USTRANSCOM Supports Evacuation of 124K People in Historic Airlift

Oct 5, 2021 | Defense Transportation Journal, DTJ Online

The final weeks of operations in Afghanistan were marked by an airlift operation the Commander of US Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM), GEN Stephen R. Lyons, USA, characterized as “herculean.” The final hours were no less herculean.

Under the cover of darkness, the last C-17 carried the acting US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Ross Wilson, who had overseen clearance of hundreds of thousands of Afghans evacuated alongside American citizens, and the last US service member, MG Chris Donahue, USA, the Commanding General of the 82nd Airborne Division and commander of ground operations in Afghanistan.

“A short time ago, the last US C-17 departed Kabul marking our departure from Afghanistan and the end of the contested phase of this historic operation, the largest non-combatant evacuation operation [NEO] airlift in history,” said Lyons. “The United States is the only nation capable of rapidly deploying forces and providing non-stop airlift operations at this scale.”

It was just 17 days earlier that USTRANSCOM had moved additional military forces into Afghanistan to secure the airport. Shortly after arrival, USTRANSCOM’s air component, Air Mobility Command, positioned a large fleet of aircraft in US Central Command (CENTCOM) and began flying what would become a historic, round-the-clock, strategic airlift operation across three continents.

Securing the Airport: Evacuations Begin
The USTRANSCOM team was key in moving forces into Kabul to secure the airport, including a contingency response group specialized in airport operations—air traffic control, runway management, loading of aircraft, and maintenance—all equipped to operate in a hostile environment.

“From the time USTRANSCOM received orders to commence deployment, initial force elements critical to securing HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport] were airborne in less than three hours. We immediately commenced NEO operations and continued around-the-clock over the last 17 days to assist with the safe evacuations of over 120,000 people,” said Lyons.

A US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported 823 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport, August 15, 2021. The initial count of 640 passengers included only adults, inadvertently leaving off 183 children seated in laps as passengers were transported from the flight line. The correct total passenger count of 823 is a record for the C-17. US Air Force photo/Released.

Lyons made it clear that the USTRANSCOM team was commanding all available resources to complete the mission. Along with US military aircraft, USTRANSCOM and supporting units worked with charter flights arranged by other countries and non-governmental organizations.

“My commitment is to ensure that airlift is never the constraint in this operation,” Lyons said during an August 23 virtual briefing to the Pentagon Press Corps. He noted USTRANSCOM was synched with CENTCOM and various defense, interagency, coalition, and commercial partners to do everything the US could do to get every evacuee out of Kabul as fast as possible.

Crews Manage Chaos and Achieve More than 19,000 Airlifted to Safety in a Single Day
The opening days of the airlift were marked by a perilous rush of Afghans onto the tarmac at HKIA, and credible reports the Islamic State Khorasan (known as ISIS-K) was threatening to attack US forces and those seeking airlift to safety.

A US Air Force security forces raven, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, maintains a security cordon around a US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of Operation Allies Refuge at Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA), Afghanistan, August 20, 2021. US Air Force photo by SrA Taylor Crul, USAF/Released.

Amid this chaos, a C-17 with the call sign ‘Reach 871’ departed HKIA with 823 Afghans on board. Lyons personally spoke with the crew and shared his gratitude.

“This incredibly dedicated team of Air Force professionals is the best in the world,” said Lyons, referring to the entire airlift effort.

“The iconic photo of hundreds of Afghans on the floor of a C-17 illustrates the desperation, fear, and uncertainty of the Afghan people, but also the lifesaving capability and compassion of our military members. These herculean efforts underscore the United States’ commitment to our Afghan allies and provide them an opportunity for a new beginning, a safer life, and a better future,” said Lyons.

At the height of airlift operations out of HKIA, military aircraft were departing the airport every 34 minutes and, in a single day, evacuated more than 19,000 people.

“Moreover, this evacuation could simply not have been done without the amazing flexibility of US Transportation Command and the airlift provided by the United States Air Force,” said Gen Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., USMC, Commander of CENTCOM. “No other military in the world has anything like it.”

