The images are already splashed all over the media: an Air Force C-17 Globemaster III rolling down the taxiway of Kabul’s airport while Afghan civilians run alongside it. Views cut to civilians clinging on to the wheel well doors, then long-distance shots of bodies falling from the ascending jet. Still shots all over the news and social medial show the interior of that jet, packed with people.

Where was the failure of communication that led to those civilians being on that taxiway? The pilot is being hailed as a hero — in the media. He made a decision that (probably) saved hundreds of lives. That decision also cost lives; how many is unknown. That aircraft commander should not have been made to make that call.

 

Air Force Central Command Is Silent

Air Forces Central Command’s (AFCENT) official news page is silent today regarding this infamous flight. News sources around the world still have the videos and photographs front and center. According to numerous sources, the C-17, callsign Reach 871, made an emergency landing at Al Udeid Air Base, near Doha, Qatar. Those sources also say that human remains were found in the wheel well of that C-17, and an investigation is underway.

 

White House Briefing

The White House held a press briefing on August 17 with Press Secretary Jen Psaki and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Sullivan stated,

“When you conclude 20 years of military action in a civil war in another country with the impacts of 20 years of decisions that have piled up, you have to make a lot of hard calls, none with clean outcomes. What you can do is plan for all contingencies.  We did that.”

Sorry, Jake, but what “contingency planning” led to the scenes on Kabul’s airport on Monday?

The decision to begin evacuation was put on hold because the State Department didn’t want to show a “loss of confidence” in the Afghan government. Pulling out embassy staff and shuttering buildings sends the wrong message, apparently.

Nevertheless, this would only have been a valid argument if there were a chance to maintain civil relationships with the government. However, the Taliban were literally in the process of taking over the whole country. This was not, in any way, unexpected.

 

Troop Withdrawals

C-17 Afghans
A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported approximately 640 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport Aug. 15, 2021. (USAF)

The only unexpected part of the whole process was how fast things happened over the last four-five days. Why, though? The whole world knew Americans were drawing down. In 2020, Taliban leaders signed a peace agreement with U.S. envoys, with the promise of U.S. troop withdrawals. Everyone involved knew that American troops would be leaving. Was there not a plan for American diplomats to leave as well? What about Afghan nationals that worked with U.S. forces? Where was the process to get them out of there?

Even considering the speed with which the Taliban walked across the country, everyone knew we had to leave. Hell, the Taliban even stopped once they reached Kabul. President Ghani was already gone, though. Bugged out on his own, leaving his military, security forces, and tens of thousands of civilians high and dry.

 

What Will Follow

And now, a C-17 from McChord AFB, WA, is the American face of the debacle that occurred on Monday. Through no fault of their own, the crew of that jet now have nightmare fuel to last them until the end of their days. Already, speculation on the internet is whether the crew is responsible for the civilian deaths and whether the USAF and federal government will hold them accountable.

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Whenever a mishap occurs on a military jet, whether to the aircraft or people associated with it, a review occurs. When a jet hits a bird inflight, a review occurs. These reviews become investigations when the reviewing body determines that more information is required to determine the reasons behind or solutions for the issue that caused the initial review. A Class A mishap is one that results in loss of life, loss of aircraft, or more than two million dollars in damages.

The aircraft was not lost nor overly damaged, but at least one person lost their life. The aircraft was impounded upon landing at Al Udeid. The remains found in the wheel well will be collected, documented, and returned to the deceased’s family, if possible. The aircraft will be inspected for safety and airworthiness, then put back into service. The crew will be debriefed by numerous agencies, but will most likely be found blameless and allowed to go back to work. The AF is not in the habit of crucifying aircrews for things not in their control; and this was definitely out of their control.

 

The Images Remain

C-17 Globemaster III
Mt. Rainer is visible from several locations on McChord AFB in Washington State. In this image, the silhouette of Mt. Rainer on the McChord-based C-17 Globemaster III’s tail flash clearly displays its inspiration. (Photo by Capt. Amit Patel/USAF)

No American lives were lost in this incident, but many were changed. Will that pilot ever start a taxi roll without seeing hundreds of civilians in front of the jet? Will the loadmaster ever again close the ramp without seeing desperate people falling from it? That crew chief will always feel a slight hesitation before inspecting wheel wells after a flight.

The C-17 aircraft commander at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Monday had a life-or-death situation play out, and he chose life for his crew. It was a brave decision and a personal one. His actions saved the lives of the roughly 600 passengers (souls) on board, plus the crew that supports him.

The actions of this crew will be dissected for weeks and months to come. This story will most likely be told in history books to future generations. Will the crew’s actions be investigated? More than likely, yes. Will it be with the intent of placing blame? Probably not. When I was a Safety Investigation program member, we focused more on the “why” of things happening, rather than the “who.” An investigation into this incident will show failures that led to the incident, not failures of the crew. The crew performed admirably. Leave them in obscurity until such time as they can process the events for themselves.

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