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.