U.S. military air traffic controllers are scrambling to keep earthquake aid flowing into the Haitian capital without the use of a control tower or radar, and amid struggles over fuel, tarmac space and even staircases to access planes.
With all the hurdles facing rescue and relief efforts in this shattered city, it appears the first to overcome are at its major entry point for supplies. U.S. federal officials halted nonmilitary flights for eight hours Thursday at the request of the Haitian government, leaving dozens of planes circling.
The Haitian government said that there was no room on ramps for planes to unload their cargo and that some planes on the ground didn't have enough fuel to leave.
Overhead, two dozen planes circled for more than two hours, and many of them were diverted to Santo Domingo or Florida.
On the ground, 23 combat controllers — working out of a vacant hangar on laptops — guided aircraft onto the cramped airstrip. Planes were parked with their wing tips overlapping. Helicopters and small propeller planes sat on the grass.
"There's only so much concrete," U.S. Air Force Col. Buck Elton said. "It's a constant puzzle of trying to move aircraft in and out."
Elton said he counted 120 takeoffs and landings by late afternoon. He said commercial charters used to haul aid supplies were causing holdups because, unlike military planes, they take a long time to unload.
Thursday's arrivals were dominated by rescue crews leading search dogs and military operations toting supplies and communications equipment.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders was able to bring in medical supplies and a pallet of body bags. But other groups had no luck.
'A tough time'
The Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse had three charter planes turned back.
"I don't think the airport has the capacity to take it," said organization president Franklin Graham. "We're looking at taking a ship out of Fort Lauderdale (Florida), and putting everything on the ship. It'll take two days to get there, but I'm afraid it's going to take longer to try and go through the airport."
Elton said one chartered commercial plane that arrived early Thursday morning with a French search-and-rescue team was still at the airport at 5 p.m., waiting for foreign nationals to transport, despite requests that it leave to make room for others.
"The pilot said the president of France told him not to leave until he had a plane full of refugees, while we're having a tough time putting people on the plane," Elton said. "I can't fly the plane for him."
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Thursday that 91 injured French nationals were evacuated to the Caribbean island of Martinique.
Runway lights were working in Port-au-Prince for flights to continue through the night, but pilots are having to land by sight. The airport has no radar, though it is in communication with Miami International Airport controllers.