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National Defense > Blog > Posts > NEW PHOTOS -- Air Force records the devastation in Haiti, from 15,000 feet
NEW PHOTOS -- Air Force records the devastation in Haiti, from 15,000 feet

FLYING OVER HISPANIOLA-- To assist in earthquake surveillance efforts in Haiti, the Defense Department deploys anaircraft that routinely flies surveillance missions over former Eastern Bloc nations. No, it’s not a Predator or a U-2. It’s a 1960s vintage Air Force plane equipped with Cold-War sensors that take panoramic images on black-and-white film.

That’s right -- film. Because of the Open Skies Treaty mission that theOC-135B normally flies for the State Department, the converted weather research aircraft carries sensors including an KA-91 panoramic camera that uses “wet” film for high altitude photography. Under terms of the 2002 treaty, digital cameras are not allowed onboard.
The Open Skies OC-135B observation aircraft flies unarmed flights over 34 participating parties of the Open Skies Treaty.

The crew on Saturday welcomed reporters aboard for its first overflight mission to Haiti in support of U.S. efforts to assess the scope of the damage caused by last Tuesday’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake off the coast of the island nation.

“The goal is to make useful imagery that can aid in the relief effort,”said Army Lt. Col. Mary Bell, Open Skies mission commander.

Following a one-hour delay to replace a malfunctioning navigational system, the flight departed early Saturday from Andrews Air Force Base,Md., and headed for the Caribbean. In just under three hours, the coastof Hispaniola appeared on the horizon.

The air crew from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron -- based at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. -- positioned the aircraft for filming. The mission crew, composed of military and civilian personnel from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Open Skies division, prepared to start capturing the images.

Seated at consoles and laptops along both sides of the plane, sensor operators monitored the imaging systems while air crews ensured that they were optimized for the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

“I’m really excited to do it,” says Air Force Tech. Sgt. Erik Tegen, an interpreter and sensor operator on the crew. “It’s not often in the‘treaty’ world that we have that immediate sense of assistance.”

The last time the aircraft flew such a mission was back in 2005, in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In the rear of the aircraft, technicians from the 45th Reconnaissance Squadron stood ready to change out the rolls of film. On a treaty mission, they may change the film 10 to 20 times.

The filming covered coastlines, ragged hills, patchwork-quilt farm land and the sporadic pockets of villages and towns nestled between them.The pilots encountered a brief delay when their request to fly over Port-au-Prince was rejected by local air traffic control because of airspace congestion. When it became clear that the plane did not intend to land, permission was granted, but the crew at times had to fly higher than it wanted to, out of safety concerns.

From an altitude of 15,000 to 20,000 feet, it was impossible with the naked eye to see the devastation in Haiti. But the 41-year-old camera in the belly of the aircraft recorded it all on 1,000-foot long rolls of film. 

To execute the zigzag flight pattern displayed on a digital map of Haiti, the aircraft pulled about 2 G’s -- but the mission crew did not seem to notice. Two airmen in the back of the plane, however, commented on the pressure as they helped switch out film magazines from the150-pound camera.

The maneuvers did not distract the experienced technicians who take the magazines and reload the $1,000-per-roll film eight times in a high-stakes, balletic process in a small dark tent. Tech. Sgt. Richard Moyle placed the used film inside the tent. He zipped it up and slipped his arms through special sleeves that allowed him to manipulate the film to prevent light exposure. Once each roll was packed up in theproper container, he sealed it with tape and placed it into refrigerated bins nearby.

Three and a half hours later, the crew decided to cut its final passover Port-au-Prince and head back. “Given the capability of this airplane, we absolutely maximized everything we could do today,” Bell said. The team completed a 75 percent to 80 percent cloud-free mission,which is considered a success. “Until we look at the photos, we won’t know for sure. But as of now, I would say we’ve had a highly successful mission,” she said en route to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio,where the crew dropped off the film and refueled.

“We took 2,500 shots. I hope some of it is helpful,” said Navy Chief Petty Officer Scott McGrath, an interpreter and sensor operator incharge of the non-commissioned officers.

The plane touched down around 5:30 p.m. Members of the 45th carried thefilm, sealed inside brown boxes, to a blue van waiting at the bottom ofthe stairs. A production team uploaded the images to a website where organizations such as the United States Agency for InternationalDevelopment and the Red Cross can access them. The film also will be duplicated and driven down to Washington, D.C.

After refueling, the plane took off for Andrews. On the ground there, Bell lauded her team and instructed them to meet the next afternoon sothat they could finalize plans for another mission to Haiti on Monday.

“We do not have another treaty mission for two weeks, so we can continue to fly this and it would have zero effects on any mission we would do to support the treaty mission,” she told National Defense.

Look for more coverage of the mission in an upcoming issue of National Defense.

Photos By Grace V. Jean


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