WITH THE U.S. AIR FORCE OVER BOSNIA -- The C-130 Hercules cargo plane dropped airspeed to a lumbering 140 knots, the nose went up and the back door opened on the thick, cold, blue-gray Bosnian night.
The Herc was supposed to be flying beyond anti-aircraft range, but at the moment, this plane was a big, fat, tempting target for any unhappy gunners below.
"Greenlight! Greenlight! Greenlight" yelled the co-pilot, Cary L. Stokes, a first lieutenant from Kansas City, Mo.
He threw a toggle switch, a connection broke and the Herc's humanitarian cargo of food and medical supplies slid toward the open door with swift, elephantine grace.
And, in a small flutter of parachutes, eight big olive-drab bundles were suddenly gone. Five seconds, maybe. Nearly 6 tons of relief aid plummeted at 70 mph toward the earth, near a tiny Bosnian town called Konjevic Polje. It should have hit the ground in about two minutes.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin, in Washington, called for a reassessment of the airdrops at about the same time that this four-plane flight was in the air. But Brig. Gen. Donald E. Loranger, the commander of the 435th Airlift Wing here, said the flights would continue on schedule.
"I have received no indication they won't be going forward," the general said. "So we're pressing on." A fourth mission was flown yesterday.
The general flew in the lead plane Tuesday as mission commander.
Doubts have been raised about whether the aid is getting to the people who need it. Reports from Bosnia indicate that only a few bundles have been recovered by besieged Muslims, who are cut off from other aid sources.
Some have been found by the besieging Bosnian Serbs, who have displayed on television U.S. meals-ready-to-eat packets that they say come from airdrop bundles. Some Muslims who have tried to get to the aid packages have reportedly been killed by Serbian snipers.
But you could not see the ground from this night flight. There was broken cloud cover below. Luckily, that meant that no one below could see the planes, either. Nobody fired at the planes. No one on the plane saw any ground fire below.
This lead plane stayed in line about a minute after its drop, while the three planes behind dumped their loads. Then they turned for home. The four C-130s had dropped 43,400 pounds of ready-to-eat food and 3,120 pounds of medical supplies.
General Loranger climbed down from the flight deck and pronounced himself happy. He had come along as mission commander tonight.
"That went pretty good," the general said. "We put that load out in the air with the airplane no more than 200 yards away from where we wanted it to be. That's the hardest thing to do. Position the plane over the ground where you want it."
But putting the airplane where you want it is not the same as putting the load where it should go. Food and medical bundles dropped from above anti-aircraft range may drift a mile off course on the way down. The bundles each have a little green chemical light that would burn about four hours to help people find them.
dTC "I'm very hopeful that the people who need it are getting it," the general said. "I am very, very confident that we are putting it
where we want to put it. I'm not sure we have the entire sources down there really to tell us how it's going."
The pilot on this Herc was Lt. Col. Harlan W. Ray, commander of the 37th Airlift Squadron. His navigator was Capt. Russell E. Taylor.
"These are my guys," General Loranger said. "I won't send them where I won't go."
He is a combat commander who started his career in 1967, flying a two-engine plane called a Caribou in Vietnam. This C-130 survives from the Vietnam era, too. It was built in 1964, but, as the general said, it has been virtually rebuilt and modernized over the years, somewhat like the Air Force.
General Loranger has also had a distinguished academic career. He has had a strong interest in international affairs. He is a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations. So he presumably has opinions about the Balkans crisis.
But he remains silent about the foreign relations aspects of these flights. He will talk only about his military operation.
He and his staff have had a lot to do with the planning. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees tells them where the food is needed.
"We look at it and decide if we can get in and get out," General Loranger said. "I haven't had one input in this process where I haven't been listened to. Not one.
"This flight gives me a chance to look at the environment, to see if any adjustments have to be made. You can't lead from the rear."
He did not find that any "adjustments" were needed. In fact, after the flight returned to Rhein-Main Air Base, near Frankfurt, Germany, at about 2:30 a.m. yesterday, he called the mission "perfect."
The C-130 had been in the air for about six hours, for a drop that took less than six seconds.