Operation Provide Promise: The Airdrop Phase
CPT Brian L. Williams CW3 Ken K. Studer CW2 Nancy E. Studer
Quartermaster Professional Bulletin – Autumn 1993
Fighting in Eastern Bosnia-Hercegovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) between ethnic rivals has intensified. More and more civilians are being displaced. The populations of small, primarily Muslim townships are doubling and tripling as refugees flood in by the tens of thousands. These same towns are being shelled. The casualties are mounting. The food and medical stores are nearly gone. Combined with the harsh winter weather, that situation is producing about 20 fatalities each day.
It is late February 1993. The U.S. Air Force’s 435th Air Wing at Rhein Main Air Base, Germany, is tasked to prepare for the possibility of humanitarian airdrops into Eastern Bosnia-Hercegovenia. On 23 February, the U.S. Army’s 5th Quartermaster Detachment (Airdrop Support), the theater’s air delivery asset, is dispatched for one day to Rhein Main Air Base to rig 90 container delivery system (CDS) bundles of U.S. Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs). Two days later, half the unit returns to prepare more MREs and 22 medical supply bundles.
The green light is lit on the night of 28 February for air dropping 27 MREs and three medical CDS bundles near the town of Srebrenica. Initially very skeptical, senior planners see the airdrop phase as a short-term mission. In response, the 5th Quartermaster Detachment deploys with all soldiers and necessary supplies and equipment for a two-week mission. The initial drops prove the only effective way to deliver the lifesaving supplies. This moves the mission past the two-week point.
The 5th Quartermaster Detachment is well into its seventh month of the operation in September 1993 with no end insight. The detachment had rigged more than 14,000 loads by late September, delivering nearly 10,000 tons of food and medical supplies to areas throughout Bosnia-Hercegovenia. The U.S. C-130 Hercules and German and French C-160 Transall aircraft had flown more than 1,200 sorties. The standard package varied little through night, six C-130s carrying 12 CDSs flew with one German and one French C-160 carrying eight CDSs each. The C-160s carry less because they have a lower aircraft load limit. All aircraft fly at altitudes between 10,000 and 18,000 feet to make them less vulnerable to ground fire.
The Germans joined the effort on 16 Mar 93 and the French on 21 Mar 93. With their aircraft came teams of 10 German and 5 French riggers who work hand-in-hand with the 5th Quartermaster soldiers. The German soldiers are highly motivated, determined young men who work day after day in every phase of the operation. The French riggers, unlike the U.S. and German soldiers, are also aircraft loadmasters. They work beside the Americans and Germans in the morning, load their aircraft in the afternoon and fly that night. The allies rotate their teams periodically to spread experience throughout the forces. The spirit of cooperation and camaraderie is superb and a model of combined forces success.
The Kaiserslautern Industrial Center (KIC) has been and continues as the only source of resupply for airdrop equipment (ADE), the primary source for foodstuffs and one of the sources for medical supplies. The Reserve Storage Activity Kaiserslautern (RSAK), a subordinate command within KIC. maintains a 30-day supply of each item of ADE. RSAK dispatches between two and four 40-foot trailers five days a week to resupply the operation. The 5th Quartermaster Detachment’s supply section receives, accounts for and stores the supplies upon arrival at the rigging site.
Soldiers maintain three days of supply at all times to cover any mission shortages or unexpected problems with normal delivery. Additionally, the 5th Quartermaster rear detachment maintains one M818 tractor and a 40-foot trailer with a CONEX container mounted on it for emergency resupply.
On-hand ADE is tracked and reported on a locally produced form. The form shows both the quantity of each item on hand and the number of bundles each quantity can make. Bundle capability is determined by airdrop technicians and periodically modified based on practical consumption. Several substitute items are used instead of some basic CDS components. Although less desirable, all are adequate and have been used during this operation.
The two types of airdrop during Operation Provide Promise are high velocity and free drop. The vast majority have been high velocity. This type of airdrop is the most effective way to deliver supplies from C-130 aircraft flying above 10,000 feet. Free drop is the less expensive method of airdrop but limited in the type and amount of supplies delivered.
CDS rigged for high velocity airdrop consists of a skid board of 3/4-inch plywood, five layers of energy-absorbing material (cardboard honeycomb), an A-22 cargo bag and a 26-foot ring slot parachute. The ring slot parachute is a stabilizing parachute attached to the top of the load. It keeps the load in an upright position during descent. The honeycomb is placed on the bottom to absorb the impact of the load upon contact with the ground. The load impacts at approximately 55 miles per hour. Free drop delivers non fragile items from an aircraft without the use of parachutes or energy-absorbing materials.
