Maj. David Braden piloted his aircraft over rugged terrain as Capt. Jesse Hayes and 1st Lt. Sam Lewis eyed the target below.

"Ten seconds," said Braden."Green light," said Hayes.

Lewis nodded and flipped a toggle switch.

Instantly, 30,000 pounds of prepackaged meals, bulk rice and bottled water bundled on pallets began rolling out of their Air Force C-130 cargo plane. The supplies floated down on green parachutes to thousands of Kurdish refugees camped out on a rocky mountainside.

"Load clear," boomed Airman Steven Comeaux.

The mercy mission Friday was part of a multinational humanitarian effort en route to becoming the biggest airlift in history.

As of Friday, authorities said about 8,500 tons of supplies - from tents and blankets to canned fruits and baby formula - had been airlifted by crews from the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Italy and Germany.

"That's a lot of food," said Lewis, the propeller-driven C-130 flying over a makeshift refugee camp outside the Turkish town of Cukurca near the Iraqi border.

Hayes scanned the human suffering and said, "That's a lot of people. "

The flights began April 7 after President Bush decided that the U.S.-led coalition that drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait should help displaced and terrorized Iraqis who tried unsuccessfully to topple the brutal dictator after the gulf war.

Hundreds of refugees are still dying daily, and U.S. troops are having trouble luring wary residents down from snowcapped mountains.

Braden, 39, of San Marcos, Texas, declined to even venture a guess on how long "Operation Provide Comfort" will last.

"We'll just keep doing this until we are told to stop," said the Air Force pilot, focusing his attention on the instrument panel and away from efforts to negotiate a settlement between Saddam and the Kurds. "I don't get involved in politics."

The flights are being coordinated by the Air Force's Military Airlift Command, headquartered at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. U.S. aircraft are flying out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

There are daily concerns and hazards, and lately, complaints about the food.

Many Kurds have informed the U.S. military that they no longer want MREs - prepackaged Meals Ready to Eat. They say they prefer bulk food, such as rice and flour, so they can make their own meals. U.S. authorities say they will be accommodated.

A few weeks ago, several Kurds were killed and dozens more injured when they raced toward falling food supplies and were hit by them. Since then, U.S. ground forces have secured selected drops sites and planes have started to make dry runs over targets before releasing cargo.

"We want to be careful. We want to help them, not hurt them," said Lewis, 25, Elmhurst, Ill.

Pilots must deal with the inherent dangers of flying over mountains as well as being within range of Iraqi anti-aircraft artillery. Most of their flights are along the Iraq-Turkey border where hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are camped out.

"We don't think the Iraqis will try anything, but we're not taking any chances," Braden said. "The war ended just weeks ago."

Consequently, all U.S. cargo flights are accompanied by fighters.

Braden said he will simply keep on flying and following orders.

"Of all the missions we do, this one gives you most immediate feedback. By the time you're flying back home, you know they've got the food and water in their hands."