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10 years of Enduring Freedom: Since the first day, airdrops in Afghanistan have made a difference

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott T.Sturkol
  • Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
Just three days before Operation Enduring Freedom began on Oct. 7, 2001, President George W. Bush approved the creation of a $320 million humanitarian assistance package for the people of Afghanistan.

Because of Afghanistan's austere terrain with steep mountains as well as limited road access to places throughout the country, delivering the "hope" offered in the humanitarian aid was possibly going to be a logistical challenge, but not for long. Within days, on Oct. 12, 2001, the official Air Mobility Command history for 2001 shows the first airdrops for Operation Enduring Freedom began.

"Four C-17s released 68,880 humanitarian daily rations over Afghanistan," the history states. "This marked the first instance of a four-ship configuration of C-17s making a high-altitude combat drop of humanitarian supplies."

Some of those C-17 Globemaster IIIs delivering those first airdrops were from the 437th Airlift Wing at Joint Base Charleston, S.C. The wing's commander at the time and former Air Mobility Command vice commander, retired Lt. Gen. Vern M. "Rusty" Findley, reflected on the airdrop success at the start of OEF in his retirement retrospective editorial on AMC News on Oct. 4.

"Memories of those great young men and women of the 437th, who achieved combat firsts for the C-17 by delivering humanitarian rations to the Afghan people we had no quarrel with on the first night of the strikes against the nefarious terrorists in Afghanistan, will be forever etched in my mind," Findley wrote. "This same group of young men and women continued this effort for months while also accomplishing another combat first by delivering a unit of brave Marines to a dirt airstrip south of Kandahar in November that fateful fall."

High volume for humanitarian, contingency ops
Over 10 years, the number of airdrops have grown and grown. In 2006, which is the earliest year that statistics are published by U.S. Air Forces Central's Combined Air Operations Center in Southwest Asia for airdrops, there was more than 3.5 million pounds of cargo and supplies airdropped in Afghanistan.

Since 2006, the amount of airdrop pounds delivered has nearly doubled every year with more than 8.1 million pounds dropped in 2007, 16.5 million pounds in 2008, 32.2 million pounds in 2009 and 60.4 million pounds in 2010 -- an annual record. In 2011, as of Sept. 30, mobility Airmen airdropped more than 54.8 million pounds and are on a pace to reach as high as 90 million pounds airdropped, officials said.

On Sept. 20, in a story written by Staff Sgt. John Wright of 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs, the deployed commander of the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Bagram described the importance of these airdrops for the coalition, U.S. and Afghan forces.

"Our mission is airlift and airdrop to all the forward operating bases within country," Lt. Col. Bill Willson, 774th EAS commander, said in the Wright's report. "The primary way the forward operating bases get supplies is by airlift or airdrop. We are their lifeline of sustainment."

Willson's message was also reflected in a 2005 report from 416th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs. Then a major deployed with the 774th EAS when it was operating from Karsh-Khanabad Air Base, Uzbekistan, Lt. Col. John Bletner -- a C-130 navigator -- said airdrops deliver not only cargo but a message as well.

"It also shows our fellow patriots in the Army [or Marine Corps] that we can be counted on to get the job done," Bletner said. "If there is something you need, and it'll fit in a [Hercules], just pick up the phone and give us a call...we deliver."

How they are doing it
In 2001, those first airdrops by the C-17s were done with the Tri-wall Aerial Delivery System, or TRIADS, to deliver humanitarian rations. In an Oct. 12, 2001, Department of Defense news report by Gerry Gilmore, it states two mobility Airmen had come up with new, innovative ways to do the airdrops in Afghanistan.

"Operation Enduring Freedom officials credit Air Force loadmasters Senior Master Sgt. Cliff Harmon and Master Sgt. Donny Brass for developing a novel method to safely and accurately deliver rations to refugees without using heavy wood crates or tell-tale parachutes," the report states. "Harmon and Brass used refrigerator cardboard boxes with three-ply walls to get the job done without using heavy parachute-suspended crates."

