Care from the Air

This is an article published in our June/July 2017 Issue.

WFP Il-76 lines up on the runway of Jordan’s Marka Airport
The WFP Il-76 lines up on the runway of Jordan’s Marka Airport for a high-level food airdrop mission of food and medical supplies to the besieged Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. (David Oliver)

One of the world’s largest operators of aircraft in conflict zones is the United Nations. Relying on the provision of aircraft from member states and from the private sector, such aircraft provide lifelines for civilians caught up in hostilities around the world.

The United Nations’ (UN) peacekeeping budget for 2016 to 2017 is $7.9 billion, according to the UN’s own figures. This budget helps to pay for existing UN peacekeeping operations such as UNMISS (UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan), UNAMID (United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur), MONUSCO (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en République Démocratique du Congo/Stabilisation Mission of the United Nations in the Democratic Republic of Congo), MINUSCA (Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Centrafrique/UN Integrated Multidimensional Mission for Stabilisation in the Central African Republic) and MINUSMA (Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation au Mali/UN Multidimensional Mission for Stabilisation in Mali). In 2014 the UN spent more than $800 million on air chartering services, using more than 150 helicopters and 50 fixed-wing aircraft and has been looking at new ways of procuring aviation support for its agencies, according to a UN press release published in May 2016. For peacekeeping missions, aviation support is provided by the armed forces of member nations or contracted commercial operators.

Italian Air Force Agusta-Bell AB-212
An Italian Air Force Agusta-Bell AB-212 supporting the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to monitor cessation of hostilities and helping ensure humanitarian access to civilian population. (David Oliver)

Examples of aircraft provided by UN member nations for peacekeeping operations include a flight of Fuerza Aérea Argentina (Argentine Air Force) Bell 212 family and Hughes/MD Helicopters MD-500D light utility helicopter that serve with the UN Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) while Aeronautica Militaire (Italian Air Force) AgustaWestland/Bell HH-212A light utility helicopters in support of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). After a protracted development and entry into service, South African Air Force (SAAF) Denel Rooivalk-Mk.1 attack helicopters proved to be a successful asset to the UN during peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo when it was first deployed in support of MONUSCO in November 2013 along with a flight of SAAF Denel Oryx-Mk.1/II medium-lift utility helicopters. The depleted Ethiopian Air Force has also deployed three of its Mil Mi-35 helicopter gunships to support UNMISS.

South African Air Force Rooivalk-Mk.1 helicopter
South African Air Force Rooivalk-Mk.1 helicopters supporting the United Nations’ MONUSCO mission have been used to assist peace enforcement operations. (MONUSCO)

Private Sector

Alongside the government provision of aviation to support peacekeeping operations, the private sector is also involved in its provision. The US Company AAR Airlift is a certified commercial aviation provider to the UN and operates a fleet Sikorsky S-61Ns and S-92s and Eurocopter/Airbus Helicopters AS-330J Pumas. On 29th March 2015, AAR Airlift announced that it had been awarded a three-year $19 million contract by the UN for airlift services in Central Africa to provide passenger and cargo air charter services in support of the MONUSCO operations.

However, there is growing shortage of military helicopters supporting UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, especially with the MINUSMA. In October 2016 Indonesian Army Aviation withdrew its three Mi-17V5s that were deployed in Timbuktu for twelve months. The aim of a suicide attack on Gao airport in eastern Mali on 29th November 2016 was to destroy the UN aircraft at the airport, specifically several chartered civilian Mil Mi-8 helicopters and a Ghana Air Force Airbus C-295 transport aircraft. The four Koninklijke Luchtmacht (Royal Netherlands Air Force) McDonnel Douglas/Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and three Boeing CH-47D/F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters deployed to Gao were operated from a different part of the UN base at the airport. Nevertheless, earlier this year the Netherlands began to withdraw these aircraft from Mali. To fill this capability gap, the first Luftwaffe (German Air Force) NH Industries NH-90TTH medium-lift helicopter configured for medical evacuation was flown to Bamako, south-west Mali, on 27th January by an Antonov An-124-100 turbofan freighter of Volga-Dnepr Airlines. This aircraft will be followed by three more NH-90TTHs and four Eurocopter/Airbus Helicopter EC-665UHT Tiger attack helicopters, according to media reports, which added that they will perform their missions from Gao.

