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Haiti's shattered landscape: A view from above

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on January 25, 2010.

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT - Even from 12,500 feet in the air, even in black and white, the devastation in Haiti is unmistakable.

Crumbled buildings, toppled shipping containers, destroyed homes: The scenes of destruction scrolled across monitors aboard a Navy P-3 Orion on Saturday as the surveillance plane sculled slowly through the air and studied the damage beneath it.

It was the first time this particular crew from Jacksonville handled this particular job, but the mission is one the P-3 community has embraced in the past two weeks.

Airplanes from Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 11, the Jacksonville Naval Air Station unit that oversees all the P-3s on the East Coast, have been providing details on the situation in Haiti since the day the earthquake struck. Within hours of the quake, a plane from squadron VP-26 - on deployment in El Salvador - was in the skies overhead, providing the first pictures of the destruction.

In the days following, squadrons VP-8 and VP-16 joined in the mission, with three planes a day heading to the scene to check out helicopter landing zones, survey roads and pinpoint spots that need help. What they see is transmitted to ships in the area and brought back on tape to be analyzed.

"We look for a pattern of life, " said Cmdr. Anthony Corapi, commanding officer of VP-16, the squadron known as the War Eagles whose plane surveyed the area Saturday afternoon.

In turn, those images will be used by the military and nongovernmental organizations as they plan their response to the disaster.

SCAN, CAPTURE, ASSIST

Getting those images is a somewhat different job than the typical P-3 mission, which usually involves tracking pirates in the Mediterranean, finding drug runners in the Caribbean or hunting for submarines anywhere they may lurk. In fact, even as the War Eagles document the devastation in Haiti, they're also preparing for a more typical deployment coming up in about four months.

But supporting Operation Unified Response in Haiti flows naturally out of the more routine jobs, Corapi said.

"The combat missions we train for lead to this, " he said. "They teach us cooperation and how to think on our feet."

Those things are vital in the skies above Haiti, with civilian agencies, different branches of the military and a number of countries trying to work together.

When the War Eagles arrived over Haiti around 11 a.m. Saturday, the radio was filled with chatter, a welter of American and Haitian accents as ships and planes and forces on the ground talked to each other.

As the plane, code named Red Talon, began its patrol, Petty Office 2nd Class Nick Dimare, the aircraft's camera operator, worked to get the lay of the land, zooming in on a white speck far below that resolved into a sailboat and tagging the various U.S. ships in the area.

The War Eagles started the mission by checking out assigned areas that those in charge wanted to keep an eye on, from a jumble of shipping containers in the port to parts of downtown slowly being cleared of rubble.

The goal was to provide a big-picture view for the helicopters and planes flitting through the sky thousands of feet below the War Eagles, said Lt. Errol Youngborg, who was in charge of the plane.

"Hopefully we'll be able to provide the assistance they're asking for, " he said.

In some ways, this mission is easier than those that are more combat focused, said Lt. Rebecca Johnson, who as the tactical officer coordinates everything going on, from telling the pilots where to take the plane to advising the camera operator what pictures are required. The focus during the beginning of the five hours the War Eagles would stay on station was broad documentation, providing a literal 10,000-foot view.

Throughout the day, the plane's navigator, Lt j.g. Rachel Ingram, captured snapshots from the image feed as the plane moved over land: A listing crane slumped in the harbor. Unscathed building standing incongruously in the midst of rubble. Tent cities filled with the displaced.

MISSION COMPLETE

Things turned a bit more dynamic in mid-afternoon as the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson began handing out new tasks: Determine the mood of some people a group of Marines down below are about to run into. Check out a soccer field to see if tents are being set up.

Dimare zoomed and paned, zeroing in on tiny details. "I can just pick stuff out, " he said. "I've done this a lot."

The job wrapped up around 4 p.m., the War Eagles replaced by another P-3 who would patrol into the evening.

"I think it was a pretty good mission, " said Lt. Cmdr. Jon Spore, the mission commander aboard the P-3. "We helped provide more intelligence."

As the plane winged its way home, the crew relaxed a bit, the busy part of the day over.

Somewhat incongruously, the 116-foot-long tube hurtling through the air miles off the ground features a sort of homey feel, a side effect, perhaps, of a crew used to spending 12 hours or more working together.

Multiple pilots and flight engineers - required by regulations on long flights - allows some of the crew to take brief breaks: Grab some food, use the solid-waste-not-encouraged toilet or sit down for a few hands of Spades and Rummy. It's a brief lull in the long day, which started with briefings around 5 a.m. and still isn't over for the crew when the plane breaks through low-hanging clouds and gently touches down at Jacksonville NAS around 7 p.m.

A long day, Spore said, but worth it.

It feels like it was successful, " he said. "Talking to the others on the crew, we think we helped to do some good."



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This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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