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Scoop Images: Aboard A US Humanitarian Air Drop

by Jim Dao
NY Times
For U.S. European Command Media Pool

ABOARD A C-17 GLOBEMASTER OVER AFGHANISTAN, Oct. 18 -- The C-17 cargo plane was ten minutes from its drop zone when the rear doors opened onto the night sky high above Afghanistan. Frigid air burst into the cabin, washing across two rows of boxes filled with food that stood like soldiers at attention before a fluttering American flag.

Crouching before the open door, his oxygen mask pressing hard against his face, a staff sergeant named Paul signaled one minute to drop. Then from inside the cockpit, a pilot electronically released the cables holding back the load. With the powerful rush of a freight train gathering speed down a hill, the 42 boxes flew out the door, bursting open in mid-air and raining their contents down upon the dusty valley below.

Within minutes, 52,000 bright yellow packages that had spilled from this plane and two other C-17's -- all from the 437th Air Lift Wing based in Charleston -- would hit the ground somewhere in northern Afghanistan.

So went another mission in America's war on hunger in Afghanistan, where cargo planes scatter ready-to-eat meals of lentil stew and rice-and-beans over remote communities, even as fighter jets shower bombs on Taliban positions. With each package marked, in English, ``Food gift from the people of the United States of America,'' Washington is hoping to convince the Afghan people that it is waging war on terrorism and the Taliban, not on them.

It is a case that has often been a hard to make. In the past two weeks, American bombs have devastated a residential community outside Kabul and a warehouse used by the International Committee of the Red Cross, killing or wounding civilians. Many Western relief organizations have also criticized the Pentagon relief program as confusing to the Afghan people and woefully inadequate for a nation where as many as 7.5 million people could be at risk of starving by the end of the year.

U.S. Air Force crew members from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., continue high altitude drops of HDRs (Humanitarian Daily Rations) from their C-17 Globemaster III somewhere over northern Afghanistan, Oct. 18. The C-17 dropped 42 TRIADS containing 17,220 HDRs. Over 500,000 HDRs have been dropped into Afghanistan since the humanitarian relief effort began.

Photo by Mannie Garcia/Gannett/ATPCo

A U.S. Air Force chaplain, identified only as "Fred", leads crew members from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., in prayer prior to takeoff. U.S. Air Force crew members from Charleston AFB continue high altitude drops of HDRs (Humanitarian Daily Rations) from their C-17 Globemaster III somewhere over northern Afghanistan, Oct. 18. The C-17 dropped 42 TRIADS containing 17,220 HDRs. Approximately 500,000 HDRs have been dropped into Afghanistan since the humanitarian relief effort began.

Photo by Mannie Garcia/Gannett/ATPCo

Those groups have called on the United States to end the attacks immediately to allow distribution on the ground of food, medicine and supplies before Afghanistan's harsh winter arrives later this month.

``We've run out of food, the borders are closed, we can't reach our staffs and time is running out,'' Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, said earlier this week.

No one takes such criticism more to heart than the American crews that have been toiling almost non-stop to make these difficult missions work. Since the relief campaign started on Oct. 7, the same day the bombing began, the military has dropped half a million emergency rations, each containing two meals.

The crews contend their drops have been right on target, though they acknowledge it is hard to know for sure whether many people are finding, or eating, the food. For them, a single photograph depicting gaunt Afghans collecting the food packets this week was a soul-lifting sight.

``That was a nice morale boost,'' said Bill, 31, a captain with the 437th and one of the commanders aboard this C-17. The Air Force requested that the last names of the seven crew members aboard this plane not be used for security reasons.

``There will always be casualties in war,'' he continued. ``We're just trying to help those caught in the middle.''

For all the apparent simplicity of tossing food from the back of a plane, the air drops are remarkably complex.

First, the State Department must gain permission to fly over half a dozen countries, including former Soviet Republics like Georgia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. At least two missions have been cancelled because one of those nations objected to U.S. military jets escorting the C-17's in its air space.

Second, it takes an army of workers and armada of aircraft to ensure that the mere eight seconds it takes for the food boxes to roll off a C-17 go just right.

U.S. Air Force Loadmaster "Chris" checks his high altitude oxygen equipment. U.S. Air Force crew members from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., continue to drop HDRs (Humanitarian Daily Rations) from their C-17 Globemaster III somewhere over northern Afghanistan, Oct. 18. The C-17 dropped 42 TRIADS containing 17,220 HDRs. Approximately 450,000 HDRs have been dropped into Afghanistan since the humanitarian relief effort began.

Photo by Mannie Garcia/Gannett/ATPCo

A C-17 Globemaster III from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., takes on fuel from a KC-135 over the Black Sea. The KC-135 air refueling plane is assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England. The C-17, operating out of Ramstein, Air Base, Germany, had completed a high altitude drop of HDRs (humanitarian daily rations) over northern Afghanistan. The C-17 dropped 42 TRIADS containing 17,220 HDRs. Over 500,000 HDRs have been dropped into Afghanistan since the humanitarian relief effort began.

