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Air Guardsmen on mission to Haiti

NEWINGTON - Responding to a great need, 12 members of the Air National Guards' 260th Air Traffic Control Squadron departed the Pease Air National Guard Base Friday night on a mission to Haiti with the hope of helping to get transport planes into the devastated nation.

The 12 were scheduled to reach Haiti today, where they were set to start working to provide their aid in a mobile air traffic control tower.

Senior Guardsman Kevin Plante of Portsmouth said the group would be heading to the nation's airport in Port-au-Prince, which has retained function despite a devastating 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12, followed by strong aftershocks. He said, currently, controllers in Port-au-Prince chiefly specialize in combat and rapid deployment, but he hopes the dozen traveling to Haiti for either a 90-day or 180-day deployment will be able to offer "full" air traffic control service for transport planes bringing supplies into the country.

"It sounds like we're going to have a positive effect on the number of airplanes going in and out of there," Plante said.

Tech Sgt. Robert Stewart of Dover, who said he works full time as a controller on the base, previously served in Afghanistan and Iraq as an air traffic controller. He said volunteers were requested, and he and his 11 fellow Air Guardsmen stepped up to the plate.

"That's the Guard mentality," he said. "Citizen soldiers."

Master Sgt. Matt Knott of Bedford said he has been a part of the 260th Air Traffic Control Squadron for a decade, and its work will be helpful in Haiti.

"We provide a great service, and this is one of the best units I've ever been attached to," he said.

All said that while they were armed with some information and had seen and heard news of what is going on in Haiti, they won't really know the situation until they put boots on the ground in Port-au-Prince.

New Hampshire National Guard Public Affairs Maj. Greg Heilshorn said his group represents the first Air Guardsmen to be sent to Haiti from New Hampshire. They are part of a 100-member unit that since 2001 has been participating in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He said they will provide more than just air traffic control help on their volunteer-driven mission, but that they specialize in getting such operations set up in difficult situations.

"Their specialty is going into places you'd never consider landing a plane at ... and building it up," Heilshorn said.

Before their departure, the group also had a quick visit from U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who was touring Global Relief Technologies in the Pease Tradeport earlier that day. She thanked them for their service, wished them luck and expressed pride in New Hampshire due to the efforts.