ISIS-K Strikes: Aeromedical Launches within One Hour
On August 26, a suicide bomb, assessed to have been ISIS-K fighters, detonated in the vicinity of the Abbey Gate at HKIA. The attack was followed by several ISIS gunmen opening fire on civilians and military forces. There were multiple casualties at HKIA.

Three US Air Force C-17s carrying aeromedical evacuation (AE) crews and Critical Care Air Transport Teams (CCATT) were launched from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. The first of these launched only minutes after the incident occurred at HKIA. These aircraft carried both US service members and Afghans to medical treatment facilities (MTF) at Ramstein and Al Udeid.

USTRANSCOM is responsible for the global patient movement network. The well-established system ensured patients were provided lifesaving, in-flight medical care as they were moved from initial stabilizing care to an MTF that could best meet their needs.

As AE crews moved patients out of HKIA, evacuation operations continued.

US Commercial Partners and Global Allies Stand Together

Evacuees board an Atlas Air aircraft for a departure flight from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on their way to the United States as part of Operations Allies Refuge, August 24, 2021. US Air Force photo by Airman Edgar Grimaldo, USAF/Released.

USTRANSCOM has a long history and strong partnership with the commercial transportation industry, and no major deployment of US forces happens without their support. Early in the operation, the Civil Reserve Air Fleet was activated to ensure enough capacity was available to move evacuees between intermediary locations and onward to the United States.

As temporary safe havens were established by CENTCOM and US European Command, US commercial air carriers became a vital partner in transporting evacuees to 14 intermediary locations throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Once the State Department began clearing Afghans for travel to the US, commercial carriers also began transporting them into Dulles International Airport (IAD) and Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). Commercial carriers are also providing onward movement of evacuees from IAD and PHL to military installations across the United States.

Evacuees from Afghanistan board an Omni Air International Boeing 767-300ER aircraft to depart Naval Air Station (NAS) Sigonella to the United States, August 28, 2021. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Kegan E. Kay/Released.

“I want to acknowledge and thank our industry partners who routinely provide airlift in support of defense needs,” Lyons said, highlighting that the Department of Defense’s ability to project military forces is inextricably linked to the commercial industry. “We greatly appreciate the contributions, collaboration, and teamwork of our US air carriers.”

Both commercial and military aircraft from partners and allies around the globe contributed to the evacuation out of Afghanistan.

“To be clear, this is truly a global effort,” said Lyons. “I thank our many coalition partners. We could not be successful without the more than two dozen like-minded nations that expand our global logistics networks by providing important access and transit centers.”

USTRANSCOM Ends Operations in Afghanistan
With the completion of military operations in Afghanistan, USTRANSCOM continues to move evacuees from interim locations to the United States.

“This operation was by far the most difficult problem set the enterprise has faced,” said MajGen Corey Martin, USAF, USTRANSCOM’s Director of Operations. “The scope of the problem, ambitious timelines, number of constraints, and contested environment combined to present a highly unique event. I am very proud of the men and women in the operations directorate and across USTRANSCOM who successfully rose to this unprecedented challenge.”

The entire enterprise shifted its mission in a matter of hours. The result was a monumental achievement in airlift: 123,000 people out of harm’s way.

“This is an incredible number of people who are now safer thanks to the heroism of the young men and women who are putting their lives on the line each day to evacuate Americans and vulnerable Afghans out of Kabul,” said Lyons.

“The most noble of deeds”
“As each of you know, this operation was not without tremendous sacrifice,” said Lyons in an email to the USTRANSCOM staff on August 31. “Thirteen of our fellow warriors sacrificed themselves to save others, the most noble of deeds. Through our solemn obligation, we will always remember and honor their sacrifice through our actions and example.”

As he remembered the fallen, Lyons also remembered veterans who served in Afghanistan and remarked that they “should be incredibly proud of their contributions to defend our nation from those who would seek to do us harm.”

“I would also like to express the sense of profound pride I have in the creative, determined, and professional way that our forces have overcome challenges. These incredible achievements, this historic airlift, speaks to the humanity of our troops in this mission and the skill and professionalism of our US military,” said Lyons.


By US Transportation Command Public Affairs

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