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March 2019

Airdrops: Last resort from above

by Hendrik Thielemann

Imagine you are stranded in your hometown. You live with constant electrical blackouts, clean drinking water is scarce, and slowly the supermarket is running out of food.

There are people in the world for whom this horror is a reality. In Syria, for example, according to the United Nations, at the beginning of 2017 about one million people were living in a state of siege. According to estimates of humanitarian organizations, hunger has killed at least as many people in the Syrian war as bombs have.

At the beginning of 2015, the Islamic State group besieged parts of Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s northernmost city, which was fully controlled by Syrian government troops. At the time, Deir ez-Zor had about 100,000 citizens. A state of emergency quickly broke out. When there was food, it was only available at astronomical prices. The inhabitants took on debts or sold their belongings just to obtain the bare necessities to survive.

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Children refill water containers from a public water hose in Al Howl Camp. (Photo: WFP / Hussam Al Saleh)

Help from above

Help finally came from the air: In February 2016, the World Food Programme (WFP) started to regularly drop food and relief supplies from the air over the besieged area of Deir ez-Zor, using an Ilyushin-76. WFP is the food aid arm of the United Nations humanitarian program. The relief flights took off from Marka Airport in Jordan and continued to bring aid until the siege ended in September 2017. During the siege WFP aircraft dropped 8,200 pallets with more than 6,500 tons of food and supplies over the course of 309 airdrop missions.

Airdrops are usually conducted by dropping 50 kg sacks from a height of around 300 meters. However, since the affected area in Syria was in the middle of a conflict zone, flights at this low altitude were not allowed, so as to avoid the high risk of ground-to-air attacks. Therefore, the aircraft had to use parachutes to drop the relief supplies, which weighed around one metric ton, from a height of more than five kilometers, at an airspeed of more than 270 kilometers per hour. This was quite a task as the target zone on the ground was only 1 by 1.8 kilometers, and the pilots have to be exact when dropping food and supplies.

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Checking air drop cargo before being loaded. (Photo: WFP / Shaza Moghraby)

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Air drop (Photo: WFP / George Fominyen)

Difficult and costly operations

Experienced personnel were needed both in the air and on the ground. In Deir ez-Zor, it took 9 staff to perform the airdrop operation and unload 21 tons of relief supplies carried by the Illjuschin-76. The crew consisted of two pilots, a technician, a radio operator and a flight navigator who was located one floor below the cockpit in the glass-covered ‘pulpit’ under the nose of the jet. On the ground two more technicians were needed for each jet. On site, a team set up the drop zone to receive the dropped cargo. This time the Syrian-Arab Red Crescent team was in charge of setting up the drop zone. They had to retrieve the dropped pallets, record them and move them to a warehouse in the city so that the relief goods could be distributed.

Airdrops are risky and expensive. Every single airdrop mission costs tens of thousands of dollars. Trucks or ships are the more efficient means of transporting aid; however, they can be more dangerous for aid workers and often require armed guards. Senior Regional Aviation Safety Officer, Samir Sajet, explains: “On the one hand, around 20 tons of cargo might not seem to be a large quantity as it is considered to be a large truck load, but on the other hand, this is enough to feed around 2,400 people for a month.”

Airdrop operations are indeed risky and costly, nevertheless they become the only and last resort when a region can no longer be reached by land or water due to conflict, post-conflict or disaster situations (natural or manmade). Airdrops are sometimes the only way to provide help to people who would otherwise starve and suffer the most awful privations.

Zero-hunger WFP missions

When airdrops are not necessary, and it is possible to land in the crisis areas, the ‘regular’ air transport of relief goods and personnel becomes extremely important. WFP often collaborates on missions to achieve their “zero-hunger” world goal. They work together with thousands of partners, including governments, private sector companies, UN agencies, international finance groups, academia, NGOs and other civil society groups. WFP also manages the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS). UNHAS offers passenger and light cargo transport for the humanitarian community to and from areas of crisis and intervention. It is the only humanitarian air service that gives equal access to all humanitarian entities. The fleet is a mix of jets, turboprop aircraft and helicopters: Embraer 135 and 145, Bombardier Dash 8, Beechcraft 1900, Let L-410 Turbojet, Dornier 228 and 328, Cessna 208 Caravan, IL-76, Mi-8, Bell 412 and 212 and the CRJ-200.

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A United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) leased Dornier 228 transporting people from Juba International Airport. (Photo: WFP / Gabriela Vivacqua)

Transporting the humanitarian community

WFP is often required to land in remote regions where take-offs and landings occur on short, often unpaved runways. For this reason UNHAS utilizes a Dornier 228. The robust aircraft is ideal for these missions. In 2018, the UNHAS Dornier 228 provided valuable assistance in Somalia when the country was hit by extreme rainfall after years of drought. In response to the flood emergency, UNHAS augmented its fleet size with a Mi-8 helicopter and extended the contract of one of its Dornier 228 aircraft to ensure there was sufficient capacity for the humanitarian community to reach affected communities.


The Dornier 228 also provided valuable assistance in the fight against Ebola in the Congo. As part of the response to the virus outbreak in 2018, a Dornier 228 was stationed in the town of Kalemie on Lake Tanganyika to support humanitarian and medical aid efforts. The Dornier 228 has been used to assist in the fight against world hunger over and over again.


Samir Sajet also explained that “the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is the leading humanitarian organization saving lives and changing lives with a priority to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and to promote sustainable agriculture worldwide.” WFP assists more than 90 million people in about 83 countries each year, delivering food assistance in emergencies and working with communities to improve nutrition and build resilience.


Every day, WFP travels with 5,000 trucks, 20 ships and 92 aircraft to deliver food and non-food items to those most in need. And on average the WFP’s United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) transports more than 320,000 passengers to more than 280 regular destinations in 16 countries, performing 3,079 airdrops with a total of 80,640 tons of cargo.

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Quality grain stored in bulk at a warehou–s e 3b2u i l–t by the WFP. (Photo: WFP / Lydia Wamala)

Samir reports that “UNHAS humanitarian operations are very complex and depend heavily on risk-based approaches throughout operations, as flights are highly exposed to various safety challenges such as near air misses, hostile security situations, loss of control, controlled flight into terrain and adverse weather … hence we apply global standards and recommended practices in all of our operations and closely monitor the safety of our flights.” Samir explains that these procedures are important in order to “ensure the safety of the humanitarian flights when servicing the humanitarian community.”

How do you drop food from 17,000 feet into a conflict zone? Watch the WFP video!

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