Two days after orders came down to launch the largest noncombatant evacuation operation in U.S. Air Force history, the contingency response group Airmen circled Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, unable to land.
“What we saw on the ground was throes of people,” said Col. Colin McClaskey, who led the contingency response element (CRE) aboard a C-130. “Just people everywhere, lots of people. And while we were there, a C-17 that had just approached in front of us had seen all sorts of weapons.”
The aircraft circled as long as it could, then diverted to Qatar and another try later. They wouldn’t land until the wee hours of the morning when things had finally quieted down.
“Everybody on board that airplane, myself included, knew that the only way we’re going to be able to get a lot of people out is if we can get the right people in,” McClaskey recalled in a phone interview.
“If I had any fears, or anxieties or anything like that, I wasn’t thinking about them because what I was thinking about was the conversation I had with the people on the ground,” he said. They were telling him, “‘We need you guys here now. And we need to get this going now.’ And so, that was my drive and my focus, as it was for everyone else on the aircraft.”
MONTHS OF PLANNING
The 618th Air Operations Center (AOC) at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., handles an average of 250 missions and 500 sorties worldwide every day. It’s a huge load. But on Aug. 13, 2021, with tens of thousands of Americans, Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants, and third-country nationals seeking emergency evacuation following the fall of the Afghani government, the workload grew rapidly.
The closest American air bases were more than a thousand miles away, and while planners had been working on this contingency for months, the rapid collapse of the government accelerated the pace and urgency of operations.
Brig. Gen. Daniel A. DeVoe, commander of the 618th AOC, got the order and went to work.
In just 17 days, his command would coordinate the evacuation of more than 124,000 people on 85 aircraft, flying 2,600 sorties.
‘Flying Hospitals’ Treated Sick Afghans and Prompt New Capabilities
Afghans fleeing the Taliban in August concealed medical conditions ranging from battlefield wounds to high-risk pregnancies out of fear that doing so might cause U.S. military members to bar them from escaping Kabul. In response, Air Mobility Command provided medics and nurses, turning transports into “flying hospitals” that delivered babies and developed new means of care on the fly.
“A vast majority of individuals coming out of Afghanistan did not disclose their medical needs,” Brig. Gen. Norman S. West, command surgeon for Air Mobility Command, said in a sideline interview during AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md. AMC assigned 30 technicians and 30 nurses from nine medical groups to rescue efforts. “We knew that by having medics on the aircraft, we could provide that medical care should they need it,” West said.
Passenger Medical Augmentation Teams, pairing a nurse and medical technician, accompanied each evacuation flight. They treated partial amputations, festering wounds, dehydration, heat-related injuries, as well as pregnant women with diabetes, malnutrition, and high blood pressure.
“Of about 72,000 Afghans flowing out of Afghanistan, roughly 9,000 of them were pregnant,” West said.
“We’re talking about individuals who are in their last trimester, who shouldn’t be flying,” West noted. “But when your life depends on it, you do whatever you have to do.”
Soon, AMC also began to fly Obstetrician-Gynecologists on the evacuation flights. “What we don’t want to do is start moving our Afghan partners who have sacrificed everything for us, and have them give birth and not be able to do something about it,” West said.
When terrorists attacked a crowded airport gate, killing 13 U.S. service members and injuring 18 more, AMC was able to quickly evacuate the wounded, rerouting an aeromedical evacuation flight that was about to take off from Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany from another requirement and dispatching it to Kabul.
AMC spokesman Capt. Frederick M. Wallace said the jet was re-tasked on the runway. “This kind of flexibility is key to responding to dynamic situations around the globe,” he said. When troops are wounded and need a level of care unavailable where they are, AMC’s job is to “get there as quickly as possible.”
The Afghans were flown safely to onward locations in the Gulf and European countries where enhanced medical attention was available on site. Once out of Afghanistan, many of the women remained at base housing for the remainder of their pregnancy.
One woman gave birth aboard a C-17 evacuation flight from Afghanistan.
“This is something we’ve never done before,” West said of the new and varied ways the medics were employed during the evacuation effort. “We’ve always had a binary solution: aeromedical evacuation or critical-care air transportation, and there was never an in-between.”
AMC is now looking at how to provide specialty care on flights, including OB, burn, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO heart-lung specialists.
“It literally is a flying ICU [that] you have, it is one of the most impressive things you’ll see,” West stated. “And we are the only nation that has this robust kind of system.”
“AMC A3 [Air Mobility Command Air, Space, and Information Operations directorate] gave us the capacity and the aircraft that we needed,” he said in an interview. “Then we take that and go, ‘How do we apply the resources we’re given to pull as many people out of Afghanistan as we can?’ … So the adrenaline gets real high, and people get very motivated.”
