Although not used every day, air dropping is an interesting subject and worth a separate post. It’s the last on logistics for a while, honest chaps!
There are many reasons why air dropping is preferable to helicopter delivery; the range of strategic and tactical air transport aircraft far exceeds helicopters and in general, they can carry more although some of the larger helicopters can carry more than some of the very small air lifters. Helicopters have very high running costs in comparison to fixed wing aircraft and the speed advantages of fixed wing aircraft may be crucial for time sensitive cargo. Airdropping may also have certain tactical advantages, high altitude delivery is very quite and with some gliding techniques supplies can be exited from the aircraft at considerable stand off distance from the ground target spot.
The UK uses the term Air Despatch to describe air dropping supplies.
The first use of air despatch was during the disastrous Defence of Kut Almera in Iraq by members of 30 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, including Henry Aloysius Petre, the founder of the Australian Flying Corps . It didn’t start well, with the first package (detonators) falling in the enemy lines but subsequently went on to deliver 13 tonnes of supplies in two weeks. These supplies included food, ammunition and even a 70lb millstone which was dropped using a specially produced parachute, the defenders had found a grain store but the Turks had removed the millstones.
Air despatch was used on the Western Front and in the inter war years was developed by all the major nations in one form or another, building capabilities in line with parachute assault.
In World War II air despatch was used by extensively and for UK forces, notably in Burma in support of General Orde Wingate’s Chindit force. Whilst the military effectiveness of the Chindit’s is an ongoing debate what their operations did prove decisively is that ground forces could be sustained by both tactical transportation aircraft operating from austere locations and parachute air delivery.
The C47 Dakota was the preferred aircraft for air despatch because it was stable at low level and its handling was not unduly affected by cargo loads being, literally, kicked out of the side door. Fuel, ammunition, food, weapons and medical supplies were regularly dropped using simple ‘free dropping’ or with parachutes and woven basket containers. As the techniques developed the range of cargo expanded, live poultry and pigs were dropped and even eggs. US forces in Burma and India calculated the costs of these operations and whilst air landing was obviously the cheapest, free dropping was not much greater but parachute delivery was nearly $2,000 per tonne, compared with $50 per tonne for air landing.
In response to the needs of SOE in occupied Europe and the realisation that D Day would require significant air delivered supplies led to the creation of the Air Despatch Group, Royal Army Service Corps, in April 1944. RASC Air Despatchers went on to support operations in mainland Europe. CLE containers were used held in Halifax bomber bomb racks and larger stores were ejected from the side doors. Dakotas were also extensively used and the Group supported operations in Arnhem and for US forces in Bastoigne.
After the war, air despatch was used extensively in Malaya
The introduction of the Blackburn Beverley in 1956 heralded a number of innovations including reversible pitch propellers for short field performance and reverse taxiing and cargo floor rollers but the main one was a large boxy body equipped with hydraulic clam shell doors and ramp. It had a payload of just under 20 tonnes but a very short range so typical air despatch loads would be in the order of 16 tonnes. The cathedral like cargo box was slab sided and large enough to carry large plant vehicles.
Since then has played in part in almost all military operations and disaster relief efforts.
47 Air Despatch Squadron, Royal Logistic Corps and 395 Air Despatch Troop (V) are the only units left in British Army today that carry out this task but can demonstrate a body of innovation going back decades, another military capability where we at least opened the pages of the book, even though we may not have completely written it.
Air dropping remains an important military capability and recently there have been a number of advances that have progressed the art a great distance from the techniques of World War II.
Given the cost of losing an aircraft like a C130 or A400 on the ground, the UK for example has lost 2 in recent operations, air dropping all types of supplies has enjoyed a resurgence in Afghanistan, especially for time critical supplies into locations that are risky to get to.
Techniques and Equipment
The aircraft altitude, speed and type of cargo is used to characterise the various techniques and equipment.
Very Low Altitude, Although not strictly air dropping, a transport aircraft can land, slow to taxi speeds and simply roll cargo pallets or vehicles off the ramp. This minimises time on the ground and doesn’t need anything but the most basic of rigging. The cargo, usually on 463L pallets or equivalent, is simply picked up by ground forces and the aircraft flies off. If no runway exists the aircraft can still fly at very low altitude (less than 10m) and offload cargo pallets, bundles or vehicles using a number of low or zero altitude extraction systems in which the cargo is dragged out of the aircraft by drogue chutes or arrestor wires. Vertical descent speeds are very low but the cargo will have the same horizontal speed as the aircraft which will need retarding.
A number of these techniques such as the Ground Proximity Extraction System (GPES) and Low-altitude parachute extraction system (LAPES) were designed and used to great effect at Khe San in Vietnam as the video below illustrates.
