Civilian pilots risk fire in aid drops to refugees
By David Abel | The Boston Globe | 6/5/1999
WASHINGTON - An aging cargo plane chartered by a private relief group dropped 2,000 emergency meals intended for refugees trapped inside Kosovo yesterday, and it was set to fly again Monday on a mission that NATO said was too risky for its own pilots.
Yesterday's pre-dawn flight by the Soviet-built Antonov 26 followed an inaugural mission Thursday that was hampered by technical problems. The plane returned safely to Pescara, Italy. The crew reported no antiaircraft fire.
The plane, hired and manned by pilots from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, dropped the 2,200-calorie vegetarian meals in hopes the food would reach some of the 600,000 Kosovars going hungry after being driven from their homes. Many are said to be living off leaves and tree bark.
The project is backed by the US Agency for International Development, which is picking up a tab of about $1 million a month for 32,000 military-style meals per week. The bright-yellow packets contain peanut butter, lentil stew, jam, crackers, and rice pilaf.
Ed Bligh, a spokesman for the the New York-based International Rescue Committee, acknowledged the group is sending each crew of six into harm's way, lower and slower than any NATO aircraft has flown or is likely to fly.
Although a peace plan has been approved by Yugoslavia, hostilities have continued until NATO has strong signs of a Yugoslav withdrawal from Kosovo.
"I wouldn't call this a suicide mission, but it's definitely not safe," Bligh said. "We're trying to call as much attention to these planes as possible."
Though the Antonov plane - and another joining the effort next week - have been painted white with bright orange stripes, and Yugoslav and NATO officials have been informed about their mission, the planes are flying through dangerous airspace, where bombs frequently rain from above and antiaircraft fire bursts without warning from below.
Furthermore, the Yugoslav government told the International Rescue Committee it "will not give permission" for the flights, Bligh said. NATO said the relief group is coordinating its flight plans with allied commanders but the alliance could not guarantee its safety.
"I think they're brave to take the risk," Air Force Major General Chuck Wald told reporters at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. "But if I were recommending it, I would not recommend they do it from an operational perspective."
In recent years, the US military rarely has been keen on airdrops. The work is dangerous because the large cargo planes must fly slowly and as low as possible to land the supplies on target. Moreover, military officials argue, the aid frequently does not reach the intended recipients, sometimes causes more harm than good, and the hefty military cargo planes are easy targets.
Shortly after the Gulf War, when humanitarian supplies were dropped to Kurds who had fled to northern Iraq, the heavy crates caused death and injuries.
During the civil wars in Somalia and Ethiopia, drops of food and medicine often ended up in the hands of warring soldiers instead of the starving victims.
In Bosnia, NATO planes flying humanitarian missions frequently became the targets, and sometimes casualties, of Bosnian Serbs firing antiaircraft weapons.
Scott Terry, a former Navy lieutenant who flew surveillance missions over Bosnia, outlined the principal means of delivering humanitarian aid by air.
The first is high-level parachute drops, which are inaccurate, although relatively safe for the aircraft and crew. A complicated low-level parachute system is designed for peacetime drops and not for a plane in firing range. The third, the method being used over Kosovo, is specially packaging the supplies to be dropped without parachutes, considered the quickest and most accurate.
But it is also one of the most dangerous. The airplane has to fly anywhere from 100 feet to 500 feet above ground and fly at one-third its normal speed.