Many of us watched in horror last August as evacuees stuffed themselves into US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan in the desperate hope of making it out of the country. It was a scene eerily reminiscent of people cramming themselves into Huey helicopters during the fall of Saigon. One thinks we might have learned our lesson the first time.
Desperate times, as the old saying goes, call for desperate measures, and some potential evacuees were so desperate to leave the country that they clung to the outside of the aircraft and climbed up into wheel wells prior to taking off. Those who chose to do that never made it to their destination.
The date was August 16, 2021. Those left behind at Hamid Karzai International Airport witnessed in person people falling to their deaths from a C-17 as it took off. Onboard, the aircraft crew tried to stow the landing gear and found they could not. The pilot declared an inflight emergency and diverted to Qatar. After landing, human remains were found to be jamming the wheel well.
One day earlier, the Taliban had swept into the nation’s capital in large numbers and declared they were now in control. Before this, the US had withdrawn almost all our military personnel from Afghanistan, leaving millions of dollars of military hardware behind. When the Taliban took control, we sent thousands of troops back to a nation where we had been conducting military operations for almost two decades.
We managed to evacuate over 75,000 people over the next two weeks, but several thousand others were left behind. Many of their fates will never be known. A suicide bomber took advantage of the vast crowd of humanity at the airport and killed nearly 200 Afghans and 13 American troops. In response, we conducted a drone strike that accidentally targeted an Afghan man who worked for a US aid group. The messed-up mission ended up killing him and several members of his family.
Cleared of All Wrongdoing
The US Air Force Office of Special Investigations ended up spending several months looking how why human remains ended up in the wheel well of a massive aircraft. The “how” part was easy to determine, but the “Was it avoidable?” part took longer to make a determination on.
In the end, the aircraft crew was cleared of any wrongdoing in the incident. Military investigators stated that the crew of the Globemaster exhibited “sound judgment” in their actions that day in the face of an “unprecedented” security crisis.
Wrong or not, members of that aircrew will have to live with what happened for the rest of their lives. As long as they were stationary on the ground, they were a huge target, full of people that could have been killed with one well-placed blast.
The right call was to take flight, but it came at the cost of human lives.
It should also be pointed out that the Air Force was not looking to hang this flight crew. Human remains found in the wheel well of the aircraft would automatically trigger an Air Force Class A Mishap investigation to determine the cause and develop mitigation strategies to prevent a future occurrence.