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A large military cargo aircraft: the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy

The Airbus A400M, the future transport/tanker aircraft of many European countries

Antonov An-124 loading a container for the Dutch military

An airlift is the organized delivery of supplies or personnel primarily via aircraft.

Airlifting consists of two distinct types, strategic and tactical airlifting. Typically, strategic airlifting involves moving materiel long distances (such as across or off the continent or theater), whereas a tactical airlift focuses on deploying resources and material into a specific location with high precision.

Depending on the situation, airlifted supplies can be delivered by a variety of means. When the destination and surrounding airspace is considered secure, the aircraft will land at an appropriate airport or airbase to have its cargo unloaded on the ground. When landing the craft, or distributing the supplies to a certain area from a landing zone by surface transportation is not an option, the cargo aircraft can drop them in mid-flight using parachutes attached to the supply containers in question. When there is a broad area available where the intended receivers have control without fear of the enemy interfering with collection and/or stealing the goods, the planes can maintain a normal flight altitude and simply drop the supplies down and let them parachute to the ground. However, when the area is too small for this method, as with an isolated base, and/or is too dangerous to land in, a Low Altitude Parachute Extraction System drop is used.


1979 film by the US Department of Defense about important historical airlifts

In April 1923 aircraft of the RAF's Iraq Command flew 280 Sikh troops from Kingarban to Kirkuk in the first British air trooping operation. This operation was only conducted over a short range and it was not until 1929 that the RAF conducted a long-range non-combat air evacuation of British diplomatic staff from Afghanistan to India using a Vickers Victoria during the Kabul Airlift...

The world's first long-range combat airlift took place in July 1936.[1] Luftwaffe Ju 52 and Italian Air Force Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 were used by the Spanish Nationalists to transport troops from Spanish Morocco to Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

Airlifts became practical during World War II as aircraft became large and sophisticated enough to handle large cargo demands. The USAAF's Air Transport Command began the largest and longest-sustained airlift of the war in May 1942, delivering more than half a million net tons of materiel from India to China over the Hump by November 1945. The largest airlift was the Berlin airlift, lasting from June 1948 to September 1949, an American, British and French operation intended to thwart the blockading of the city of Berlin by the Soviet Union. The largest civilian airlift ever, the Biafran airlift, was carried out by Protestant and Catholic churches working together under the banner "Joint Church Aid"(JCA) to carry food to Biafra, during the Biafran secession war from Nigeria in 1967-70. This joint effort (which those involved used to call "Jesus Christ Airlines" as an inside joke from the initials JCA) is estimated to have saved more than a million lives in Biafra. All airplanes departed from the (by then) Portuguese colony of St. Tome and Principe and used to fly by night, all lights off and avoiding Nigerian Migs to the bush landing strip of Uli, made by enlarging a common road, the only operational "airport" in Biafra. All the airplanes, crews and logistics were paid, set up and maintained by the joint churches. Joint Churches and their crews and aircraft (mostly aging multiprop airliners like DC-7's, Lockheed Constellation and Superconstellations, DC-6's, even some DC3) kept flying into Biafra at the cost of many crews lives.[2][verification needed]

Strategic airlift

Boeing C-17 Globemaster III

Armored vehicle loading into a Transall C-160.

Strategic airlift is the use of cargo aircraft to transport materiel, weaponry, or personnel over long distances. Typically, this involves airlifting the required items between two airbases which are not in the same vicinity. This allows commanders to bring items into a combat theater from a point on the other side of the planet, if necessary. Aircraft which perform this role are considered strategic airlifters. This contrasts with tactical airlifters, such as the C-130 Hercules and Transall C-160, which can normally only move supplies within a given theater of operations.

Examples of late 20th/early 21st Century large strategic airlifters include:

That being said, with present technology it is impossible even for the United States to shift a substantial mechanised force, particularly tanks, by air. This difficulty has prompted investment from the US military in lighter armoured fighting vehicles (such as the Stryker), as well as some preliminary research into alternative airlift technologies such as ground effect vehicles and airships.

