Air Drops In A Tight Spot


Earlier this month in Afghanistan, a small unit of coalition ground forces found themselves in a tight spot. The unit had already traveled a great distance to support an operation aimed squarely at the Taliban and they’d exhausted their food and water. Navigating through a deep gorge in a mountainous river valley, the situation was quickly deteriorating. Now the supporters needed support.

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That’s when they called the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing.

“A major part of the Wing’s mission is to supply the fight,” said Col. Jack Briggs II, commander of the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing.“And the Wing’s airlift squadron, the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, performed that mission in an outstanding manner by flying a C-130 aircraft into a hostile environment to supply ground forces that were essentially trapped in a river valley.”

A Narrow “V” And Hostile Forces
Rugged mountain sides rising up from the valley created a narrow ‘V’ and supplying the ground forces with food and water meant flying a C-130 through the ‘V.’ A tight fit? Certainly. And a tight fit made even more dangerous by hostile forces that were positioned in the rocks taking aim at the big airplane.

“After we received this mission and started planning for it, we knew it would be a special flight,” said Maj. Eric Dolan, navigator of the C-130. “We did a pre-mission analysis to see if we split that ‘V’ and dropped in the valley, would we then have enough power to climb out.”

Complicating the already hazardous airlift mission was the weight of the load that had to be dropped—too heavy for the C-130 to split the ‘V’ and climb out. So the crew decided to halve the load and make two flights. This meant, fly the mission to drop one load on target and return to Bagram Airfield to reload and fly the ‘V’ a second time. “The entire mission probably lasted more than eight hours,” Dolan said. “It was sort of complicated. We had to fly between the rocks, find the drop zone, deliver the load and turn around and do it again.”

Bad Weather and ‘Bingo’ Fuel
Bad weather made the flights even more difficult. “I couldn’t actually see the mountains or the drop zone,” LaBarbera said. “We were completely IMC—instrument meteorological conditions—the whole time. And on top of that, we had a malfunctioning anti-icing system which meant ice was building heavy on the left wing.” Safety of flight was obviously important, but successful completion of the mission meant delivering the goods on target.

“The drop zones we’re trained to hit are fairly large,” Snider said. “But this mission didn’t have a standard-sized drop zone.”   In aircrew-talk, ‘not standard-sized’ means small, like hitting a postage stamp from thousands of feet up. The coalition ground force was growing desperate and, by the time the C-130 lifted into sky, gave word that recovering just a fraction of the load might save them. The 774th EAS responded by hitting the postage stamp of a drop zone with every load and the ground force recovered them all, sixteen in total.

Snider credits Standeford’s use of JPADS in contributing to the accuracy of the drop and helping the crew hit the drop zone. “JPADS is a like a smart bomb for beans and bullets,” Snider said. And according to him, both flights of the mission were conducted with ‘bingo’ fuel, meaning as little fuel as possible, to avoid any extra weight.


*** Posted on June 29th, 2010