight, you’ll shake hands with some of the finest professionals in the business. Such was my honor over the past year as I’ve watched these folks get their Helicopter EMS (HEMS) operation up and running. AeroAmbulancia is a part of the Helidosa Aviation Group who has been in the helicopter tour business for quite a few years. Their country has adopted the U.S. FAA standards for operations conducted under Part 135. AeroAmbulancia was the first in the history of the DR to receive Operations Specifications for Helicopter EMS Operations.

The Dominican Republic presents some unique challenges that we all take for granted back here in Estados Unidos (United States). HEMS in the states rely heavily upon the local communities and their first responders being ready and able to assist us when we need them. Imagine what a scene flight would be like if there were no fire departments or ground ambulances, a very limited number of law enforcement personnel, and a population of around 9.5 million people in a country that’s only 232 miles long and 158 miles wide. Now add in every geographical terrain feature we have in the states from desert to mountains, and sandy beaches to dense forestation. Such were the challenges for this group as they began a much-needed service for the people of this Caribbean Island.
I’m the Director of Safety for a large HEMS operator in the states. As we all know, we woke the morning of January 12th, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shattered Haiti’s fragile infrastructure and resources, causing massive casualties and injuries. Haiti is on the western end, and shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. That morning my boss called me and said “If you can help out and assist the folks at AeroAmbulancia with the Haitian disaster, get on the plane”. Six hours later I retrieved my luggage in Santo Domingo.
You know, if I had to list the single greatest epiphany that I experienced while in the DR, it would be one of “Perspective”. Last night here at home I slept in my own comfortable bed. This morning I took a hot shower, put on clean clothes, drank my favorite coffee, and brushed my teeth in the sink. An average day for us (and one we often take for granted).
My first morning back in the DR, I walked out onto the flight line at the La Isabella airport on the northwest side of Santo Domingo where AeroAmbulancia is based. In that moment I witnessed more than 50 airplanes and 25 helicopters at a single runway airport, all with the same laudable goal in mind, to assist with the tragedy in Haiti. Before noon, pilots were reporting multiple “Near Misses”, the waiting room at Helidosa was packed to overflowing, and the Haitian government became overwhelmed closing the airspace around the Port Au Prince (PAP) airport due to saturation. The interesting part though is the WAY they closed the airspace. The tower operator simply announced the airspace was closed, told everybody to get out, and then turned off the radio leaving dozens of aircraft uncontrolled and in close proximity.
It wasn’t long however, before everyone got on the same sheet of music. The military reopened the airspace, fixed wing aircraft were all on the standard IFR routes, and the helicopters were flying structured routing into and out of the PAP Airport. Load manifests were filled out, weight and balances calculated, and schedules developed to effectively and safely move the patients, passengers, and cargo into and out of the country. Then came the challenge of no communications for flight following. Once you crossed the border into Haiti, the power was out and you no longer had access to the standard avenues for long distance communications. So the plan was devised to travel in flights of two or more so if one went down, a communication relay could be accomplished. I really have to hand it to the professionals at Helidosa. Those folks were thrust into a situation they had never (obviously) encountered, but it didn’t take them long to assess, adapt, and smoothly and efficiently bring the chaos under control! It was a real pleasure to work side by side with their team!
The following days brought reports of ground convoys being attacked, drivers killed for their cargo of food and water, and a 6.0 aftershock that could be felt 100 miles away. As the danger escalated, we were forced to set up a series of 5 designated “Safe” Landing Zones and a curfew of nightfall was established. Then came the stories of the amputations under a coconut tree without anesthesia, and doctors saving their patients only to lose them because they ran out of antibiotics. During the Stress Management debriefing one evening, a pilot shared the story of a Haitian security guard that was helping to secure one of our landing zones. The guard worked hard to help in the aftermath of the quake, all the while knowing that he had lost his entire family consisting of a wife and 9 children.
Yep, I think “Perspective” is the right word.