GPS-guided cargo chutes touchdown after first combat drop in Iraq

16 Aug 2004 | Staff Sgt. Bill Lisbon 1st Marine Logistics Group

Steering themselves from nearly two miles high to within less than 200 meters of their target, the Marine Corps' two newest skydivers made their first combat zone landing Aug. 9, 2004, near here.

The jumpers, however, are machines. Smart machines.

Programmed with the drop zone's coordinates, guided by the Global Positioning System, and maneuvered by motor-tugged lines, the Sherpa units each sat atop a pallet of rations for Marines here, riding them to Earth and ushering in the future of cargo delivery by air.

The owner of the new Sherpa is the 1st Air Delivery Platoon, part of Combat Service Support Battalion 7, 1st Force Service Support Group, which delivers supplies to Marine units throughout the vast western portion of Iraq's Al Anbar Province.

GPS-guided parachutes like the Sherpa eliminate numerous disadvantages of air dropping supplies to far-flung troops, said Army Capt. Art Pack, 37, combat developer with the Army's Combined Arms Support Command in Fort Lee, Va.

The Sherpa uses a rectangular, 900-square-foot parachute, which can be steered, vice a classic round chute. It also incorporates a small drogue parachute to help stabilize the cargo pallet, keeping it facing upward so the main chute opens properly after freefalling.

"It's basically your standard freefall rig, just super-sized," said Pack, a native of Winter Haven, Fla.

While in flight, the Sherpa constantly checks its position using a GPS receiver, and makes flight adjustments as necessary, pulling on two steering lines to turn the parachute.

Before any mission, the aircraft's altitude and speed, the cargo's weight, the drop zone location and wind speeds for various heights must be programmed into the Sherpa's control unit so it can calculate a flight plan, said Gunnery Sgt. Lorrin K. Bush, 35, head of the air delivery platoon. It can even be programmed to maneuver around obstacles or locations where enemy forces are located.

In response, the Sherpa calculates the precise point in the sky where the cargo must be dropped. As a result, the riggers are taking on more responsibility since they can now plan part of the flight's path. Previously, this task fell upon the plane's navigator.

"We give them the mission and say "Fly this,'" Bush said. "They're not used to hearing that from us."

Currently, cargo is dropped via "dumb" parachutes, which have varying accuracy depending on the altitude of the aircraft and wind conditions during the drop, said Pack. Low-altitude drops, classified as anything under 2,000 feet, are fairly accurate, but put the plane and its crew in range of crippling enemy fire.

"The GPS-guided chute gives us more flexibility dropping the load," said Edmonds, Wash., native Capt. Robert D. Hornick, 28, a KC-130 cargo plane co-pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, the unit that flew the mission. "We just get close to the 'DZ' and drop it and it does the rest."

A week prior to the Sherpa's debut, a KC-130 dropped a load of rations for Marines at Korean Village. Even at 800 feet, the cargo landed 300 meters from its target, said Pack. In Afghanistan, where air delivery is used heavily to re-supply forces in remote locations, loads have landed more than a kilometer from troops on the ground, forcing them to hike and hunt for the goods.

Drop zones are sometimes marked with colored-smoke grenades or large canvas markers. That, followed by the low-flying planes, could give away the friendly unit's location, said Bush, who's served seven years of his career in air delivery and six in reconnaissance.

With the Sherpa, however, pilots don't even need to see the ground, and can make accurate drops day or night from as high as 25,000 feet and as far as nine miles from the drop zone, said Pack. In fact, numerous Sherpas could be dropped during one pass, saving time and fuel, and each could soar to a different unit at a different location stretched over several miles.

While seemingly a godsend to Marines in Iraq, the Sherpa's capabilities are limited. One Sherpa canopy can support no more than 1,200 pounds of cargo. The Marine riggers typical pack bundles weighing 2,200 pounds.

The U.S. military is currently developing the Joint Precision Air Drop System, a family of computer-guided cargo parachutes expected to one day support 21-ton loads. However, smaller versions of the system that can support between 2,200 and 10,000 pounds aren't due to be fielded for at least another four years, said Pack.

Tasked by commanders in Iraq to find an interim solution, the Army turned to Mist Mobility Integrated Systems Technology, Inc., a small civilian company based in Ottawa, Canada. More than three months ago, their Sherpa system was identified as an acceptable fix, said Army Reserve Capt. Barton T. Brundige, 41, a logistics operations officer with Multinational Corps - Iraq, who was in charge of fielding the system in Iraq.

"This is a 60-percent solution," said Pack. "It is a gap filler."

After talking with Bush, Brundige decided to outfit the platoon with the first Sherpas. Bush and three of his Marines, as well as four more air delivery Marines in California deploying to Iraq next month, then traveled to Yuma, Ariz., from July 6-17 to train to use the new gear. There they learned how to plan missions using the Sherpa's software, rig the system to a bundle of cargo and repair it if necessary.

After 10 drops using the Sherpa, Bush will provide the flight data to Brundige for further analysis. If everything checks out, 1st Air Delivery Platoon should receive 18 more Sherpas.

"It's like anything else. Until you actually give it to the guy on the ground and let them use it, you don't know everything. We don't anticipate the system being a failure," said Brundige, a Los Angeles native.

Each system, which includes a body, canopy, riggings, remote control, rechargeable batteries and software, costs $68,000, said Bush. A standard military cargo parachute runs approximately $11,000.

The Aug. 9 mission marked the fifth cargo drop by Marines in western Iraq this year. During Operation Iraqi Freedom last year, Marines only dropped supplies once. It was the first drop in combat since the Vietnam War, said Bush, a native of Kailua Kona, Hawaii.

Of the 5 million pounds of cargo moved by Combat Service Support Battalion 7 since March, approximately 100,000 pounds parachuted in, said Lt. Col. Adrian W. Burke, the battalion's commander and a 42-year-old native of Deer Park, Texas.

And Burke plans to continue to air deliver supplies, both via precision and standard chutes, as one of the several methods to keep Marines equipped.

Since it is a specialized method of distribution, though, Burke doesn't expect air delivery to replace vehicle convoys in Iraq. While dangerous, they are currently the most effective way to move supplies around the battlefield since vehicles and drivers are numerous and cargo weight is seldom a concern.

While air delivery has seen limited use by the Marines thus far in Iraq, its helps reduce the number of Marines and vehicles taking to the dangerous Iraqi highways, veins of insurgent activity but lifelines to sustain troops.

"Frankly for us, it's a combat zone," said Burke.

To reduce vehicle convoys to remote bases like Korean Village, Bush plans on equipping the second rotation of air delivery Marines with larger parachutes, albeit standard ones, and pallets capable of delivering much larger loads of rations and water. Sherpas will be incorporated into standard drops as well as used to resupply units operating remotely.

In addition, Brundige said the Army is attempting to modernize its supply distribution process throughout Iraq, and "aerial delivery is certainly a part of that."

"If we can use aerial delivery to keep soldiers and Marines off the roads, then that's a win-win for everybody," said Brundige.

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