The recent evacuation of Afghanistan, one of the largest airlift missions in U.S. history, had strong ties to Pittsburgh.
Earlier this month, aircraft and crews from the 911th Airlift Wing arrived back safely at Pittsburgh International Airport after assisting with evacuation efforts in the Central Asian nation.
Operation Allies Refuge involved the evacuation of American citizens and at-risk Afghans. While there, the 911th provided security and mission support as well as much-needed airlift capacity to the operation. In total, U.S. and coalition forces have evacuated over 120,000 people from Afghanistan, according to officials.
The Air Force Reserve unit flies the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, with eight of the type based at PIT. The 911th is one of the newer units in the Air Force’s C-17 community, having transitioned from the Lockheed C-130 Hercules tactical transport in 2018.
Col. John F. Robinson, commander of the 911th, said the unit was ready to answer the call once the operation kicked into full gear.
“Seeing it happen on the news, there was a sense that Pittsburgh crews could be involved,” he said.
“The readiness is hugely important to the Pittsburgh area, and the community can be proud of the C-17 and its ability to conduct global operations for the United States.”
The C-17 is primarily used in strategic airlift, carrying personnel or cargo at intercontinental ranges to any place worldwide. It has a maximum payload of 170,000 pounds and range of over 2,400 miles. However, this can be extended indefinitely through aerial refueling.
Although the primary mission of the C-17 is strategic, it can also be used in a tactical role. The aircraft can safely land and take off from runways as short as 3,000 feet. It can also utilize unimproved airfields, such as dirt strips, and deliver troops or supplies via airdrop capability by opening its rear cargo ramp in-flight.
Those capabilities made the aircraft a strong asset in Allies Refuge. As the Taliban took control of the country shortly before the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. to withdraw all American forces from the country, thousands of people became desperate to escape – including not only U.S. and allied nationals but Afghans who could face reprisals from the new regime.
Typically, the C-17 can seat a maximum of 102 passengers but can carry more in contingency operations. In Afghanistan, C-17s commonly flew out with hundreds of passengers onboard—one plane transported a record 823 people on Aug. 15, according to U.S. officials.
Transporting a high volume of passengers out of a crowded airfield with the possibility of hostile fire presented challenges. However, situations like this are exactly what C-17 crews are trained for, said Col. Robinson.
“It was a dynamic environment that was changing daily,” he said. “Our crews are prepared to enter those areas through training and problem-solving, as well as planning for contingencies. And crews make sure to give each other a head’s up on the ground of what to be aware of.”
Nearly all evacuations from Afghanistan took place from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. From there, evacuees were transported to American bases in the Middle East and Europe, such as Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar and Ramstein Air Base, Germany, before heading to various points in the U.S. for temporary housing.
To aid the military, the DoD activated the Civil Air Reserve Fleet on Aug. 22, tasking U.S. airlines to provide aircraft for evacuee transport from those bases, although no passenger jets would operate directly into Afghanistan.
Carriers including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines transported evacuees to the U.S. Nearly all those flights have been operated by widebody passenger jets that would otherwise remain grounded as international travel demand remains depressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Charter airlines, including Atlas Air and Omni Air International, also are assisting the DoD with bringing evacuees in from overseas. Domestically, Southwest Airlines and Allegiant Air have operated evacuee charters between various commercial airports and military bases within the U.S.
In addition to the 911th, the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard—also based at PIT—is assisting evacuees arriving in the U.S. On Sept. 1, Gov. Tom Wolf activated more than 40 guardsmen, including members of the 171st, to provide support at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.; Volk Field, Wisc.; and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C.
Col. Robinson spoke highly of the 911th and its crews for stepping up when the U.S needed it most.
“I am just proud of the men and women here that make a difference in answering the nation’s call for defense and the helping hand the United States provides around the world. They are eager to do it and enjoy their jobs,” he said. “I know they’re all proud of the work they have done. It’s an overwhelming sense of pride in the job that they do.”