C–130, C–141, C–5, and C–9 (more than 100 total aircraft). Operations: The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s released a tide of nationalism in Yugoslavia, a federation of Roman Catholic Slovenians and Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Muslims, Albanians, Macedonians, and people of other ethnic groups. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation, and Serbs in Croatia took up arms against the new republic. In early 1992, predominantly Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnia) also declared independence from Yugoslavia. But armed Serbs in Bosnia began seizing territory soon after its declaration of independence and blockaded roads around the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo in the spring.
In April 1992, the United States recognized the independence of Bosnia and began airlifting relief supplies to Sarajevo. In early May, Serb forces took control of the airport, cutting off more than 300,000 people from food and other supplies. After negotiations with the warring parties, the UN organized an international relief effort for Bosnia, with overland truck convoys from Croatia to Sarajevo. The UN took control of the Sarajevo airport at the end of June 1992, reopening it for international relief flights.
To support the UN effort, the United States established a joint task force under USEUCOM for an extended operation called Provide Promise. The vice commander of the 435th Airlift Wing at Rhein-Main AB in Germany, Col. Patrick M. Henry, served as Provide Promise’s first mobility commander. U.S. C–130 aircraft began delivering food and medical supplies to Sarajevo on July 3, 1992. Most transports took off from Rhein-Main AB, staging at Zagreb in Croatia or Aviano AB in Italy on the way to Sarajevo, or flew directly to the Bosnian capital. The 435th and 317th Airlift Wings provided the first C–130s, but others began to rotate to Europe for three-week deployments. The Hercules aircraft came from full-time units and from AF Res and ANG units. Before long, about three C–130s were unloading at Sarajevo daily.
While the United States was only one of at least 15 countries airlifting relief supplies to Sarajevo in 1992, by the end of that year U.S. airplanes had delivered over 5,400 tons of food and medical supplies. Despite gunfire around Sarajevo that shot down an Italian cargo airplane in September, no U.S. plane was hit during the year.
Provide Promise expanded dramatically shortly after President Clinton’s inauguration in January 1993. In February, Serb mortars hit a market in central Sarajevo, killing 68 people. Two U.S. C–130s evacuated 50 wounded from the Bosnian capital to Ramstein AB in Germany, where they were taken to Landstuhl for medical treatment. During the same month, Bosnian Serbs blockaded Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia, preventing the arrival of UN truck convoys.
At the end of February, President Clinton authorized U.S. airdrops of food and medicine to the enclaves, including Tuzla, Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde. C–130s dropped thousands of leaflets explaining the humanitarian nature of the drops and warning people to avoid being hit by falling bundles, as happened in northern Iraq during Provide Comfort. Maj. Gen. James E. Chambers commanded the effort, which began on February 28 with C–130s from the 435th Airlift Wing.
To avoid ground fire, the C–130s dropped their cargo at night from altitudes above 10,000 feet. Large parachutes and padded packaging cushioned the fall of the first bundles, which weighed up to a ton. At first, AF Res and ANG C–130s did not participate in airdrops because they lacked the latest navigational equipment to enhance accuracy, but later they flew in formations with Hercules aircraft equipped with this equipment. Provide Promise aircrews used the Global Positioning System, which depended on satellite communications.
To drop food directly over encircled population centers, Provide Promise airlifters experimented with a new tri-wall aerial delivery system, or TRIADS, in which individual meals, each weighing 2.2 pounds, were scattered from boxes ripped open as they departed the aircraft. This method reduced the danger of injury or damage on the ground. By mid-July 1993, Provide Promise had dropped more than 7,000 packages of food and over 500 bundles of medical supplies.
The largest cargo aircraft in the Air Force inventory, C–5s, also participated in the 1993 Provide Promise operation. In April, a C–5 from Travis AFB in California transported relief supplies from Massachusetts to Rhein-Main AB, where they were loaded aboard smaller airplanes for delivery to Bosnia. In August, a 349th Airlift Wing C–5, flown by a crew from the 312th Airlift Squadron, airlifted two water purification systems from Texas to Croatia. Each system weighed over 18 tons. From Croatia, smaller C–130s ferried the water purification components to Sarajevo. In the same month, the Air National Guard’s 105th Airlift Group delivered three more water purification systems to Europe for delivery to Sarajevo. Once assembled, the five systems provided Bosnia’s capital with a clean water supply, reducing the chances of an epidemic.
Aeromedical evacuation of Bosnian war casualties from Sarajevo continued in the summer, but with a twist. Supplementing C–130 and C–9 flights from Bosnia to Germany, C–141 Starlifters began to airlift the wounded from Europe to the United States for medical treatment. This project was dubbed “Operation Second Chance.”
Provide Promise passed a milestone on October 8, 1993, when it surpassed the Berlin Airlift in duration (see Operation Vittles, June 1948–September 1949). By then, U.S. aircraft had transported more than 23,000 tons of relief cargo to Bosnia, with no major injuries or accidents. By the end of the year, Air Force aircraft had delivered more than 30,000 tons of food and medicine to the former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, fighting in Bosnia continued, claiming as many as 200,000 lives and leaving more than two million people homeless.
Provide Promise airlifters embarked on another secondary operation in December 1993. This mission was designated Provide Santa. Hercules aircraft dropped over Bosnia about 50 tons of toys and children’s clothing and shoes donated by U.S. military personnel stationed in Germany and German civilians. Between December and early 1994, Air Force transports from Rhein-Main AB also dropped 30 tons of mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags, candles, and beans over eastern Bosnia, helping people to cope with the winter.
The first damage to a U.S. Provide Promise aircraft occurred in early January 1994 when an exploding artillery shell at the Sarajevo airport hit a C–130. It was the sixth UN relief aircraft to suffer damage since July 1992. While there were no injuries and the damage was minor, Provide Promise flights ended for about a week. To reduce their vulnerability, C–130s landing at Sarajevo approached and departed the airport steeply, keeping their engines running during unloading to allow quicker takeoffs.
In May 1994, five C–141 Starlifters from the 315th and 437th Airlift Wings joined the Provide Promise air fleet under USEUCOM. A recently negotiated UN cease-fire allowed the larger aircraft to participate in the relief operation while the C–130s were transferred from Rhein-Main AB to Ramstein AB. Later in the year, the C–130s resumed Provide Promise missions from the new base, under operational control of the 37th Airlift Squadron.
Unfortunately, the C–141s did not escape damage. On July 21, a 437th Airlift Wing Starlifter, flown by Capt. Craig A. Breker of the 62d Airlift Wing, drew ground fire in the vicinity of Sarajevo. Although 25 bullets hit the fuselage and several more struck both wings, damaging the hydraulic and fuel systems, Breker safely returned the aircraft to Rhein-Main AB. The incident forced a temporary suspension of Provide Promise flights.
Between July 1992 and July 1994, nine Air Force planes, including C–130s and C–141s, were hit in or over Bosnia. Flying supplies into Sarajevo meant entering a war zone. Air crews, including women pilots, wore helmets and flak vests for protection against snipers. Provide Promise continued into 1995. By the end of the year, Bosnia’s warring factions had signed a peace agreement that finally ended the war, at least temporarily.