Sustaining that adrenaline was the challenge. “Because I don’t just need you for 24 hours, I don’t just need you for 48—I need you for a few weeks.”
DeVoe said, “Delivering hope” made it easy.
“Going in and taking people and delivering them to a new future—when you’re talking about helping people, it just gets crazy how motivated folks get.”
Whether the operation ultimately was to extract 10,000 individuals or 200,000, DeVoe said the actions that needed to be set in motion were the same.
“It was very easy to initiate those actions right out of the gate,” he said. “But you never know exactly what the actual conditions are going to be at the time of execution.”
McClaskey, the CRE lead, was in the Horn of Africa doing airfield assessments when he was summoned on Aug. 13.
“I got a secure phone call saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to need you to go to Kabul. We’re starting to move a lot of people out of there.’ ”
The phone call gave no specifics.
McClaskey caught a C-130 to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and by Aug. 15 was on a C-17 bound for Kabul.
“Our job is to continuously be ready for whatever Air Mobility Command needs us to do,” he said of the Contingency Response Group. “That is just how our operations are.”
Landing in the dead of night, he added, “It didn’t matter how tired we’d been. It doesn’t matter how hungry you were. Grab MREs, put them in your backpack, you need to hit the ground ready to help out the people that are on ground.”
SETTING THE STAGE
Evacuation flights out of Afghanistan were mostly C-17s, with some C-130s mixed in, along with commercial carriers. While C-17s are normally configured to carry 100 passengers, DeVoe knew that wouldn’t work. “The nature of this operation, and the sheer magnitude and number of folks that we had to move, we made the decision to go to floor loading,” he said.
DeVoe thought he could get up to 300 passengers on board but in actuality the numbers ran as high as a C-17 could handle.
“We ran all the math, we did all the calculations, we looked at aircraft performance given the atmospheric conditions, altitude and determined that it was safe,” he explained. “They were flying 400 pax out a day, that was really pretty exciting.”
A new record was set when one C-17 flight evacuated 823 passengers.
A loop of passenger flights was organized between Afghanistan and staging bases in the CENTCOM and EUCOM theaters, with 28 aircraft in the sky at any given time. Ten KC-10s were in theater for aerial refueling but were ultimately used to transport evacuees between staging bases instead.
The Department of State, EUCOM, and CENTCOM worked with allies and partners to secure landing rights and documentation necessary to move passengers, with two dozen countries helping with temporary basing, logistics, and aircraft. American commercial carriers who participate in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet were called up by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to provide capacity for onward movement of evacuees from European and U.S. locations.
“There was never a rest,” DeVoe stated. “We booked the crews to max duty days. We set those crews against max duty days, and then we extended their duty days.”
Mandatory 12 hours of crew rest held, but mission times were pushed to the limit. Aircraft that were scheduled for 21-hour days at execution would push to 24-hour days with an augmented crew. Individual aircraft commanders had to determine if they needed rest or could keep going.
“Those are long days,” DeVoe noted. The intensity extended to ground crews. “The maintainers were delivering, fixing the aircraft, and keeping them flying.”
Airmen in Kabul would sleep in shifts a few hours at a time. Back stateside, DeVoe’s team was pulling 17 and 18 hour days.
Rescuing Afghans who had helped the U.S. cause over the past two decades was moving, DeVoe said, reminding him of his own adopted daughter’s transition from her birthplace to the United States.
“It’s a very personal chord for me,” he said. “For her coming to the United States meant an entire rewrite on her future. And so for me, I attribute the same to all of these folks. Leaving Afghanistan on one of those gray tail aircrafts was a complete rewrite of their future for the positive.”
THE VIEW FROM KABUL
Unlike other contingency response operations he had been involved in, McClaskey didn’t need to set up a landing zone on a dirt strip in the middle of a desert someplace. He had all the concrete and asphalt runways and taxi lighting he needed. But Hamid Karzai International’s air traffic control systems were in shambles.
“The tower had been damaged heavily a few nights before, so all the contractors left,” he said. Walking into the weather building on arrival, he found the door ajar, coffee, and a partially eaten sandwich abandoned by its owner.
“The computers are still logged in with Excel up and the ongoing weather reports,” he said.
Turkish forces were controlling one part of the airfield, the Americans another, and a third portion was uncontrolled, he recalled. A dozen countries were involved in one or another aspect of the operation and a Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron had the tower until the CRE took over.
McClaskey leveraged the Turks’ relationships with Pakistan, Ukraine, and Russia to streamline the flow of aircraft through the airport. The air traffic controllers coordinated the movement of European A400Ms and U.S. C-17s and C-130s.
