08/14/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Oct 12, 2014

Humanitarian Top Gun

Many things make the U.S. a military superpower, and not all of them involve blowing things up. The airdrops of food, water, and other supplies to besieged Yazidi civilians in Iraq highlight a corner of the U.S. military that gets little media attention -- but has particular usefulness for humanitarian purposes. As a former flight engineer on the C-130 Hercules and the C-5 Galaxy, I have followed these missions with interest and pride.

When the general public thinks of air power, fighter jets usually come to mind. But with its fleet of large transport aircraft, the U.S. Air Force has a capability that's not as glamorous but every bit as important: Within a matter of hours, it can put cargo anywhere on the globe, on target to within a matter of feet.

This capability lends itself especially well to missions of mercy like the airdrops to Mount Sinjar, and it requires people with a variety of perishable skills. Only through constant training can these perishable skills stay ready to answer a pop-up crisis like the attempted genocide of a minority sect.

The mission begins as aerial port airmen build the pallets and rig the parachutes. Different types and weights of cargo require different chutes and packaging; bottles of water will do no one any good if they break open on impact. Also, the pallets have to slide out of the aircraft perfectly; if one hangs up, it can cause the loss of a plane and crew.

Planners calculate fuel requirements, arrange aerial refueling if necessary, and obtain diplomatic clearances to fly through airspace of countries along the route of flight. Maintenance personnel ready the aircraft, and they usually set up spare planes in case of last-minute hitches.

Intelligence analysts brief the crews on the positions of enemy and friendly forces, with particular attention to the presence of antiaircraft weapons. Tactics officers determine the best maneuvers for reaching the drop zone safely.

Specialists provide the fliers with the night-vision goggles, parachutes, body armor, survival vests and other gear needed for the mission. By the time the crew steps to the aircraft, helmet bags in hand, a lot of precision work has already been done.

Once the plane takes to the air, things get even more precise. Procedures vary, but a drop run to aid the Yazidis would go something like this:

Before entering hostile airspace, an order comes over interphone, "Crew, Combat Entry checklist."

Checklist items include resetting altimeters, donning survival equipment, and stationing lookouts to watch for a welcoming committee with shoulder-fired missiles. Certain actions on the Combat Entry checklist make the aircraft a more difficult target for the bad guys, and others minimize damage if something does hit the plane.

The crew members will include a pilot, a copilot, one or more loadmasters in the cargo compartment, and -- depending on the aircraft model -- a navigator and a flight engineer. They're too busy to get scared. The navigator reviews wind drift data, the flight engineer rechecks aircraft configuration, and the loadmasters are in the windows, scanning for tracers or the smoke trail of a missile launch. The pilots fly a set course and speed as accurately as possible, to keep from making the navigator's job harder than it already is.

As the aircraft approaches the drop zone, or DZ, the interphone hums with terse commands and responses. The engineer depressurizes the airplane to prepare for opening the cargo doors. Depending on the type of drop, the loadmasters might retract part of the locks that hold the pallets in place. The copilot turns on a red drop light that will go green on the navigator's order. The cargo doors yawn open.

Closer to the DZ, the navigator announces, "Crew, one-minute advisory."

Over the release point, things suddenly get quiet. The interphone needs to stay clear for any last-second adjustments from the navigator or one of the pilots.

"Five seconds," the navigator calls.

By now, in the dim glow of cockpit lighting, some of the aviators are likely holding their breath. Though they feel great empathy for the people in the darkness below them, up here, it's all mathematics and procedure. Depending on the navigator's technique, his crewmates might hear him counting down: "Four, three, two, one."

"Green light," he calls finally.

For some types of drops, a blade cuts a strap to release the cargo. For others, a chute pulls the load out of the airplane. But, in either case, the crew feels the vibration of pallets sliding over rollers -- and out into the night. Parachutes blossom behind the airplane.

The crew runs a Completion of Drop checklist, and later, a Combat Exit checklist. They'll fly back to a secure base, and they'll never meet the people whose lives they may have saved. Perhaps tomorrow night they'll do it all over again.

I won't get into the politics of how we got to this point in Iraq and who's to blame; there will be plenty of ink and pixels used elsewhere on that subject. But if you're a refugee dying of thirst, you care only about getting water now.

There's only one way to make that happen. It doesn't come easily or cheaply, and you'll never see a sequel to Top Gun titled Top Bundle. But the airdrops over Mount Sinjar point out the need to maintain this capability, even in an era of budget austerity.

Tom Young served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Air National Guard. He is the author of a series of military novels published by G.P. Putnam's Sons. His latest novel, Sand and Fire, was released in July.