The U.S. Air Force on Tuesday confirmed that human remains were found in the wheel well of a C-17 Globemaster III after desperate Afghans mobbed the transport jet as it departed Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul Monday.
The service’s Office of Special Investigations has opened an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the widely covered incident that went viral on social media.
“[OSI] is reviewing all available information regarding a C-17 aircraft that departed Hamid Karzai International Airport [on Aug. 16] and the loss of civilian lives — to include video documentation and the source of social media posts,” Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an email.
Investigators will also look into online videos and press reports of people falling from the aircraft on departure, she said. Afghans clung to the jet during takeoff and were captured on video plunging from the sky.
“OSI’s review will be thorough to ensure we obtain the facts regarding this tragic incident,” Stefanek said. “Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased.”
As the U.S. winds down its withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, Taliban militants have swiftly regained control of the beleaguered nation, sending locals fleeing for the exits. The Globemaster III from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state arrived at the Kabul airport with equipment to help evacuate Americans and Afghans seeking refuge.
“Before the aircrew could offload the cargo, the aircraft was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan civilians who had breached the airport perimeter,” Stefanek said. “Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible.”
The jet taxied through the crowd and escaped. When the crew landed at Al Udeid Air Base, a U.S. military hub in Qatar, human remains were discovered in the compartment that holds the plane’s landing gear after it retracts.
“The aircraft is currently impounded to provide time to collect the remains and inspect the aircraft before it is returned to flying status,” Stefanek said.
The Washington Post, which first reported the discovery of the remains on Monday, noted that the pilots declared an in-flight emergency when they could not pull up their landing gear. The aircrew diverted to a nearby country and the human remains were found upon inspection, the Post reported.
Stefanek said she could not confirm the Washington Post’s story. She did not answer what the Air Force will do with the remains as the investigation begins.
Air Mobility Command, which manages the American airlift fleet, and international partners are working with OSI on the inquiry.
“Beyond the OSI review, AMC and safety officials are doing due diligence to better understand how events unfolded and ensure the continued safety of current and future flight ops as we support the mission in Afghanistan,” Stefanek said in the release.
She added without elaborating that the service “remains laser-focused on maintaining security” at the Kabul airfield to prevent similar situations from happening. ABC reported Monday that 15,000 people were removed from the tarmac that day. Civilian and military flights in and out of the country temporarily paused, but resumed evacuations once the situation on the ground grew more stable.
The U.S. faces the daunting task of evacuating about 22,000 special interest visa applicants, other at-risk Afghans, at least 11,000 Americans and civilian employees of allied countries out of Afghanistan by Aug. 31 — when the Biden administration has said the drawdown will be complete.
One Globemaster III flight ferried about 640 refugees to Qatar — a crowd believed to be among the largest ever flown in the massive airframe, Defense One reported Monday.
That jet was not the same C-17 that is now under investigation, the Air Force confirmed.
“I saw firsthand our defensive laydown and the work our forces are doing to efficiently operate the airfield while ensuring the safe movement of civilians and diplomats who are leaving Kabul,” said U.S. Central Command boss Gen. Frank McKenzie in a Tuesday release after visiting the airport.
“U.S. military air traffic controllers and ground handlers are rapidly scaling up operations to ensure the smooth flow of military reinforcements to the airport and the evacuation of U.S. and partner civilians in coordination with our State Department colleagues,” he said.
Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.