Getting aircraft closer to the passenger terminal smoothed out operations. “You could get lots of people out a lot faster,” he said, because “they’re not walking in front of other aircraft that we’re trying to taxi.”
At its peak, the operation moved 26,000 people out of Kabul within a scant 24 hours, the pace outstripping space availability at staging bases.
“It’s an evacuation operation, you can’t view it just as just leaving Afghanistan,” DeVoe said. “Throughout the whole 17 days, there was a metering … of the flow. Some days we took out more than others.”
Around Aug. 20, with just over 10 days left, McClaskey took over the aircraft PPR, or prior permission required, process from the Turks and exposed that more clearly to all participants. That made it easier to coordinate rescue flights in and out. Ramp space was apportioned to NATO and non-NATO participants.
“We had to be dynamic and continue to flex the plan and how we were operating these mobility airframes,” he said.
SECURING THE SCENE
Continuous communication between CRE operators, the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, and Marines protecting the airfield smoothed security.
Maj. Gen. Christopher Donahue, commander of the Army’s 82nd, communicated with the Taliban as necessary, ensuring a unified front. Once the perimeter was secure, McClaskey said, aircraft security became a less urgent issue, enabling USAF Ravens to focus on securing access to cockpits.
Controlling civilians on the ground remained a challenge, and McClaskey reached out to Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Farrell J. Sullivan to keep them away from the planes, out of harm’s way.
“I needed control of people, so that people aren’t walking onto the ramp and walking out onto the runway,” he said. “They posted a Marine like every six feet around the ramp.” He recalled telling an anxious group of American college students, “Look, I can tell you right now, you’re on the safest three kilometers anywhere in Afghanistan,” he said. “‘I don’t think you can look anywhere and not see a United States Marine, you have one five feet away from you offering you water, and probably 30 right in front of you, and you have a cyclone fence. And on the other side of that, you have 82nd Airborne. You’re in one of the safest places you can be right now.”
The Aug. 26 ISIS-K attack that killed a dozen Marines and a Sailor shook people up, but the Marines remained professional, focused, and compassionate, according to McClaskey.
“Those people who came through the gate, they cared about them. They were compassionate about them,” he said. “They very quickly identified who the bad actors were and got them away from the rest of the crowd.”
GLOW STICKS AND WATER BOTTLES
Scavanging for creative solutions, the specialized contingency unit kept the airfield operational despite extraordinary circumstances.
Several countries wanted to fly wide-body 777s, DC-10s and A380s into Kabul, but were denied because the airport lacked capability to load and unload those supersized jets. McClaskey and a Turkish officer worked the issue, found some old damaged stairs, and got a team working on them to make them viable. Before long, they were in use helping to load 737s and A310s.
McClaskey employed Amp-2 lighting and glow sticks and water bottles to mark the beginning and the ending of the touchdown zone.
The group brought generators and fuel experts. They tested fuel, isolated fuel, and ensured that fuel was good for vehicles and aircraft.
“We never ran out of fuel for aircraft, and we gave a lot of fuel to other countries’ aircraft, maybe they didn’t have the capacity to carry enough,” he said. “All of it was possible because we bring the experts that do that.”
‘DESPERATE FOR FREEDOM’
McClaskey doesn’t see the comparisons others cited with the fall of Saigon in 1975. “This was very deliberate,” he said. “Very quickly, like within days, we had a very streamlined process, and it got increasingly safe and increasingly more efficient.”
In his understanding, Vietnam was the antithesis. In Vietnam the last flight took off with desperate people still trying to get on board; by contrast, in Kabul, when it was time for McClaskey to depart, there was nothing more he could do.
“There was nobody else at the gates,” he said. “We had a number of aircraft still standing by in case anybody came in or came up to a gate,” but none materialized.
The interagency team had pulled off a successful operation under challenging circumstances, DeVoe said, crediting that success to their ability to work together as a team.
“[It] was really a big win,” he said. “Over 120,000 people in a matter of weeks. Lives changed forever, for the good, brought out of Afghanistan, and then the cherry on top, extracting those forces … in a safe manner, and closing out that operation.”
For McClaskey, an enduring memory is the thousands of faces he saw passing through the north and south gates to the airport, civilians who had abandoned everything for a chance to get out of Afghanistan before the Taliban took over in full.
“They were desperate for freedom,” McClaskey said. “They were desperate for the ability to live a new life somewhere. Every single one of them was overwhelmed with gratitude that America was there.
“I reflect on that,” he added. “I tell my kids that every morning. I’m like, ‘Thank God we’re here in America. And just think about how much these people had to give up to get here.’”