WASHINGTON (AP) – It looked like a zombie apocalypse.
For the US military pilots and crews about to take off from Afghanistan for the last time, the sky was lit with fireworks and sporadic shots, and the airfield was littered with battered shells from planes and destroyed equipment. Stray dogs raced across the asphalt. And Taliban fighters, visible in the dark through the green colored night vision goggles, walked across the airfield with an eerie wave of farewell.
On Monday night the last five C-17s stood on the runway at Kabul airport after a chaotic and deadly evacuation from the airlift that marked the end of America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. For the past few hours, there were no more anti-missile defense systems protecting them on the runway, and no one in the airport control center to guide them out.
“It just looked apocalyptic,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Braden Coleman, who was responsible for monitoring the exterior of his aircraft 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 burned down all the way. You could see that the cockpit was there and the rest of the plane looked like the skeleton of a fish. “
In interviews with The Associated Press on Wednesday, members of the 816 reported in the hands of the same Taliban opponent who was once ousted from power.
“It was definitely very tense, and we were definitely all nervous to watch everything that was going on to make sure we were ready,” said Air Force Capt. Kirby Wedan, pilot for MOOSE81, who made the final formation of five Aircraft directed.
One of the stress factors, she said, was that their planes were parked in an area of the airport that had been attacked and breached in the past. Sometime that night a group of civilians came to the airfield and tried to get to the plane, but they were stopped by army troops securing the plane, said Wedan, the squadron’s chief of mission planning cell.
Immediately behind her C-17 was MOOSE92, where Coleman, the chief of operations for the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, was going through his own checklists for takeoff. When told to taxi a bit further, he got off the plane to help the crew where to go.
“I had my NVGs on, my night vision goggles, and I had a raven behind me who followed me outside to make sure I, you know, was safe,” Coleman said, referring to a member of the specially trained security guards who protect air force aircraft. “It was a little tense, I’m not going to lie. But I guess you don’t really think about it then. You just do what you are trained to do. “
For more than three hours, they methodically went through about 300 items on their checklists, packed up the last four Little Bird helicopters, and made sure they had all the troops and equipment.
From Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, General Jacqueline Van Ovost, commander of Air Mobility Command, watched on video screens as the aircraft positioned itself for takeoff. One screen showed a scroll bar of the mIRC chat stream – the online messaging application that the military communicates with. And she could take orders from Lt. Hear Col. Alex Pelbath, a pilot who served as mission commander for the final departure.
One by one, each C-17 was told to “clamshells” – or to close the ramp. Then Pelbath’s last order: “Flush the force”. With that, Wedan began to move her C-17 over the runway.
“It was definitely different. I’ve never been to an airfield where I didn’t really have a take-off permit, ”said Wedan, noting that there is no air traffic control in the tower.
As they took off in quick succession, cheers broke out from the troops on board – most of them special forces and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.
“It was a visible relief,” said Wedan. “You could tell that they had worked really hard. Many of them hadn’t showered in a few weeks. They were all incredibly tired. … You could tell that they were just relieved to be out there and that their mission was accomplished. “
When the last C-17 cleared the airspace of Kabul, Pelbath’s delivered a message of welcome: “MAF Safe” – an abbreviation for the statement that the Mobility Air Forces were out of danger.
Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, was the last soldier to climb the ramp of the last C-17 to take off. He was responsible for the safety of the evacuation mission. Shortly after the plane was in the air, he sent his own message: “Job well done. Proud of you all. “
Cramped on the floor of the plane, exhausted troops found sleeping places. “Everyone was sitting on top of each other somehow – whatever we could do to get them on and off the plane,” Wedan said.
Within 30 minutes, she said, most of them fell asleep on their plane. Coleman agreed.
“I went downstairs and they warned me not to go to the bathroom because there were too many people outside the toilet door,” Coleman said. “There was a guy who had a box of water bottles that he used as a pillow. I don’t know how that could be comfortable. But hey, he was fast asleep. “
Their flight to Kuwait took about four hours. Coleman said his plane was fortunate to have extra toilets. Wedan only had one – but her crew handed out candy.
“You are tired and are resting now. But I think for two and a half weeks you really saw why so many of us went along, ”said Coleman, who moved in in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks that sparked the US invasion of Afghanistan. “To see everyone working hard to get this done in the time it takes to move 124,000 people in less than three weeks. I mean, I couldn’t be more proud to be a C-17 pilot today. “