Airlifting consists of two distinct types: strategic and tactical. Typically, strategic airlifting involves moving material long distances (such as across or off the continent or theater), whereas a tactical airlift focuses on deploying resources and material into a specific location with high precision.
Depending on the situation, airlifted supplies can be delivered by a variety of means. When the destination and surrounding airspace is considered secure, the aircraft will land at an appropriate airport or airbase to have its cargo unloaded on the ground. When landing the craft, or distributing the supplies to a certain area from a landing zone by surface transportation is not an option, the cargo aircraft can drop them in mid-flight using parachutes attached to the supply containers in question. When there is a broad area available where the intended receivers have control without fear of the enemy interfering with collection and/or stealing the goods, the planes can maintain a normal flight altitude and simply drop the supplies down and let them parachute to the ground. However, when the area is too small for this method, as with an isolated base, and/or is too dangerous to land in, a Low-altitude parachute-extraction system drop is used.
During disasters and other crises, airlifts are used to support or replace other transport methods to relieve beleaguered civilian populations. Examples include the Berlin Airlift, to supply isolated West Berlin with food and coal, the 1990 Air India airlift to rescue Indian citizens caught up in the Gulf War, and the 1967–70 Biafran airlift during the Nigerian Civil War.
In April 1923 aircraft of the RAF's Iraq Command flew 280 Sikh troops from Kingarban to Kirkuk in the first British air trooping operation. This operation was only conducted over a short range and it was not until 1929 that the RAF conducted a long-range non-combat air evacuation of British diplomatic staff from Afghanistan to India using a Vickers Victoria during the Kabul Airlift.
The world's first long-range combat airlift took place in July 1936. Luftwaffe Ju 52 and Italian Air Force Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 were used by the Spanish Nationalists to transport troops from Spanish Morocco to Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
Airlifts became practical during World War II as aircraft became large and sophisticated enough to handle large cargo demands. The USAAF's Air Transport Command began the largest and longest-sustained airlift of the war in May 1942, delivering more than half a million net tons of materiel from India to China over the Hump by November 1945.