Washington: For US military pilots and crews about to make their final takeoffs from Afghanistan, the sky was lit with fireworks and sporadic gunfire and the airfield was littered with aircraft shells and destroyed equipment. Stray dogs were running on the tarmac. And Taliban fighters, visible in the dark through the green-tinted sight of night vision goggles, marched through the airfield, waving weird goodbyes.
Aligned on the runway at Kabul airport on Monday night, August 30, the last five C-17s to leave the country after a chaotic and deadly airlift evacuation that marked the end of US involvement in the war in Afghanistan. In the last few hours, there was no rocket defense system to protect them on the runway, and no one in the airport control center to direct them outside.
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“It sounded apocalyptic,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Braden Coleman, who was responsible for monitoring the exterior of his plane for artillery fire and other threats. “It looked like one of those zombie movies where all the planes were destroyed, their doors were open, the wheels were broken. There was one plane that was burnt up. You could see the cockpit was there, and everything. the rest of the plane looked like the skeleton of a fish. “
In interviews with the Associated Press, members of the Air Force’s 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron who carried out the last military flights detailed their difficult final hours in what has been a grim, emotional and conflicting American outing of ‘a war that is now leaving the country in the hands of the same Taliban enemy it once ousted from power. “It was really, really tense, and we were all really on the alert watching everything that was going on to make sure we were ready,” said MOOSE81 pilot, Air Force Captain Kirby Wedan, who led the final formation of five planes.
Adding to the stress, she said, their planes were parked in an area of the airport that had been attacked and raped in the past. At one point in the night, a group of civilians arrived at the airfield and attempted to get to the plane, but were stopped by army troops securing the plane, Wedan said. , head of the squadron’s mission planning cell.
Right behind his C-17 was MOOSE92, where Coleman, the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron’s director of operations, was reviewing his own take-off checklists. When told to taxi a little further, he got off the plane to help direct the crew where to go.
“I had my NVGs, my night vision goggles, and I had a crow behind me following me, making sure I was, you know, safe,” Coleman said, referring to a member of the Specially trained security forces protecting Air Force planes. “It was a little tense, I’m not going to lie. But I guess you didn’t really think about it then. You just … do what you’re trained to do.”
For over three hours, they methodically went through about 300 items on their checklists, packing the last four Little Bird helicopters and making sure they had all their troops and equipment.
From Scott Air Force Base in Ill., Air Mobility Command Commander General Jacqueline Van Ovost watched the plane lining up for takeoff on video screens. One screen showed a scrolling through the mIRC chat feed, the online messaging app the military uses to communicate. And she could hear orders from Lt. Col. Alex Pelbath, a pilot who served as the mission commander for the final departure.
One by one, each C-17 was ordered to “slam” or close the ramp. Then Pelbath’s final command: “Flush the force”. With that, Wedan began to move his C-17 on the runway. “It was definitely different. I’ve never been at an airfield where I didn’t really have take-off clearance,” Wedan said, noting the lack of air traffic control in the tower. As they took off in rapid succession, cheers erupted from the troops on board? most were special operations forces and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division. “It was a visible relief,” Wedan said.
“You could tell they had worked really hard. A lot of them hadn’t showered in a few weeks. They were all incredibly tired.… You could tell they were just relieved to be out of there. and that their mission has been accomplished. “
“I think for two and a half weeks you really understood why so many of us joined together,” said Coleman, who enlisted in 2001 after the September 11 attacks that sparked the US invasion of Afghanistan. “Seeing everyone step in to make it happen in the time it took, to displace 124,000 people in less than three weeks. I mean, I couldn’t be prouder to be a C-17 pilot. today. “