An American C-17 crew tasked with evacuating people from Kabul last August followed the rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict when they decided to take off amid a mob of frantic Afghans on the runway, killing multiple people who clung to the transport jet, the Air Force said in a release Monday.
Video footage that went viral on social media showed people falling from the outside of the enormous Globemaster III as it began its ascent from Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 16, 2021. Human remains were found in the airlifter’s wheel well once it landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, spurring an Office of Special Investigations inquiry into the loss of life.
The incident came days after the Taliban toppled the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan following two decades of war there, making an already fraught evacuation effort even more dire for locals who feared extremist rule.
The C-17 had arrived with equipment to support the humanitarian airlift, but was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan civilians who had breached the airport. The jet taxied through the crowd and escaped.
Airmen used sound judgment in getting airborne as quickly as possible during the “unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation,” service spokesperson Ann Stefanek said. “The aircrew’s airmanship and quick thinking ensured the safety of the crew and their aircraft.”
The Washington Post, which first reported the discovery of the remains, noted that the pilots declared an in-flight emergency when they could not pull up their landing gear.
Upon landing at Al Udeid, Air Force investigators impounded the aircraft to collect the human remains and turned the matter over to Qatari police, who did not investigate further.
Legal personnel from Air Mobility Command and U.S. Central Command, as well as the aircrew’s leadership, agreed with OSI’s conclusion that no wrongdoing occurred.
Airmen have returned to flight after seeking help to cope with the residual trauma from that day, Stefanek said. In all, Air Force crews evacuated more than 124,000 Afghans and Americans during one of the largest efforts to relocate noncombatants from a war zone in U.S. history.
“This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased,” Stefanek 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.