Air Force Probe Clears C-17 Crew Following Civilian Deaths During Afghanistan Evacuation

The investigation into the emergency flight was launched after human remains were found in the C-17's wheel well.

The crew of a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III that made an emergency evacuation flight from Kabul last year as civilians flooded the runway and gripped to the exterior of the aircraft “acted appropriately and exercised sound judgment,” according to an internal service investigation. 

The Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation (OSI) launched the probe into the August 16, 2021, flight from Hamid Karzai International Airport (OAKB) in Kabul after it landed at Al Udeid Air Base (OTBH) in Qatar and human remains were found in the aircraft’s wheel well.

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In the final days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the C-17 landed at the airport with cargo meant for evacuation efforts, but had to depart before unloading it after hundreds of civilians descended upon the aircraft on the runway. “Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible,” the Air Force said at the time, Military.com reported.

Video of the C-17 leaving amid the chaos showed civilians falling from the aircraft after it became airborne, and became fodder for criticism for how the evacuation was conducted, an expert in Middle East political change told the news outlet. 

“It’s very unfortunate that it ended up looking the way that it did, because critics of the war were able to seize upon the image,” Jo-Anne Hart, a senior fellow in international and public affairs at Brown College, told Military.com. 

“This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased,” Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek said in a statement Monday following the release of the OSI report.

“The aircrew’s airmanship and quick thinking ensured the safety of the crew and their aircraft.”

Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek

“As this incident occurred during an unprecedented evacuation where resources were constrained to on-going security and evacuation activities, OSI was asked to conduct an inquiry to determine the facts surrounding the loss of life,” Stefanek said. 

The incident was reviewed by Staff Judge Advocate offices of both Air Mobility Command and U.S. Central Command, and both concurred that the C-17 crew were in compliance with rules of engagement specific to armed conflict.

“The aircrew’s operational leadership also reviewed the details of the mission and concluded that the aircrew had acted appropriately and exercised sound judgment in their decision to get airborne as quickly as possible when faced with an unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation,” Stefanek said.

“The aircrew’s airmanship and quick thinking ensured the safety of the crew and their aircraft,” she added.

During the Noncombatant Evacuation Operations from Afghanistan, military flights evacuated an estimated 124,000 people from Afghanistan.

On August 15, 2021, the Air Force airlift mission broke a record by packing  823 people into a C-17 during an evacuation flight from Kabul, Air Force Magazine reported. The cargo airplanes typically top out at around 300 passengers, it said.

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