MESSAGE DROP

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One of the lifesaving skills of which Civil Air Patrol is capable is the airdrop of small objects to survivors or ground teams.   The U.S. Coast Guard makes regular practice of this skill, but we are only allowed to do so when necessary to save a life.   Specifically, paragraph 2-4(g) of CAPR 60-1, CAP Flight Management, says "Prohibited uses of CAP aircraft. The following uses of CAP aircraft are prohibited ... Dropping of objects unless such action is to prevent loss of life." 

CAP was not always prohibited from air dropping for practice.   On the contrary, message drop competitions were held for CAP members in the 1950s.   While a specific instance could not be located, such activities are usually prohibited following an incident or accident.   A likely conclusion would be that CAP prohibited dropping items following such an occurrence.  

CAPR 60-1 is, of course, more restrictive than the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), which allow for the dropping of objects.   Specifically, Part 91.15 of the FARs states, "No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property.   However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property."   In addition to that, one MIGHT be able to invoke the power of FAR 91.3(b), "In an in-flight emergency requiring immediate action, the pilot in command may deviate from any rule of this part to the extent required to meet that emergency." A lawyer, however, would interpret this regulation narrowly so as not to include an emergency on the ground as an in-flight emergency.   USAF regulations, on the other hand, allow for appropriate deviations in order to save lives, regardless of whether those in danger are flying or on the ground, but they only apply to USAF aircraft.   If the requirements of FAR 91.15 are not followed, an aircraft commander might also be concerned with the fact that he is also violating FAR 91.13, careless or reckless operation.  

Getting down to actual business, how does one go about dropping an object?   In collegiate competitions held around the country every year, the National Intercollegiate Flying Association, or NIFA, holds a "message drop" event in addition to other precision flying and academic nonflying events.   Aircrews work in teams of two in order to drop a message container on a series of two targets.   The targets, often 55-gallon drums, will be placed at the approach and departure end of a runway.   Crews must then make a single pass for two drops upon the targets, flying in cruise configuration.  

This competition has distinct advantages and disadvantages over what we might encounter in the field for CAP.   Advantage: competitors drop over a runway that is obstacle-free, allowing them to descend as low as 200' AGL (as set by competition rules).   Rescue aircraft would need to drop from 500' AGL in order to satisfy FAR 91.119, which requires a safe altitude and 500' from any person, vessel, vehicle, or structure.   Disadvantage: competitors need to drop in cruise configuration.   Disadvantage: competitors need to drop on two targets, we'll have just one.  

In actually performing a drop, the team concept is critical.   The pilot will maneuver the aircraft while the observer will give corrections as necessary.   The aircraft should fly directly over the drop target, offset to the left or right only slightly to correct for winds.   The object will not be falling very long and is only on a streamer, not a parachute: therefore, winds are of concern, but not of a large one.   The observer can tell the pilot left or right as appropriate.   In order to do this, he or she will be required to open the aircraft window and stick his or her head out.   This creates considerable wind noise if wearing a headset as the slipstream will blow right over the microphone.   It is recommended to temporarily remove your headset and communicate by shouting over the wind and engine noises.   Its not ideal, but other solutions require equipment that is not practical for something you might only have to do on in a life-or-death situation.  

On your approach to target, have the observer hold the container in his right hand and place his entire arm outside of and trailing the aircraft.   Ensure that the streamer is rolled up around the container, otherwise you stand a good chance of hitting the streamer on the tailplane after the object is released.  

It is a common misconception that the object, when dropped, will move considerably forward along the path of the aircraft.   After all, that is what physics teaches us! Practical experience differs in the case of a very lightweight message container, however.   The object will slow down to a dead fall very quickly.   Therefore, you should not release the container until very nearly directly overhead the target.   As a general guide, when flying a Cessna aircraft, release the object when the target crosses the landing gear strut of the aircraft.  

If you follow this method, your greatest errors will occur in early or late releases.   Your distance to the left or right of centerline will be minimal--very easily 50 feet or less with just a couple practice drops.   Take this into consideration when determining your run-in axis for drops in the field.   For example, if one were dropping a critically-needed first aid item to a ground team parked next to a road, consider flying down the road and dropping.   You would also want to make a couple of practice runs at a higher altitude to look out for obstacles and get a good idea of where the target is located.   This will keep you safe if dropping containers in the field.  

Of course the 'safest' place for anyone on the ground to stand is directly at your target.  

For a parting note, please keep these recommendations: in mind if you choose to drop objects for practice or for in an emergency situation.   1)Keep the object LIGHT--this way if it inadvertently hits something of value, it will cause little or no damage.   2) Before the balloon goes up and you find yourself in a position to need to drop something in an emergency, PRACTICE few drops with a non-CAP aircraft.   Rent something from an FBO.   When you make drop containers, make enough for one flight of SEVERAL practices.   3) Use radio coordination with personnel on the ground when it is possible.   They can give you corrections for your drops.

This page of the CAP Emergency Services Resources website was last updated 07/02/2008

1998 - 2006 Scott E. Lanis.  All Rights Reserved.