This was the beginning of TRIADS. "The almost 7-foot-tall boxes are accurately dropped away from any displaced persons, but not so far away that they can't get to them," the report states. "Unlike airdrops using heavy crates and parachutes...the 'Tri-wall' method isn't as apparent as parachute drops, therefore minimizing the possibility of the food from falling into Taliban hands. The delivery also won't hurt the recipients."

Airmen aren't the only ones who get the airdrops moving in the deployed theater of operations. The building and management of airdrop bundles is completed by U.S. Army parachute riggers and aerial delivery technicians. Those Army Soldiers with "resupply teams" work with air transportation Airmen to get airdrop pallets ready for delivery.

Army Staff Sgt. Lloyd Johnson, aerial delivery technician, was part of one of those re-supply teams at Karshi-Khanabad Air Base, Uzbekistan, in 2005 with the 87th Quartermaster Detachment, Logistics Task Force 524. He described their role in building Container Delivery System bundles.

"Our job entails building CDS bundles for resupply and packing the parachutes that deliver the loads to the ground," Johnson said. "We coordinate for the movement of the loads and perform joint airdrop inspection, or JAI, duties with our Air Force counterparts.

"We also receive some equipment from the airdrops and prepare it for the next mission through repacking procedures, or we repair it with our sewing machines when necessary," Johnson added.

From preparing airdrop bundles to delivering them, the U.S. military has also added "precision" to airdrop capabilities - such as with the Joint Precision Airdrop System, or JPADS. Facts show a JPADS airdrop is a high-altitude, all-weather capable, global positioning system-guided, precision airdrop system that provides increased control upon release from the aircraft. There are various types of JPADS airdrop capabilities, including "micro-light" bundles of 10 to 150 pounds to "medium version" bundles of 10,001 to 42,000 pounds.

Traditional airdrops by Air Force airlifters, such as the C-130 and C-17, are at altitudes of anywhere between 400 and 1,000 feet. With JPADS, those same airlift aircraft have the potential to guide air drop bundles from as high as 25,000 feet.

'Making history' with airdrops to continue
The 2001 AMC history stated, "Six weeks after the first airdrop [for OEF], 111 sorties had been flown from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, delivering almost 1.6 million packets of food. Generally, the C-17 crews dropped between 35,000 and 70,000 rations per day, using TRIADS."

While that is from the history, mobility Airmen performing airdrops over Afghanistan for OEF in 2011 have averaged more than 6.1 million pounds dropped per month through August and are on pace for a record year. History would be made once again.

For the Airmen, Soldiers, Marines and others deployed supporting Operation Enduring Freedom 10 years later, many say airdrops have defined how the frontline fighters receive their supplies and has aided in the success in Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Daniel Walker, a C-130 pilot deployed with the 774th EAS in 2008 added, "It's never an easy route in. There's always the terrain and weather to contend with, but we find a way to get it done."

The most important aspect may be that airdrops have saved lives by keeping convoys off the roads that could be subject to attacks. That's best reflected in an Oct. 3 report by Staff Sgt. David Salantri of Air Forces Central Public Affairs from the Helmand Province in Afghanistan with Marines who receive airdrops.

"It can be easy to lose track of the mission, but what the Air Force does is vital to our success," states Marine Lance Cpl. Peter Leonard in his interview with Salantri's report entitled, "Airdrops save lives" at "If I ever got the chance, I would thank them (airdrop crews) for what they do. Airdrops are essential. They save lives."

(Note: This is the second in a series of three stories recognizing the 10th anniversary of Operation Enduring Freedom on Oct. 7, 2011. The Air Mobility Command History Office; Gerry Gilmore, American Forces Press Service; Staff Sgt. David Salantri, Air Forces Central Public Affairs; Staff Sgt. John Wright, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs; and Staff Sgt. Joe Maker, 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, contributed to this report.)