The view from the Port-au-Prince airport

My grand tour of the least glamorous of the Caribbean islands: Hispaniola. Plus: Landing without "radar" in Haiti

Published January 29, 2010 1:28AM (EST)

This GeoEye-1 satellite image taken from 423 miles in space at 1037 am EST (1537 GMT) January 16, 2010, shows Port-au-Prince International Airport with multiple aircrafts, supplies and personnel on the ground. World leaders have pledged massive assistance to rebuild Haiti after the earthquake killed as many as 200,000 people, but five days into the crisis aid distribution was still random, chaotic and minimal.   REUTERS/GeoEye Satellite Image/Handout    (HAITI - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS (Reuters)
This GeoEye-1 satellite image taken from 423 miles in space at 1037 am EST (1537 GMT) January 16, 2010, shows Port-au-Prince International Airport with multiple aircrafts, supplies and personnel on the ground. World leaders have pledged massive assistance to rebuild Haiti after the earthquake killed as many as 200,000 people, but five days into the crisis aid distribution was still random, chaotic and minimal. REUTERS/GeoEye Satellite Image/Handout (HAITI - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS (Reuters)

Hispaniola, 1999.

"Sorry, no, it's too dangerous," says the driver.

"Um. OK." To the best of my knowledge and experience, Port-au-Prince is the only place in the world where a cabby will refuse a $20 bill to take a pilot into town for a quick tour. Where else, I don't know. Maybe Monrovia or Freetown during the wars there?

I'm in Haiti for 90 minutes, on a two-stop turn out of Miami. I was awake before dawn to the roar of the air-conditioning unit when the phone rang, the scheduler rattling off the report time for an afternoon trip to Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo — a three-leg out-and-back.

This means a grand tour of sorts of Hispaniola, the island shared in an east-west split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, whose capitals we'll be stopping in. The border between these nations is one of the few international demarcations clearly visible from 30,000 feet — the latter's green tropical carpet abutting a Haitian deathscape of denuded hillsides the color of sawdust. You could argue that Hispaniola is perhaps the least glamorous landfall in the Caribbean. But you can't beat the weather and the on-board pineapple tray.

With nothing else to do I wander the Port-au-Prince apron. Behind our dormant freighter a row of scarred, treeless hills bakes in the noon heat, raped for charcoal by millions of hungry Haitians. In front of the terminal, men ride past on donkeys and women balance baskets atop their heads. Somebody has started a cooking fire on the sidewalk. Haiti is the poorest country in the entire Western Hemisphere, and the squalor along the airport perimeter is at least as distressing as anything I've seen in Africa.

And, how to say this, it smells. If you've ever been to the tropics, maybe you'll understand: It's not a bad or foul smell, necessarily, and this isn't to be taken as some Ugly American pejorative of things foreign or other-skinned. But it's pungent. For those who live with changing seasons, it's like the smell of a neighbor's fireplace or wood stove on the first cold night of the year. Except it has no season; it's simply always there, ceaseless and permeating like the heat of the Sahara or the numbness of a glacier. It's the odor of rain forests burned, of foliage, charcoal and garbage incinerated — these destructive, ubiquitous pastimes of the Third World — and it hits you the second you step from an airplane in almost every latitudinally challenged republic on earth.

I notice a pallet of large white drums being unloaded from our airplane. Something doesn't look right — crew member intuition — and, concerned that we'd accidentally transported some hazardous material, I ask a loader if he knows what the barrels contain. A forklift carries them to a corner of a ramshackle warehouse, and the driver pries off one of the heavy plastic lids.

What's revealed is a tangled white mass of what appears to be string cheese floating in dirty water. A vague, quiveringly rotten smell rises from the liquid. The driver sticks in his hand and gives the ugly congealment a churn. "For sausage," he answers. What we're looking at, it turns out, is a barrel full of intestines — casings to be stuffed with meat at some horrible Haitian factory. Why the casings need to be imported while the meat itself is apparently on hand, I can't say, but somebody found it necessary to pay the shipping costs and customs duties to fly 400 gallons of intestines from Miami to Port-au-Prince.

Thirty-three minutes away is Santo Domingo, the filth-and-stucco capital of the Dominican Republic — or the D.R., as savvy travelers and baseball announcers love to call it. The neighborhoods around the airport are some of the poorest on the island, and we're two days on the heels of a terrible storm. Most of the roofs are missing, and as our jet drops its tires and aims for the runway at Las Américas International, we look straight into the islanders' concrete-block lives, their belongings violently mingled: plastic bags, rain-soaked clothes, corrugated tin. And in all directions are the triangular, tornado-shaped plumes of garbage fires.

What it lacks in glamour, maybe, Santo Domingo makes up for in history. This is the oldest capital in the New World. With some time to kill, I hire a taxi, this time with no resistance. I'm going to see Christopher Columbus, who died in Spain but whose remains, depending which historian you believe, are interred beneath the cathedral here.

To me there's something about that name, Santo Domingo, that evokes images of 15th-century explorers, their gray-sailed ships anchored offshore. To others, maybe, it's thoughts of the slave trade, of indigenous islanders keeling over from those special European gifts of smallpox and typhus. Or boats taking cannonballs through their hulls, bars of gold falling to the ocean floor.

As with every big capital down here, the whiteness of the skyline is striking. White paint is splashed over everything: hotels, apartment blocks, schools. From the highway it looms ahead, clusters of white buildings set against brilliant blue beachfront; against emerald hillsides; against the mushrooming, oil-black storm clouds. And as the taxi brings me closer, I taste and feel that tropical force of humanity and heat — a grimy ooze through every white crack.

