Ramstein AFB, Germany Two American C-17 cargo planes completed an unprecedented and risky mission dropping humanitarian aid over Afghanistan Monday as part of Washington's efforts to underscore that the military attacks were aimed at terrorists, not civilians.
The cargo planes were airborne for a full 24 hours, dropping 35,000 food packets from high altitudes onto areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan where the civilian need was deemed greatest.
"It did present dangers with the high altitude and the potential ground threat," Air Force Col. Bob Allardice told reporters at the United States' Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany after the planes landed. He would not comment on whether the planes encountered any hostilities, but the 20-person crew was unharmed and in high spirits.
Crew members from the two plane attached to the 437th Airlift Wing at Charleston Air Force Base in North Carolina exchanged exuberant high-fives and hugs after landing.
One of the flight commanders, whose name was not released due to security concerns, described the unusually difficult mission of more than 6,000 miles from Ramstein to Afghanistan and back again as difficult, but uneventful.
The airdrop over Afghanistan was executed at higher altitudes than ever before attempted to avoid any enemy fire, the commander said, without specifying the altitude for security reasons.
"That's the way you want it to be over the drop zone, boring. And it was," the commander said. "There was a haze on the ground and a couple of lights but we couldn't see anything else."
In order to drop the food packets containing daily rations, the cabin and cockpits were depressurized, requiring crew to put on oxygen masks and endure near-freezing temperatures. Medical crew were on board both planes to make sure the flight crews didn't experience altitude sickness, he said.
"It was an outstanding success. It's a testament to the professionalism and the dedication of the crews and people supporting them," the commander said. "An unprecedented mission. A difficult one."
The packets contained a daily ration of red beans, rice, fruit bars, peanut butter and strawberry jam, providing at least 2,200 calories, which were dropped out of boxes from the back of the cargo planes. The food does not contain any animal products so as not to violate any religious or cultural practices. Muslims, for example, do not eat pork.
The military also dropped leaflets and made radio broadcasts into Afghanistan to explain the U.S. action, he said. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who announced the airdrop in Washington Sunday night, also said medicine was also being dropped into the country, but officials at Ramstein gave no details.
The United States has a stockpile of about 2 million of the food packets, but U.S. military officials at Ramstein would not comment of any plans for future drops.