For the US Army pilots and crew who were about to make their final takeoff from Afghanistan, the sky was lit with fireworks and sporadic gunfire, and the airport was littered with destroyed aircraft caps and equipment.
Stray dogs ran down the track. And the Taliban fighters, visible in the dark through the green-tinted view of night-vision goggles, paced the airport waving an eerie farewell.
Lined up on the Kabul airport runway on Monday night were the last five C-17s to leave the country after a chaotic and deadly air evacuation that marked the end of the United States’ involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
In recent hours, there were no longer any missile defense systems to protect them on the runway, and no one at the airport control center to direct them towards the exit.
“It looked apocalyptic,” summed up Air Force Lt. Col. Braden Coleman, in charge of surveying the exterior of his plane for artillery fire and other threats.
An image taken with a night vision device shows the commander-in-chief of the 82nd Airborne Division, General Chris Donahue, the last US serviceman to leave Afghanistan. on Tuesday. Photo: AP
“It looked like one of those zombie movies where all the planes were destroyed, with the doors open, the wheels broken. There was one plane that was completely burned. You could see the cockpit and all the rest of the plane looked like the skeleton of a fish, “he described.
On Wednesday, in interviews with The Associated Press, the members of the 816th Air Force Expeditionary Air Transport Squadron that manned the last military flights, detailed their latest tense hours of dark, emotional and polarized outing of the United States, of a war that now leaves the country in the hands of the same Taliban enemy that it once ousted from power.
Tension on the track
“It was definitely very tense, and we were all on edge, watching what was happening to make sure we were prepared,” said Air Force Capt. Kirby Wedan, the MOOSE81 pilot, who led the final formation of five aircraft.
He commented that the tension was compounded by the fact that his planes were parked in an area of the airport that had been attacked and violated in the past. At one point in the night, a group of civilians entered the airport and tried to reach the aircraft, but were stopped by army troops securing the plane, said Wedan, head of the squadron’s mission planning cell.
Right behind his C-17 was MOOSE92, where Coleman, director of operations for the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, was reviewing his own takeoff checklists. When told to taxi some more, he got out of the plane to help direct the crew.
“I was wearing my night vision goggles and a Raven was following me, to make sure I was safe,” Coleman said, referring to a member of the security forces specially trained to protect Air Force planes.
“It was a bit tense, I’m not going to lie. But I guess you don’t really think about it at the time. You just … do what you’re trained to do,” he explained.
For more than three hours, they methodically went over some 300 items on their checklists, loading the last four Little Bird helicopters and making sure they had all their troops and equipment.
From Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of the Air Mobility Command, watched planes line up for takeoff on video screens.
Marines from a special group participate in the massive evacuation of civilians from the Kabul airport in Afghanistan in August. Photo: AP
One of the screens showed the flow of mIRC chat, the online messaging application that the military uses to communicate. And he could hear orders from Lieutenant Colonel Alex Pelbath, the pilot who acted as the mission commander for the final departure.
One by one, each C-17 was ordered to clamshell, that is, to close the ramp. Then Pelbath’s final order: “Force out.” With that, Wedan began to move his C-17 around the runway.
“It was definitely different. I had never been to an airport where I didn’t really have permission to take off,” Wedan said, pointing to the absence of air traffic control in the tower.
As they took off in rapid succession, cheers erupted from the troops on board, mostly special operations forces and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
“It was a visible relief,” Wedan said. “You could tell that they had worked a lot. Many of them had not bathed in fifteen days. They were incredibly tired. You could tell that they were relieved to have gotten out of there and to have fulfilled their mission,” he said.
The shocking image of hundreds of desperate Afghans trying to get on a US Air Force plane on August 16, the day after the Taliban took power. Photo: AP
When the last C-17 left Kabul airspace, Pelbath delivered a welcoming message: MAF Safe, which means the Air Mobility Forces are out of harm’s way.
Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army, was the last soldier to climb the ramp of the last C-17 to leave. He had been in charge of security for the evacuation mission. Shortly after the planes were in the air, he sent his own message: “Job well done. Proud of you all.”
Huddled on the plane floor, the exhausted troops found places to sleep. “They were all kind of sitting on top of each other, whatever we could do to get them on the plane and get them out,” Wedan said.
And he added that after 30 minutes, most of the crew on his plane were asleep. Coleman agreed.
“I went downstairs and they warned me not to go to the bathroom because there were too many people outside the door,” Coleman said. “There was a guy who had a box of water bottles as a pillow. I don’t know how he could be comfortable. But, well, he was fast asleep,” he said.
The flight to Kuwait took about four hours. Coleman said his plane was fortunate to have additional bathrooms. Wedan’s had only one, but his crew handed out candy.
“They are exhausted and now resting. But I think that for two and a half weeks, it was really seen why many of us enlisted,” said Coleman, who joined in 2001 after the September 11 attacks that triggered the invasion of states. United in Afghanistan.
“Seeing everyone step forward to get this done in the time it was done, to get 124,000 people out in less than three weeks. I mean today I couldn’t be more proud to be a C-17 pilot. “.