Later, in darkness, we're loading up for the leg home, as it were, to Miami. They've unloaded our pallets of automobile parts and tractor tires — tools that will help turn the landscape of this small country into parking lots and strip malls like the rest of the world — and soon we'll be gone.

I'm in a foul mood, and our captain is a retired Air Force pilot who's boring us to tears with embellished stories: adventures of earthquakes in Pakistan, crash landings in the Kenyan countryside. He's old and his face is wrinkled and it makes me miserable to hear him, because who cares, really, about his stories, now that he's just some old retired serviceman with three ex-wives who's lost all his hair? And I feel myself, like a disease, turning into the next version of this guy.

I'm tired and I need a shower. I've got grease on my shirt. From the metal railing I see the moon. It's an odd, eerily dangling crescent surrounded by an inky redness, like the moon of the Turkish flag. There's something wild and strange about it.

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Reports by news outlets have stated that emergency efforts in Haiti have been hampered because the Port-au-Prince airport's radar was knocked out. Can planes take off or land with no air traffic control radar?

First of all, so that everyone understands, "radar" is a somewhat generic term that can mean different things, the same basic technology used for different purposes. We have cockpit radar, for instance, which is used by crews to detect storms and precipitation. But in this context we're talking about air traffic control (ATC) radar, which allows controllers to monitor the position, speed and altitude of flights, sequencing them appropriately. There are radar facilities for the higher, en route sectors of airspace, as well as local, or "terminal," facilities that manage traffic coming and going from particular airports.

But while it might sound primitive, all around the world you will find airports, as well as large swaths of en route airspace, lacking radar coverage. Over the oceans, for example, and in much of Africa. Or at Port-au-Prince. It had no radar even before the earthquake.

Lack of radar means that flights are sequenced "manually" through the use of position reports. Planes on oceanic crossings are spaced by time and altitude along paths or longitude and latitude, sending periodic position reports to distant ATC facilities. In and around airports themselves, controllers handling arrivals and departures will often ask crews for updates on their exact bearing and distance to a particular radio beacon or point-in-space fix, as well as their altitudes, and space them accordingly. Holding patterns are sometimes assigned when multiple flights are inbound, and instructions to turn, climb or descend will sometimes be referenced to fixes, distances or radials. A takeoff clearance might include the following:

"Air Haiti 209, cleared for takeoff. Maintain runway heading until passing 3,000 feet, then turn right on course. Maintain 5,000 feet until passing the 340 radial from the PAP VOR." Occasionally with climbs or descents there's a time restriction: "Cleared to climb from level one-three zero to level two-four zero by time one-six four-five. Report reaching. Time now one-six three-five." In other words, "You've got 10 minutes to climb from 13,000 feet to 24,000 feet, and let us know as soon as you get there."

It sounds old-fashioned — and it is — but it works pretty well, albeit at a much slower pace than at radar-equipped airports. Luckily, if not necessarily, traffic tends to be light at most non-radar airports.

The congestion problem at Port-au-Prince isn't about radar being "knocked out" (it wasn't there in the first place), but rather the sudden influx of humanitarian flights into airspace — and tarmac space — that is normally uncrowded. Up to 200 aircraft a day have been arriving at Toussaint Louverture International, with some stacked in holding patterns for 90 minutes or more. At one point all inbound flights from the U.S. were "ground stopped" due to saturation on and around the airport.

In addition, the Port-au-Prince control tower was badly damaged, requiring U.S. military personnel to set up a temporary facility. The media was conflating the terms "control tower" and "radar." Although tower controllers will use radar, if available, they are not the same things. The loss of the tower, from which aircraft are cleared to taxi, take off and land, was a much more critical issue than a lack of radar it never had.

Speaking of the media, I also heard a CNN reporter describe the Port-au-Prince airport rather emphatically as "tiny." Not sure what that was about. While it might lack the room for dozens of military transport jets, it's pretty spacious by Caribbean standards. It has a 10,000-foot runway and a wide rectangular apron.

There is no such thing as "Air Haiti," by the way. Years ago a small company with that name existed, but today Haiti is one of relatively few countries around the world lacking a national airline. Two others in the region that jump to mind are Guyana and Belize.

As far as earthquakes go, I keep getting asked what might happen if a runway starts shaking just as a jet is taking off or landing. I really don't know. It depends, I guess, on the severity of the shaking and the speed of the plane. I don't know what a magnitude 7 temblor feels like, but suffice it to say things would get bumpy. Probably not bumpy enough, however, to damage anything, as aircraft are designed to withstand some pretty severe jolts. As we know, it's not the shaking of the ground that kills and injures people, but rather buildings falling on top of them. Overall, a plane is probably a pretty safe place to be — much safer than a building.

A runway coming apart is another story. Striking a fissure at high speed would be dangerous — albeit statistically unlikely. I am not aware of anything like that ever happening, although the 1974 disaster film "Earthquake" features a scene where a 707 touches down just as a major temblor hits Los Angeles. The runway fractures and the crew executes a go-around just in the nick of time.

The last scheduled passenger flight to leave Port-au-Prince after the quake was an American Airlines flight to Miami. Presumably the crew ensured that runway conditions were safe. This would have been done by taxiing along the surface, and/or by sending a vehicle out to assess things.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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