Not long after the Pentagon announced its first air drop of the Haiti relief mission, we got an e-mail from a reader. "Why haven't they done this before?" he asked.
A fair question, and the answer underscores both the difficulty of airdrops--and the complexities of the Haiti operation.
Anyone's who has watched The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far or Band of Brothers understands the logistics of airborne missions. It takes extensive planning and coordination to place large numbers of paratroopers in a drop zone, on time and with their equipment. During World War II, the limitations imposed by weather, enemy fire and poor navigation technology often resulted in airborne units missing their intended mark by miles, or landing without their support gear.
These days, there are relatively few combat jumps by airborne units; the last of any consequence was by the 173rd Airborne Brigade into Iraq during the 2003 invasion. More than 1,000 paratroopers jumped under the cover of darkness to secure an airfield in northern Iraq.
However, air drops are still an efficient method for delivering supplies to troops on the ground, or two civilians during natural disasters. The tactic was used (to varying degrees) after the Indonesia tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina the following year. But most of those drops were relatively small-scale, conducted by helicopters assisting small numbers of survivors.
Today's air drop in Haiti was conducted by U.S. Air Force transports, delivering large pallets of food and water to a designated drop zone, secured by Army paratroopers. Thousands of Haitians reportedly surrounded the area, waiting for the aid to be distributed.
But the planning entails more than simply picking a spot, securing the perimeter, and pushing a few pallets out the back end of a C-130 or C-17. First, there's the matter of selecting the drop zone; obviously, it needs to be near the people requiring assistance, but the area must also be large enough to accomodate the amount of cargo being dropped, and it must be open and relatively flat. Finding spots in Haiti that meet those criteria is more difficult than you might imagine.
Then, there's the matter of preparing the loads. The process is far more complex than simply attaching a parachute to a box or bundle. Ground crews work closely with aircraft loadmasters to rig the pallets carefully and sequence them in the correct order; air-dropped supplies are actually pulled from the transport plane's cargo bay by the parachute as it opens.
There is absolutely no margin for error. A faulty pallet can fall apart in mid-air, creating extreme hazards for personnel on the ground; a parachute that doesn't deploy properly can interrupt the aircraft's drop, or cause the supplies to plummet to earth and be destroyed on impact.
Timing is also essential. The pilots and navigator work closely with troops on the ground in planning the aircraft's route and precise moment of the drop, ensuring that the pallets wind up in the planned drop zone. Air drops are literally timed to the second; when a C-130 crew from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska dropped supplies at a forward operating base in Afghanistan in 2006, they arrived within eight seconds of their scheduled time, and the cargo landed within a few hundred feet of the drop zone's center. Incidentally, that crew planned their mission in under an hour, a process that normally takes two or three hours to complete.
Finally, there's the element of ground coordination. Not only do you need the right location--and enough troops to secure the drop zone--but humanitarian air drops require additional planning for breaking down the pallets and distributing the aid as quickly as possible. By all accounts, the Haitians who waited at the drop zone were patient and cooperative, a sharp contrast to some of the early, chaotic distribution efforts in Port-au-Prince.
There will likely be additional air drops in Haiti in the coming days. But that technique is not one that can be easily applied across the country, given the obvious planning and security requirements. Most of the aid will be delivered the "old-fashioned way," by truck and by helicopter.
ADDENDUM: Updated information from the Pentagon indicates that Air Force cargo planes dropped 14,000 pre-packaged meals and 14,000 quarts of water during yesterday's airdrop. Supplies were dropped from C-17s operating from Charleston AFB, South Carolina. The meals and water were bundled in 2,000-pound pallets, dropped from an altitude of about 600 feet. Military officials originally rejected the idea of air drops, believing they might cause riots. However, that policy was changed, due to the backlog at the Port au Prince airport, and problems with the country's road system.