The UN only awards contracts through its procurement division for long-term air charter and short-term passenger movements to air operators in a possession of an Air Operator Certificate (AOC). An AOC is typically awarded by a national aviation authority to permit a company to use aircraft for commercial services. The UN stipulates that helicopters operating on its behalf must possess the United Nations Aviation Global Satellite Tracking Solution (UNAGSTS) which is built around a satellite data link which can provide details of an aircraft’s location, velocity, bearing and altitude to Global Positioning System. According to official UN documents: “The UNAGSTS provides a necessary tool that allows United Nations personnel to observe, analyse, and report real-time flight activities.” Other UN regulations require helicopters to be outfitted with an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System/Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System (EGPWS/HTAWS).

Mi-8TV1 helicopter
Ukrainian Helicopters’ fleet of Mi-8TV1 helicopters was the first to have the UNAGSTS and EGPWS/HTAWS equipment fitted. (David Oliver)

One of the largest UN aviation providers since 2005 is Ukrainian Helicopters that has a fleet of 28 Mi-8MTV1s that have operated in peacekeeping operations in Cote d’Ivorie, DRC, Haiti, Sudan and South Sudan, humanitarian missions in Burma, Kenya, Mozambique, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda, and relief operations in Portugal, Turkey and Ukraine. Ukrainian Helicopters were the first organisation to fly missions in full compliance with the new UN regulations regarding aircraft specification with the installation of UN-certified Iridium SkyTrac ISAT-200A Global Positioning System/Iridium transceivers, Sandel ST3400H HTAWS and Honeywell TCAS-II CAS-67A Traffic Collision Avoidance System. Ukrainian Helicopters took the decision to the rebuild its fleet of Mi-8MTV1s into a truly multi-role platform, largely with western technology and equipment. This included the installation of the FLIR UltraForce 350HD optronics system, and a night vision goggle-compatible with new avionics including Garmin GTN-650/GTN-695 navigation system and multifunction displays. Additional equipment included a Spectrolab SX-16 IFCO Nightsun searchlight, a Bird Aerosystems AMPS-M airborne missile protection system, ballistic protection and a medical module, according to Ukrainian Helicopters.

Another helicopter operator to comply with the UNAGSTS directive is the Valan ICC of Moldova. Its fleet of eight Mi-8MTV1 helicopters operates in compliance with the requirements of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Republic of Moldova which are based on those of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation), the UN body codifying the techniques and principles of global air navigation, to provide air support to clients such as the UN and World Food Programme, the UN’s food assistance branch. In November 2014 the company began upgrading its MI-8 MTV helicopters to meet the UN latest requirements and updates on the technical specifications for the aircraft and in 2015, Valan ICC was awarded a UN contract for humanitarian aid operations with UNMISS.

Mil Mi-8/17, seen here supporting the UN Mission in Sudan
The backbone of the UN helicopter fleet is the ubiquitous Mil Mi-8/17, seen here supporting the UN Mission in Sudan. (UN)

Notwithstanding the extensive modernisation programmes that the Mi-8/17 family are subjected to, as illustrated by the upgrade programmes discussed above, some operators are looking to replace these ageing helicopters. Ukrainian Helicopters commercial director Andril Nebret told AMR he has looked at the S-92 but considers its performance and payload is reduced in hot and high conditions that the Mi-8/17 family thrives on, and also Eurocopter/Airbus Helicopters AS332-C1E Super Puma, which has the required performance but its high acquisition cost of a new aircraft rules it out until pre-owned aircraft come on the market. The impact of the United Nations revised procurement procedure (see above) for its future aviation requirements remain to be seen but it is more than likely that its long-term rotary-wing charters will largely be met for at least the next decade by the MI-8/17 family.


The WFP manages the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) that transported more than 285,000 passengers and nearly 6000 metric tons of cargo to 317 regular and one-off destinations in 34 countries in 2015 according to the WFP. The top UN agency users of UNHAS were UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) and UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) while the top three NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) users were MSF (Medicine Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders), Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee. The UNHAS has a fleet of some 70 chartered aircraft, the organisation states, most of which are fixed-wing types. including Beechcraft 1900 family turboprop transport, Bombardier/De Havilland Dash-8 family turboprop freighters, Dornier Do-228 family turboprop transports, Embraer EJR-135 family turboprop transports and Antonov An-74 family turboprop freighters.