Photo by Mannie Garcia/Gannett/ATPCo

There are KC-135 tanker jets to refuel each C-17 twice during the 15-hour round-trip flights between Afghanistan and Ramstein Air Base in Germany, the command base for the food drops. There are AWAC's command and control planes to direct the air traffic. And there are fighter jets to protect the cargo planes as they lumber over hostile territory.

And then there are the dozens of workers at Ramstein who build containers from cardboard and plywood, fill them with food packets, load and then strap them down in two rows of 21 each inside the C-17's.

Finally, there are health risks to the C-17 crews. The planes have been flying at unusually high altitudes -- typically over 25,000 feet -- to avoid Taliban anti-aircraft fire. But when the cabin is depressurized so that the rear door can be opened, crews are put at risk of decompression sickness, which occurs when nitrogen bubbles seep into the blood or tissue.

If those bubbles lodge in the heart, the brain or the joints, they can be painful or even deadly. For that reason, flight surgeons or physiologists have been dispatched with all the air crews to watch for early symptoms of illness.

``There is still a threat,'' Col. Robert Allardice, the mission commander, told crew members from four planes during a pre-mission briefing on Thursday. ``Don't get cavalier.''

No one seemed particularly nonchalant on the crew of aircraft number 105, whose tail bore the blue-white-and-yellow insignia of the 437th: a crescent moon and palmetto tree. After an hour-long intelligence and weather briefing, prayer with the chaplain and systems checks, number 105 and three other C-17's left Ramstein shortly after 5 p.m. (Frankfurt time) on Thursday.

``Father, it is your sky and your world,'' the chaplain said to nearly 50 crew members gathered in a Ramstein conference room filled with maps and briefing slides. ``Bring them all back safely.''

One of the four C-17's would return safely to base without dropping its cargo. Air Force officials declined to explain why, but suggested it was because of problems in its drop zone.

The early part of the route took the planes through central Europe, where the crews got spectacular views of the snow-covered Austrian Alps from their right-side windows. Then as darkness fell over the Black Sea, they prepared for perhaps the trickiest part of the mission: hooking up with a KC-135 tanker for a 15-minute mid-air refueling.

With the lights of Sebastopol in the Crimea flickering in the distance, Mark, a 29-year-old captain who was the aircraft commander, deftly guided the C-17 to within just 30 feet of the tanker. A boom came down from the KC-135, connecting to the C-17's fuel valve just behind the cockpit with a loud clunk.

``Could we get 60,000'' pounds of fuel -- almost 9,000 gallons -- Mark asked the tanker crew over an intercom system. ``We should be able to afford that,'' the boom operator replied.

Mid-air refuelings are always complicated dances when large cargo planes are involved, requiring a surgeon-like calm with the stick to keep the aircraft steady. Darkness and exhaustion only make the job more difficult.

On the return flight, Bill, going on 20 hours without sleep, took the stick for a second refueling. Struggling to keep the C-17 tucked tightly under the tanker's tail, he twice disconnected from the boom before finishing off the refueling.

``Every bone in my body is tense,'' he said as the C-17 rolled away from the tanker's whale-like underbelly and rejoined formation with its two sister ships for the final leg home.

As the C-17's finally entered Afghanistan, the weather was just right for the mission: clear skies at high altitudes, a scrim of clouds down below that masked the plane's movements from the ground. Still, crews on one of the C-17's reported seeing flashes on the ground that might have been anti-aircraft fire.

Twenty minutes before the drop, the pilot started decompressing the cabin. The crew's ears began to pop. A bag of potato chips exploded as the air inside it expanded. Food packets could be heard bouncing against the sides of their containers like popcorn as they, too, expanded.

As the aircraft hit its drop point, one of the pilots electronically opened hooks holding straps wrapped around the boxes. With the planes nose tipped up at a seven-degree angle, the 42 boxes, each weighing 1,000 pounds and carrying 410 packets, rolled out into the inky sky. A ``static'' line attached to each one yanked off their tops, allowing the food packages to spill out.

It all took less than 8 seconds.

On another C-17, the loadmasters -- crew members who handle the cargo -- cheered wildly as the boxes went airborne. But on 105, they calmly picked up the web static lines and closed the door. Another load released without a hitch.

Half an hour later, the plane would be out of Afghanistan. Eight hours later, it would land at Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, diverted from Ramstein by the morning fog. After picking up six pallets of supplies, the C-17 would finally return to Ramstein at 10:40 a.m. local time. They had been gone for 17 hours.

Exhausted but pleased with their work, the crew loaded onto busses, knowing they would probably fly again as soon as Sunday.

``In know there are political reasons to be doing this,'' Bill said. ``But to us, it is just about getting food to the people.''


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