Numerous modifications to standard rigging procedures, new types of packing materials and even a new airdrop system are products of the operation. No rigging procedures existed for the vast quantity of food and medical items being dropped. The air drop technicians have developed over 200 different configurations to safely contain hundreds of types of food and medical items donated from countries around the world. The extreme diversity of food and medical supplies forces riggers to modify current rigging procedures. This has brought about the use of new packing materials and techniques never used before with high velocity or free drop.
Only Two Waivers
Fortunately, only two waivers to current airdrop regulations were required. The first was to use 3/4-inch plywood instead of one-inch for the skid boards. One-inch plywood was not readily available, but KIC had more than 10,000 3/4-inch boards in stock. The additional waiver allowed using two less layers of honeycomb for the medical loads. CDS height restrictions occurred when trying to meet minimum weight requirements. Bundles of blankets are substituted for the honeycomb, adding weight and replacing some of the cushion effects.
Airdrop technicians assess food items arriving at the rigging site for survivability. The technicians then determine how the food should be configured and contained for rigging in A-22 airdrop cargo bags. Food items are carefully arranged in layers and then either held together on the pallet by plastic stretch wrap or contained in a large cardboard (TRIWALL) box.
Some food items, such as U.S. MREs, are used to help cushion other foods. One such configuration consists of six layers of U.S. MREs as a base, one layer of canned meat and one layer of biscuits placed on top. All eight layers are packed on a standard 4-foot x 3 1/2-foot shipping pallet and held together by plastic stretch wrap. The pallet of packed food is then placed in an A-22 cargo bag and rigged for airdrop. Bulk food is paced in large TRIWALL boxes. For example, a TRIWALL box is placed on a shipping pallet, nine 110-pound bags of flour are put into the box, one layer of honeycomb is set on top of the flour, and one layer of canned food rations is placed on the honeycomb. Before closing the box and placing it in a cargo bag, several small, empty plastic bags are placed in the box. These allow the refugees to break down the bulk food into smaller quantities for ease of handling. The plastic bags can also be used to recover any spills that may result from impact.
Rigging medical supplies is particularly challenging. Most of the medical items air dropped would not be considered for low velocity airdrop, let alone high velocity. They range from bandages to fragile glass bottles of various medicines. TRIWALL boxes are essential in packing the medical supplies. For added shock absorption, each TRIWALL box is filled to one-third of its capacity with loose bandages or blankets, and the side walls are lined with three to six inches of more bandages and blankets. Starting with the heaviest. sturdiest items and going to the lightest, most fragile items, the medical supplies are then layered into the box. Each layer is separated by blankets. All glass bottles are taken out of original packaging and individually wrapped in plastic bubble, cushioning material. The prepared TRIWALL box of medical supplies is placed on four large bundles of blankets for added shock absorption. Finally, both the TRIWALL box and bundles of blankets are secured together with plastic stretch wrap and enclosed in the A-22 cargo bag.
These methods of packing food and medical items have proven exceptionally effective and have resulted in resounding success. Contributing to airdrop success, CDS food bundle weights are intentionally limited to 1,500 pounds plus or minus 150 pounds. CDS bundles rigged with medical supplies weigh an average of 1,100 pounds.
The other method of airdrop used during Operation Provide Promise is free drop. Although the method is not uncommon to the rigging community, the technique used in the building of this particular system is. The system is called TRIADS (TRIWALL aerial delivery system). The birth of the TRIADS transpired during Operation Provide Promise. This method “rains” single MREs down to starving people in towns and villages, particularly benefiting the sick, elderly and children who are unable to travel to a CDS drop zone.
A TRIADS consists of a TRIWALL box filled with 40 boxes of individual U.S. MREs. The TRIWALL box edges are cut to within six inches of the bottom, and two lengths of webbing are secured around the box to hold it together. Over the drop zone, the box rolls out of the aircraft with the static line attached to the lengths of webbing elongating and the ties breaking as the box hits the slipstream. The box breaks apart, causing the MRE packets to scatter and fall to the ground.
This system is very effective and inexpensive compared to the CDS. However, TRIADS has drawbacks. The number of MREs delivered using one CDS is 768. The TRIADS delivers a total of 480 meals. The time it takes to build both systems is comparable, but the refuse generated from TRIADS and the time to dispose of the refuse is astounding. This makes the TRIADS very labor-intensive, both in the building and refuse disposal phases.
