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Ten Things You Always Wanted To Know About WFP Food Airdrops

WFP Sudan recently resumed food airdrops in Jonglei state, South Sudan. In addition to Jonglei state, airdrops are also taking place in Warrap and Upper Nile states. An Mi-26 helicopter has been brought into service to temporarily cover Lekuongole, Pibor and Gumuruk. We have been fortunate enough to get our hands on some photos from the operation as well as answers to many commonly asked questions about food airdrops. Philippe Martou, WFP's Deputy Chief of Aviation, has been kind enough to provide us with answers to the ten most popular questions.

1. Why does WFP drop food from airplanes?

The main reasons we perform airdrops is to reach populations which are cut-off, either by insecurity or either by a non-existent or non-operational road network. The cost of  food drops is extremely high when compared to trucking,  so it is a measure of last resort.

2. Where do you drop food?

We drop food in very specific places which are temporarily cut-off; for example Dungu in the DRC and Akobo in South Sudan. Additionally , WFP manages road rehabilitation projects in South Sudan so that airdrops aren't required anymore. Until the roads were built we had to airdrop food.

Ground crews coordinating with aircraft Copyright: WFP/Mohamed Siddiq

Ground crews coordinating
with aircraft
Copyright: WFP/Mohamed Siddiq

3. So you fly over at 30,000 feet, open up the cargo door, and shift it all out?

The planes typically fly at 600 to 1000 ft depending on the wind and the type of aircraft .  If the nose of the plane is in the wind the plane will be at about 600ft and, as it slows down, the bags of food will also slow.  If, however, the wind is at the tail, the plane will fly approximately 100 ft higher to be able to allow the bags to reduce their forward travel distance before they hit the ground as the bags would otherwise tear themselves up by rolling over the ground through bushes. If you drop too high the bags will explode on impact and too low they will roll too much.

4. Can you simply load food into a plane and drop it?

The food is loaded into the aircraft on pallets. The pallets hold nicely stacked 50kg bags of food. The pallets are strapped into the aircraft which hold them in place. There is a knife connected to the cord that is connected to a retriever.   The aircraft is lined up with the dropping zone from at least 10km out in order to be properly aligned for the drop. Once the aircraft is in the drop zone the retriever is activated which pulls the cord with the knife. The knife then cuts the strap and the bags fall out but not the pallets as they stay on board. This system uses metal pallets compared to previous systems when wooden pallets where used and dropped together with the cargo. Those wooden pallets weren't thrown away by the beneficiaries as they were used for several purposes, inclusive to reinforce their houses.

5. What happens once the food lands on the ground?

Once the food is dropped it is retrieved by staff on the ground who move the food to a distribution center that is set up nearby. Locals often come to assist with the loading.

6. How do you make sure no one is killed by a 50kg bag falling down like a rocket?

First we assess a drop zone.  The drop zone will typically  be close to a community, but not too close . The terrain must be flat and clear of obstacles. There are also staff are on the ground that communicate with the aircraft and make sure people do not stray into the drop zone.

7. How are the bags of food specially prepared for a drop from that height?

The food must be triple bagged in 80kg sacks to allow room for expansion and movement during the impact following the drop. That way the first two bags might rupture before the third one can be compromised.

8. Can any plane be used? How are planes equipped for food drops?

Only cargo aircraft equipped with a ramp and door can be used for airdrops. Example of those aircraft are the C-130, the AN-12 and IL-76.

9. Are pilots specially trained for this work?

Yes, pilots need special training to qualify them for cargo drops.

Beneficiaries remove the food from the dropzone Copyright: WFP/Mohamed Siddiq

Beneficiaries remove the food from the dropzone
Copyright: WFP/Mohamed Siddiq

10. What are the main challenges of food drops?

Obtaining funding - it is extremely costly (about 1000USD per ton) to airdrop food. The costs include airport costs, fuel, warehousing costs, etc. Labor intensive - WFP has to find staff to rebag, manage the drop zone etc. as well as operate loading equipment including forklift, trucks, etc. Demanding - It takes a lot to prepare a site, make sure it is clear and to get the food on the X. But, still we deliver on our mandate which is to provide food to those in need.

Special thanks to Philippe Martou, Annette Angeletti, Mats Persson, Amorcecille Almagro, WFP Sudan and the entire WFP Aviation team!