Free Drop, simply dropping supplies is a proven, cheap and reliable method but it only suits certain types of cargo. It is most often used for disaster relief food supplies because the dispersion of small ration/food packs means that they can be dropped without the fear of injuring civilians. Although simple in execution the rigging of food packets to ensure they ‘rain down’ in an even manner of highly skilled and quite complex. Free dropping can take place at low or high altitude. The video here shows free drop in action, at about 1:20
Cost is an important factor, although some parachute components can be recovered this can create a tactical and logistic problem. The holy grail of air despatch is to create a system that rivals the cost of conventional air delivery. The US Freedrop Packaging Concept Project (FPCP) is one of several key Integrated Logistics Aerial Resupply (ILAR) delivery systems of the Low-Cost, Low-Altitude (LCLA) aerial resupply programme. This requires a packaging system that allows supplies of up to 75kg to be dropped from low altitude low speed aircraft (fixed wing or rotary)
Free dropping supplies eliminates the cost and time involved with rigging for parachute delivery, packages can be delivered into theatre and quickly loaded onto helicopters or aircraft for delivery, minimal handling.
Containerised Delivery System, this is the standard means of dropping palletised supplies at a medium altitudes from aircraft with rear ramps, dropping from a high altitude means the aircraft is beyond the range of ground based automatic weapons. CDS uses a lightweight plywood board onto which is mounted a layer or two of cardboard honeycomb cushioning material. The load or load bag is rigged to the baseboard and the parachute attached. Dropping is initiated by cutting a webbing retaining strap and the loads simply fall out of the back and a static line deploys the parachute. A number of variations exist that use different packing materials and for different loads. Small loads can be deployed as door bundles and CDS bundles are generally no more than 1 tonne.
Seabox produce the ECDS pallet which is 463L compatible but also has forklift slots.
Another US programme, the Low Cost Aerial Delivery System, seeks to reduce the cost of the CDS components by using different materials and simpler packaging. LCADS gets the components needed for low altitude air dropping to about $100 by using low cost materials such as woven polypropylene parachutes and rigging. Not having to recover the parachute and other materials simplifies logistics planning a great deal. Out of LCADS came the Low Cost Low Altitude (LCLA) system.
LCLA bundles are small and designed to be handled without mechanical handling equipment, between 110kg and 250kg and can be dropped from smaller aircraft like a CASA 212. US forces are using the LCAD system extensively in Afghanistan.
Heavy Loads, for large and heavy loads, especially for vehicles and small boats, a rigid platform is used. UK forces have used the Medium Stressed Platform for decades, it first entered service in 1953 with the Beverley
The MSP is not compatible with the floor of the C130J or A400, both of which use the Dash 4a Cargo Handling System from AAR Corp. A400 will replace all C130K’s and likely the J models as well so we have been looking for alternatives, particularly the US Type V platform from Airlift Technologies that can accommodate up to 19 tonnes and 9.5m long. The Type V has replaced the older LAPES and LVAD systems.
For boats, we use the Small Boat Modular Platform (SBMP) and the Platform Universal Rigid Inflatable Boat Aerial Delivery (PURIBAD).
Improving Precision, to improve survivability aircraft are forced to drop at night and from higher altitudes and speeds, this results in dramatically reduced accuracy and dispersion of loads.
Various US and NATO studies looked at the issue of precision airdrop and combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have accelerated developments.
The Dutch SPADES system from Dutch Space uses a steerable parafoil, Atair Aerospace have the Onyx range, Airborne Systems have a number of guided delivery systems, the Canadian company MMIST have the Sherpa and Capewell have introduced the Universal Precision Airdrop System which is a development of the Affordable Guided Airdrop System (AGAS)
The well known US Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS) is a family of equipment to deliver precision air drop delivery including Firefly steerable parachutes from Airdrop Systems and the ECDS pallet. Less well known but equally critical is the JPAD Mission Planning software which is run on a standard ruggedised Panasonic Toughbook laptop and is used to collate data about the payload, weather and other variables to ensure the correct drop point is selected.
The PADS system can also be used with standard freefall parachutes to hugely improve accuracy and reduce dispersion. To verify weather conditions a drop sonde is used that relays information back to the mission planning software. For a detailed over view, click here
There are plenty of systems available to improve accuracy and stand off delivery.
The video below shows an RAF Hercules dropping supplies in Afghanistan, CDS and PADS in action.
It also shows one of my hobby horses, the lack of containerisation and materials handling vehicles meaning that the 20 personnel had to work all night to recover 60 tonnes of rations.