Reliable information on the success of the airdrops is scarce and, in most cases, vague. The information usually covers the accuracy of the airdrop and the recovery of the CDS bundles of food and medical supplies. No information on the condition of the contents during recovery has been provided, with the exception of one special medical airdrop mission.
In one besieged city, hundreds of sick and wounded people were in urgent need of medical supplies. The only way to deliver the medical supplies was by high velocity airdrop. Tons of special medical equipment and supplies were delivered to the rigging site.
The supplies included surgical equipment and 4,200 glass vials of penicillin, all extremely fragile. Riggers stressed concerns about the ability to successfully rig these fragile supplies for high velocity airdrop. The response was that “if only a fraction of the medical supplies survive, you will be saving people’s lives.” With that in mind, riggers used the best packing materials available, developed new packing procedures, and meticulously packed the medical supplies in TRIWALL boxes.
The United Nations Military Observers in the area assisted in the recovery of these urgently needed supplies. They reported that the drop was a complete success, and all medical supplies were recovered. They also reported that not one glass vial was broken. The packing procedures developed for this airdrop mission are now applied to all medical bundles.
The food bundles initially weighed an average of 1,500 pounds. During the course of Operation Provide Promise more humanitarian aid began to arrive. This, coupled with a greater demand for food, caused riggers to increase the weights of the bundles. Concerned about the increased weights (up to 2,000 pounds), riggers asked the Joint Task Force (JTF) for information on the survivability of the heavier bundles. The JTF was unable to provide the necessary information. An alternate means to determine the survivability of CDS was needed. In coordination with the 37th Airlift Squadron, the military conducted two test drops. Several food bundle configurations were rigged. With the help of an engineer from the U.S. Army Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center, several different types of energy-absorbing honeycomb kits were tested.
Our goal was to have the food reach the drop zone with little to no damage. The two test drops revealed that the food items rigged in bundles weighing 2,000 pounds sustained significant damage. Bundles weighing 1,500 pounds sustained zero to five percent damage. The heavier bundles bounced five to six feet in the air after impact. Some flipped over and landed upside down, crushing some contents. The lighter bundles bounced much less and landed either upright or harmlessly on their sides. In view of the test results, food bundle weights were turned to an average weight of 1,500 pounds. The test drops confirmed packing procedures of bulk food items in TRIWALL boxes. Additionally, we discovered no data warranting changes to our current honeycomb kits.
It is now late September. The 5th Quartermaster Detachment is preparing for the winter months. The rain and the temperature are falling daily. The news reminds us that the fighting will continue, and the people of Bosnia-Hercegovenia will face a colder, even more bleak winter than last year.
|CPT Brian L. Williams has a bachelor of arts degree from the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, and a master of science degree from Boston University. He is a graduate of the Field Artillery Officer Basic and Quartermaster Officer Advanced Courses, as well as Airborne, Air Assault, Petroleum Logistics and Rigger Schools. His previous assignments include Fire Support Officer and Battalion S4, 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), Fart Stewart, Georgia; and Petroleum Logistics Officer, 200th Theater Army Materiel Management Center, Zweibruecken, Germany. At the time this article was written he served as the Commander of the 5th Quartermaster Detachment (Airdrop Support), Kaiserslautern, Germany.CW3 Ken K, Studer is a graduate of the Quartermaster Warrant Officer Advanced Course. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Combined Arms Test Activity Test Officer’s Course and has served in a variety of aerial delivery test support positions. His previous assignments include Airdrop Test Project Noncommissioned Officer, Test Officer of airdrop equipment and military free-fall tests, and Chief, Aerial Delivery Division, U.S. Army Airborne Special Operations Test Board; and Commander, Rigger Detachment, Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the time this article was written he served as Operations Officer, 5th Quartermaster Detachment (Airdrop Support), Kaiserslautern, Germany.
CW2 Nancy E. Studer has an associate’s degree from Methodist College, Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is a graduate of the Airdrop Systems Technician Course. Her previous assignments include two tours as an instructor at Fort Lee, Virginia; Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of Air Item Maintenance, Yuma Proving Grounds, Yuma, Arizona; Noncommissioned Officer in Charge, Rigger Detachment and Military Free-Fall Instructor at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. At the time this article was written she served as the Airdrop Systems Technician at the 5th Quartermaster Detachment (Airdrop Support), Kaiserslautern, Germany.