Tactical airlift

CH-47 Chinook demonstrating airlift capabilities.

Tactical airlift is a military term for the airborne transportation of supplies and equipment within a theatre of operations (in contrast to strategic airlift). Aircraft which perform this role are referred to as tactical airlifters. These are typically turboprop aircraft, and feature short landing and take-off distances and low-pressure tires allowing operations from small or poorly-prepared airstrips. While they lack the speed and range of strategic airlifters (which are typically jet-powered), these capabilities are invaluable within war zones. Larger helicopters such as the CH-47 Chinook and Mil Mi-26 can also be used to airlift men and equipment. Helicopters have the advantage that they do not require a landing strip and that equipment can often be suspended below the aircraft allowing it to be delivered without landing but are highly inefficient. Tactical airlift aircraft are designed to be maneuverable, allowing low-altitude flight to avoid detection by radar and for the airdropping of supplies. Most are fitted with defensive aids systems to protect them from attack by surface-to-air missiles.

The earliest Soviet tactical airlift occurred in 1929[citation needed], in which forty men of the Red Army were airlifted to the town of Garm, Tajikistan (then the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic) to repel an attacking force of Basmachi rebels under Fuzail Maksum. Examples of late 20th/early 21st Century large tactical airlifters include:

Airlifter comparison

Airlifters in service during the late 20th/early 21st Centuries:

Aircraft Role Max. payload (Kg) Range (NM) Cruise(Mach) Ceiling (Ft.) Price
C-130J[5] Tactical 18,955 2,380 NM Mach .58 33,000 Ft $ 52m (est.)
An-12 Tactical 20,000 1,940 NM Mach .55 33,000 Ft
Embraer KC-390 Tactical 23,600 2,924 NM Mach .70 36,000 Ft $ 50m (est.)
Airbus A400M Tactical 37,000 2,450 NM Mach .72 37,000 Ft € 100m (est.)
Kawasaki C-2 Tactical 37,600 3,000 NM Mach .80 40,000 Ft $ 120m (est.)
Antonov An-70 Tactical 47,000 1,621 NM Mach .73 40,000 Ft $ 80m (est.)
Ilyushin Il-214 Tactical 22,000 1,553 NM Mach .70 39,370 Ft $ 50m (est.)
IL-76MD-90A Strategic 60,000 2,380 NM Mach .70 42,700 Ft $ 120m (est.)
C-17 Globemaster Strategic/tactical 77,520 2,380 NM Mach .77 45,000 Ft $ 225m
C-5 Galaxy Strategic 122,472 2,400 NM Mach .77 34,000 Ft $ 168m
An-124-100M-150 Strategic 150,000 2,900 NM Mach .65 35,000 Ft $70–100m
An-225 Strategic 250,000 2,159 NM Mach .61 33,000 Ft

See also

References and notes

  1. Per photograph caption pg.146 and also text pg.201, Air Power, Budiansky, Stephen, Penguin Group, London England 2005
  2. Shadows: airlift and airwar in Biafra and Nigeria 1967-1970, by Michael I. Draper (ISBN 1-902109-63-5)
  3. The Airbus Military A400M, a airlifter, blurs the line between tactical and strategic transports. Airbus stresses its tactical performance but also its strategic capabilities; higher payload, higher range and higher speed than the Hercules, although not as high as the C-17. The table below demonstrates this status, the A-400 occupying a "middle ground" between the C-130 and the C-17.
  4. The Airbus Military A400M, a airlifter, blurs the line between tactical and strategic transports. Airbus stresses its tactical performance but also its strategic capabilities; higher payload, higher range and higher speed than the Hercules, although not as high as the C-17. The table below demonstrates this status, the A-400 occupying a "middle ground" between the C-130 and the C-17.
  5. C-130J specifications

External links

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