Snowdrop (LFD) Situation as of January 2000
Airdrops require a well-defined and secure dropping zone. Terrain conditions and/or security reasons may prevent the creation of such zones, resulting in potentially dangerous conditions for both the beneficiaries and the delivery aircraft. To overcome these risks, a method for delivering food from a safe altitude without the risk of causing damage on the ground was developed. This method consists of dropping tens of thousands of individual food rations, weighing approximately 175 to 300 g each, with a Hercules or IL 76 type of aircraft. The food packets are made in such a way that they float or spin to the ground at a reduced, safe speed. Because of these typical characteristics, the method is called "Snowdrop".
Over the past years, several vulnerable groups in extremely isolated areas, including refugees on the move would have benefited from this Snowdrop system such as in Kurdistan, Eastern Congo, Somalia and, more recently, Kosovo. The method could have been applied because the needy people were randomly dispersed and dropping zones could not be established.
Until early 1999, not one single operator, neither commercial nor military, had developed an adequate method to deliver the food. Being aware of this shortcoming, WFP entered into negotiations in the mid-nineties with SAFAIR, a South African C 130 Operator, to develop and certify the system. At first, SAFAIR tried out a method with cardboard boxes but the results were disappointing. In 1998 SAFAIR built a prototype of a new delivery system and gave a static demonstration to WFP. The system consists of six metal containers, which are open at the top, interconnected and placed in a double row in a C 130. Each row is equipped with its own conveyer belt which extends over the full length of the cargo. The food packets are stacked on the belt and roll out of the aircraft upon release. Only one container row is dropped per overflight, meaning that two runs are required to drop the full load.
During the Kosovo crisis in spring 1999, the urgent need of Snowdrop delivery surfaced again and WFP insisted once more that SAFAIR would fully certify the Snowdrop delivery system that was demonstrated in 1998. Two WFP representatives were present at the start of the SAFAIR flight test programme. WFP had ordered 20 MT of snowdrop packed biscuits (175 g/pack) to conduct the tests but, because the biscuits were very loosely packed, the volume was approximately twice the volume of the normal Snowdrop pack mix. As a result, the containers could only hold 3.3 MT at each side, limiting the total payload to 6.6 MT, or 37,500 rations. SAFAIR conducted 3 test flights. Full extraction was not achieved until the third flight. The extraction time was respectively 50 and 35 seconds, resulting in a footprint of approximately 2 km long and 200 meters wide.
During the same time period, the Belgian Air Force (BAF) performed multiple test flights to certify its own Snowdrop delivery system. The BAF used large individual cardboard boxes each filled with approximately 3150 rations. A total of 16 boxes are put on the standard C 130 roller system, holding approximately 50,000 rations or 9 MT of food and are delivered in one run. The certification was conducted over a period of several months and WFP representatives were invited to witness some of the flights.
The BAF encountered some difficulties to individually disperse the rations after release. It decided to attach a small parachute to each of the boxes for inducing a tilting motion and, as such, ensuring full separation and dispersion of the food packets into the air stream. The last successful trial was performed on 16 June 1999 and the system is now certified by the Belgian administration.