The C-17 crew made the right call to take off from the airport in Afghanistan’s capital, the US Air Force says
The US Air Force has determined that the crew of a Boeing C-17 military transport plane were not responsible for the deaths of Afghan civilians who tried to cling to the jet as it took off from an airport in Kabul in August 2021 amid a mass withdrawal of US forces from the country.
In a statement released to the press on Monday, Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek stated that the “aircrew had acted appropriately and exercised sound judgment in their decision to get airborne as quickly as possible when faced with an unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation” in Afghanistan.
Stefanek noted that the crew was “in compliance with applicable rules of engagement” and that their actions and quick thinking had ensured the safety of the crew and the aircraft.
The incident occurred on August 16, 2021 at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul amid a sudden US withdrawal from the country as hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians became desperate to leave the country after its government fell to the Taliban.
According to the US officials, the plane in question arrived in Kabul in the early morning carrying supplies and equipment for the US Marines and soldiers who were still trying to secure the airport and helping with the evacuation of thousands of Americans and Afghans. However, as soon as the C-17 touched down and lowered its loading ramp to offload the supplies, a large group of Afghans broke onto the airfield and tried to rush the plane.
The crew members jumped back into the aircraft and pulled up the ramp, uncertain of the security threat from the crowd. The pilots communicated with Air Traffic Control and were cleared for takeoff. However, there were still throngs of people still attached to the plane and some even decided to hide in the wheel wells, which accommodate the landing gears once the aircraft is airborne.
Despite several Humvees and Apache helicopters being deployed to try and get the civilians off the aircraft, several people still managed to cling on for a while.
Video footage of the incident showed that some people did eventually jump off the plane just before the aircraft took off, while others ultimately fell to their deaths after the aircraft had gained significant altitude. Body parts of others were later found in the wheel wells of the plane once it landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
Following the tragic incident, the US Air Force tasked its Office of Special Investigations to look into what happened and stated that it would examine all video footage and social media posts relating to the incident, which made headlines around the world.
The reviews were conducted by the Air Mobility Command and US Central Command, both of which concurred that the C-17 crew were well within their rights and acted accordingly given the chaotic situation on the ground.
Stefanek noted that the incident left some of the crewmembers traumatized and that they were later sent for consultations with mental health professionals and chaplains.
“This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased,” Stefanek concluded.
The hastily executed, Pentagon-led evacuation from Afghanistan, ordered by President Joe Biden after nearly 20 years of war in the country, lasted several weeks and was marred by scenes of chaos and violence, including an Islamic State suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport on August 26, which killed around 170 Afghan civilians and 13 American soldiers.
According to Biden, “one of the biggest airlifts in history” got more than 120,000 people out of the country.