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Coast Guard pilot led first aerial mission to Haiti

By Ed O'Keefe

Updated 1:50 p.m. ET

Some of the first Americans dispatched to Haiti left Florida at 3 a.m. Wednesday with a simple mission: Tell the world how bad it was there.

Elizabeth Fielder
Coast Guard Lt. Comm. Elizabeth Fielder, aboard her C-130 aircraft (Courtesy of Elizabeth Fielder)

Coast Guard Lt. Comm. Elizabeth Fielder piloted a C-130 and her seven-member crew three hours south. While another C-130 crew headed to northern Haiti to assess the situation there, her crew went south, toward Port-au-Prince, to radio back their observations to Coast Guard operations in Miami.

The first thing she remembers is the presidential palace, pancaked by the force of the quake.

"That's a huge area," Fielder said in an interview Thursday night. "The palace was all caved in. And all the homes nearby were demolished."

"Basically we were the only ones there," she recalled. "We saw the United Nations. They had one aircraft that landed while we were there and two helicopters that were spun up but never took off. Air traffic control at the time was down. It was pretty quiet, actually.

"We could see a whole hillside of houses that were leveled. And an oil spill in the harbor. Not huge, but about a half mile long," she said.

Fielder and her crew have flown several missions off the coast of Haiti, but Wednesday morning she flew directly over the country for the first time, often just 500 feet off the ground.

"We were just looking at these people's faces and they're waiting for us to land and bring them supplies," Fielder said. That help would have to come later.

Fielder, 36, has piloted C-130s for most of her 13 years with the Coast Guard. She flew similar assessment missions over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, helping coordinate the helicopter recoveries that earned the Coast Guard international acclaim. Despite the risk and long hours, Fielder's family seems more proud than scared of her service, she said.

"I think they get as excited as I do. They text me, 'Are you going to Haiti? What are you doing?' " Fielder said. Her father, a Navy veteran who flew P-3s, gets especially nostalgic when she tells him stories.

Fielder and her husband are two of the thousands of Coasties stationed at Air Station Clearwater. She keeps a backpack ready at all hours, knowing deployments can come at anytime. The couple has no children, but often needs to find someone to watch their dog.

"You have to have backup day care and backup everything," she said.

"It's one of those things where you're waiting for hours on call and then everything happens really, really fast," Fielder said. "I saw that the earthquake hit on Tuesday and I'm sure that we're going somewhere. Sure enough, in the middle of the night -- it's always in the middle of the night -- we got the call."

Do you know of other federal employees serving in Haiti? Send their contact information to The Eye

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 15, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Workplace Issues  
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Bravo Zulu to all of the Coasties engaged in this mission. My son-in-law is an officer on the USCGC Tahoma that was first on scene and this incident is a great example of the critical mission and role supported by the US Coast Guard.

Posted by: Ebola_22039 | January 15, 2010 11:15 AM | Report abuse

chicks rule! love this and hope every sexist man who railed against women in front line roles in the military reads it. and chokes on it.
great job!

Posted by: nancyjeanmail | January 15, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

Let's just hope that she's not on her cellphone when flying the plane.

Posted by: maus92 | January 15, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Thank you Lt. Comm. Fielder for your service, and the same to your co-workers.

Posted by: Shadow10 | January 15, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

The mission should have been to get as many 12 ounce bottles of water in there in as short a time as possible. The Chinese had rescue teams in there in less than 24 hours.

Posted by: jbowen431 | January 15, 2010 8:56 PM | Report abuse

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