The WFP has a long history of food airdrops that go back to 1999 when the first humanitarian airdrops were completed successfully in East Timor, with the delivery of desperately needed food and blankets to tens of thousands of people hiding in the mountains fleeing political violence following the country’s independence from Indonesia. The food airdrops were performed using two Royal Australian Air Force Lockheed Martin C-130H/J turboprop freighters lent to the WFP. The WFP also executed a unique air delivery system developed in conjunction with the South African aviation company, Safair. During the provision of aid to East Timor, a C-130H/J was deployed to drop 350,000 plastic seven ounce (200 gram) packets of high-energy biscuits, packed in such a way that they floated and circled as they fall to ensure a soft landing.

Not all air carriers can perform these types of airdrop missions. WFP Aviation charters aircraft from accredited air carriers, which are duly licensed for this type operation by the national aviation authority of the country of aircraft registration via the obtention of an AOC (see above) Aircraft preparation for the mission is the responsibility of the carrier, and the aircraft used are normally equipped with roller system to allow loading and gravity extraction of pallets in flight. The aircrew and loadmasters are required to have necessary training and flight experience to be able to perform airdrop operations.

During humanitarian air drop operations, the Drop Zones (DZ) are marked out by white food bags with a cross in its centre. The area is secured with a 200-metre/m (645-feet/ft) perimeter outside the DZ and it is the ground controller who clears the aircraft to release its cargo. The drops are generally made from just 645ft (200m) above the ground to reduce the impact on the food bags as they land. The drop sequence is down to the loadmasters with the cargo arranged in either a single or double row configuration. If it is single row, it is released in a single drop.

In 2015 the WPF carried out 1636 airdrop flights to deliver 45200 metric tons of food. It supplied urgently needed relief items to people in otherwise impossible–to–reach locations across South Sudan where between January 2016 and June 2016, it conducted more than 960 airdrops from two domestic locations as well as from airfields in Uganda and Ethiopia.

WFP Il-76 lines up on the runway of Jordan’s Marka Airport
The WFP Il-76 lines up on the runway of Jordan’s Marka Airport for a high-level food airdrop mission of food and medical supplies to the besieged Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. (David Oliver)

For the first time, in April 1916 the WFP began high level airdrops of food and essential supplies to Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, a city of more than 100,000 people besieged by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgent group According to AMR sources, the operation is based in Jordan at Amman’s Marka Airport and the first test drops from 22500ft (7,000m) took place at a Jordanian military range in mid-March 2016, but were unsuccessful due to the use of time-expired Russian parachutes which failed to open on release. Further tests using new parachutes proved successful and the WFP carried out its first successful high-altitude airdrop over Deir Ezzor on 10th April 2016 to deliver 20 metric tonnes of food aid. Single Russian parachutes for the bags of food weighing between 1775 pounds/lb (800 kilograms/kg) and one tonne mounted on collapsible pallets, are rigged at Marka, along with three US parachutes used for dropping cooking oil containers that require a slower descent rate. The WFP has a small number of GPS-guided parachutes used for precision drops of vital medical supplies.

World Food Programme Il-76 dropping food
A World Food Programme Il-76 dropping food in Bentiu’s Unity State in support of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS)

The Russian airline Abakan Air was contracted to provide an Ilyushin Il-76T/TD to fly two missions a day to drop up to 26 pallets in three runs. The planners used the United Kingdom Meteorological Office weather forecasts for the flights and Jordanian air traffic control handles the flight until it reaches the Syrian-Jordanian border, after which the crew is in contact with the Damascus Area Control Centre while it is in Syrian airspace as far as Very High Frequency (30 megahertz/MHz to 300MHz) radio range covers. However, the flight keeps to the same route using a recognised corridor to the DZ. The total flight time of the missions to Deir Ezzor is typically 2 hours and 45 minutes.

While the Il-76T/TD’s aircrew has no direct communications with US Central Command, the US combined combatant command in charge of the US-led coalition’s military efforts against ISIS, Russian Air Force Sukhoi Su-30 family fighter aircraft have been providing unofficial escorts to the aircraft while in Syrian airspace. In March the 200th WFP airdrop marked a delivery of 3500 tons of Humanitarian aid to more than 90000 people still trapped in the besieged city.

With ongoing conflicts, humanitarian crises and natural disasters continuing to plague Africa, the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, government-furnished and chartered aviation will continue to be in the frontline of the UN peacekeeping and relief efforts for the foreseeable future.

Mil Mi-24/35 attack helicopters
Mil Mi-24/35 attack helicopters have been deployed to numerous United Nations missions in Africa and the Middle East including the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). (UN)

by David Oliver