As the humanitarian crisis grows in Gaza, U.S. forces have begun airdropping food, medicine, water and other staples on parachute-borne bundles. Though they can look haphazard, airdrops are meticulously planned and can be hazardous for both crews and those on the ground. A mishap last week with one airdrop allegedly killed several civilians on the ground below, though that drop was not made by U.S. planes. An active-duty U.S. Air Force combat controller, or CCT, spoke with Task & Purpose to explain the planning and equipment that the U.S. military puts into humanitarian aid airdrops. 

A core mission for Combat Controllers is to prepare a location for airdrops and provide incoming pilots with guidance as they approach the drop. Along with their role in special operations, Air Force CCTs have deployed in the first hours of humanitarian crises like Haiti and Pakistan after major earthquakes and Pacific nations after tsunamis. CCTs also train to secretly infiltrate into unfriendly territories as the first and often only Americans on the ground to coordinate wartime airdrops.

The CCT asked not to be identified because he is on active duty status.

“For large-scale airdrops like that, it’s really only the USAF that does them. We’ll put humanitarian aid packages onto [Army] Chinooks, too, but that’s putting the crews and birds at risk,” the CCT said. “It’s more efficient to send a handful of C-130s and C-17s over to drop a bunch of cargo.”

Airdrops and altitude

Air Force cargo planes can deliver a wide range of airdrops, varying by altitude, terrain and cargo For combat operations, airdrops can be anything from ammunition, medical supplies, vehicle parts, or even tanks.

Maybe the most precise airdrop the Air Force does is one that steers itself.

“If you did a Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS), you could drop from 25,000 feet. It’s a [High Altitude, High Opening] type of rig that’s GPS-guided,” the CCT said. “This is a smaller package, though, and not really something we would use for a mass humanitarian mission.”

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Humanitarian aid airdrops are different. They provide large amounts of life-sustaining supplies to populations hit hard by war or severe weather. 

“In a humanitarian situation like this, the airdrops will be focused around food, water, medical supplies, and leaflet drops that provide information to locals,” the CCT said. “Even feed for animals like cattle. Yes, we drop hay bails for cattle.”

For this type of delivery, the CCT’s goal is to arrange the drop from as low an altitude as possible and get them to the ground quickly. The preferred altitude to drop humanitarian aid is 500 feet above ground, but they can go lower if the conditions are right. 

But crews will drop from much higher, he added, if they believe there are threats on the ground from anti-craft gunfire or other weapons, which may be the case in Gaza.

If you’ve ever held a Meal, Ready-To-Eat, you know it is heavy compared to modern-day backpacking food. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), a pallet contains 48 cases and weighs 1,100 pounds. Once released from the plane, they hit the ground within seconds. It’s imperative that the pallets hit the ground before people can run onto the drop zone. 

Over 38,000 Meals Ready to Eat and water destined for an airdrop over Gaza are loaded aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia March 1, 2024. The U.S. Air Force’s rapid global mobility capability enables the expedited movement of critical, life-saving supplies throughout the Middle East. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)
Over 38,000 Meals Ready to Eat and water destined for an airdrop over Gaza are loaded aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130J Super Hercules at an undisclosed location in Southwest Asia March 1, 2024. The U.S. Air Force’s rapid global mobility capability enables the expedited movement of critical, life-saving supplies throughout the Middle East. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Drop zones, parachutes, and threat levels

CCT’s also consider risks inherent to the area where they will drop supplies. 

“We’ll use USAF Intel and Joint Intel to determine if it’s an acceptable threat level to conduct the mission,” the CCT said. “It could be anti-aircraft artillery or integrated air defense systems that keep us out, but it depends on who controls said systems, too.”

Early in the planning process, crews and others behind the airdrop  produce an air threat analysis of what dangers a mission might encounter.  They gather “detailed imagery analysis” to ensure the flight route will not come into contact with power lines, terrain, or buildings. 

Another step of planning is considering the safety of those the aid is intended to help, along with property and livestock. Even on a drop in “safe” conditions, thousands of people might be at or near the dropzone and keeping them clear of the large areas can be almost impossible. 

“There may be leaflet drops the day before, telling locals to stay clear of that area because we will be dropping stuff. We might also do a “dry pass” over the DZ to check for people and hazards, but that’s threat-dependent,” the CCT said. “If we can get a team out to the DZ to secure it, that is the best precaution, but it is not always possible.”

In a case like Gaza, getting a team to secure the drop zone isn’t likely because of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. In such drops,  the aircraft commander in the delivery plane is the release authority and does not require a team on the ground to control or clear their drops. 

The last consideration is the type of parachutes that carry the cargo to the ground..

The U.S. commonly uses several different parachutes that each provide different rates of descent, capable of dropping everything from small tactical packages to armored vehicles. Most U.S. parachutes are intended to be collected on dropzones by friendly personnel. But when parachutes are unlikely to be recovered, drops can also be rigged with specially designed single-use parachutes, which appear to be in use in Gaza

The rapidly descending parachutes in the latest news clips are a stark contrast to the circular grey parachutes the U.S. military commonly uses. Instead, the black chutes appear to be the so-called Low Cost Aerial Delivery System, o LCADS, parachutes, which are used just once.

While the drops conducted by U.S. planes so far have used so-called low velocity parachutes — large, tent-like canopies that fall at about 20 miles per hour — the drop which ended in deaths of civilians last week appeared to use high velocity parachutes, which fall up to three times faster.

“Those types of chutes enable us to get the cargo out of the plane quickly while getting it to the ground fast. This minimizes effects from winds and other weather,” the CCT said. “Getting the cargo on the ground quickly also minimizes the chance of it falling on people, which obviously can’t be mitigated to 100%, especially when people run underneath it.”

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