Humanitarian airdrops: How do they work?

Humanitarian airdrops in conflict and disaster zones come with a myriad of logistical challenges.

Story highlights

  • U.N. program draws up plans to airdrop aid to 19 regions of Syria
  • Airdrops seen as last resort, can pose danger to civilians, agencies say

(CNN)From images in the news, airdrops of food and supplies might seem like a relatively simple solution to getting aid to areas where vehicle convoys can't go: An aircraft flies over a conflict or disaster zone, and humanitarian workers push heavy pallets of goods out, watching as they fall to the ground and hoping they reach those desperate for help.

In reality, airdrops are a last resort by aid organizations -- one that's expensive, inefficient in comparison with road convoys and a possible hazard to civilians.
    "Airdrops are a delivery mechanism when all other options fail," said Greg Barrow of the U.N. World Food Programme.
    "A single delivery with a convoy of trucks by road in one day would take the equivalent of five to six weeks by aircraft -- because the amount you can carry is so much smaller."

    Airdrops in Syria?

    The World Food Programme has drawn up plans to make airdrops to 19 besieged areas in Syria -- though it will need funding and Syrian government permission before going ahead.
    The U.S. Army prepares packages of meals for a 2014 airdrop in southwest Asia.
    The U.N. program missed a June 1 deadline by the International Syria Support Group (made up of world powers, including the United States, Britain and France) to make airdrops if the Syrian government had not given permission to access the besieged areas -- regions where up to 592,000 people are trapped, according to the United Nations.
    But what's actually involved in an airdrop? Here's a look at the challenges involved:

    Get a team on the ground

    "We cannot just fly around cities dropping food from the air -- the use of airspace is highly regulated and so we need permission," Barrow said.
    "Particularly in a country which is at war, such as Syria," he said, adding that the safety of the crew was also a concern.
    Once a safe flying area is agreed upon, a team on the ground coordinates the drop with those in the air.
    Families in South Sudan receive  aid packages from the International Red Cross in 2014.
    A select group on the ground will then gather packages and transfer them to a warehouse for distribution.
    Doing so ensures food is evenly distributed to those most in need.

    How does the airdrop work?

    Airdrops range between 100 meters off the ground up to 7,000 meters in the air.
    In the case of a lower altitude airdrop, a cargo plane will usually fly over a zone several football fields in size. This will be in an open area, rather than an urban setting.
    Packages will be 20- to 50-kilogram sacks of food, dropped without parachutes.
    "The bags are packed with several layers of larger bags, to allow the first bag to burst into," said Michel Schaffner, head of air operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
    "Loss (of supplies) is only 0.5 %."
    In cases where there's a threat of military intervention, airdrops will take place from a much higher altitude -- using slightly smaller parcels attached to parachutes.

    What's in a package?

    Packages are made up of food that can withstand such a dramatic drop -- rice, wheat, flour, dried lentils, dried peas, sugar and chickpeas.
    Liquids such as water and vegetable oil are more difficult to drop but are still included in some packages.
     A copter awaits takeoff in 2008 in Mianyang, China, to drop aid after an earthquake.
    Medicines are usually avoided because they are less likely to survive the drop intact.
    Each aircraft may hold anywhere between 26 and 30 metric tons -- and the packages potentially pose a danger to anyone caught in their path.
    "Drops can only take place where there is a wide open drop zone," Barrow said.
    "Otherwise it's going to cause significant damage."

    How accurate are drops?

    "Technically, it's very challenging -- winds, high altitudes, timing are all things to consider," Barrow said.
    "Our first few airdrops to the besieged Syrian city of Deir Ezzor were not nearly as successful as we'd hoped at making sure they hit the drop zones."
    But with better practice comes success, and Barrow added that since April 10, the U.N. program has carried out 44 airdrops over Deir Ezzor -- supplying 750 metric tons of food to 100,000 people.
    "The conventional airdrop is very accurate," Schaffner said.
    "The drop zone is usually 1,000 meters by 300 meters, with a 100 meter security zone around -- and the losses are minimal."

    Not an ideal solution ... but a source of aid

    While airdrops may be an option in remote areas without road access, or where land permission is not granted, it is still far from ideal.
    "Wherever they take place, what's absolutely crucial is that humanitarian airdrops do not become the norm," Schaffner said.
    "They must only ever be used as a means of last resort, only as an interim solution and only for the shortest time possible."
    Barrow said he sees airdrops as part of a compromised solution to the crisis in Syria.
    "Ideally, we'd like unhindered, safe access at all times to provide relief -- and by road, we can do this more cheaply, effectively and in proper time," he said.