Aviation Community Steps Up to Fly Afghan Evacuees to Safety

Delta Air Lines crew members and the Airbus A330-300 that flew hundreds of Afghan evacuees to the U.S. Courtesy of Delta Air Lines

U.S. commercial airline pilots and crew have been making history as they fly thousands of passengers who were at risk in Afghanistan to new lives in the United States.

As part of the U.S. military pullout ending the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan, the Pentagon announced on August 22 it had activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF). Volunteering for duty are six U.S. airlines:

  • American Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • United Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Atlas Air
  • Omni Air

The program allowed the Pentagon to focus on security and logistics surrounding the flights in and out of Hamid Karzai International Airport (OAKB/KBL) in Kabul, which ended on August 31. First, military flights evacuated U.S. citizens and Afghans to staging airports at Ramstein Air Base (ETAR/RMS) in Germany and Al Udeid Air Base (OTBH/XJD) in Qatar.

Now, the CRAF pilots have been taking the mission from there—flying evacuees on to Dulles International Airport (KIAD) outside Washington, and Philadelphia International Airport (KPHL).

‘They left with the clothes on their backs’

Because the airlift is such an important moment in the lives of so many people, its results have been nothing short of dramatic. Crews have been navigating the unique logistics surrounding the flights, while passengers experience an emotional journey. Evacuees are traveling to an unfamiliar country while facing the devastating possibility they may never return to their homeland. The flights include families with children, carrying with them all their worldly belongings.

The mission is changing the paths of countless lives—a fact that has not been lost on crewmembers.

“I don’t know if historic is the right word, but for me it was quite emotional,” New York-based Delta Air Lines pilot Captain Larry Newman told Flying after ferrying evacuees from Qatar. “It didn’t really hit me until I saw the Afghan refugees getting on the airplane in Al Udeid. “You could tell they had had it pretty rough, and it just kind of hit me how significant this was.”

During the flight from Qatar to Germany’s Frankfurt Hahn Airport, Newman’s Airbus A330-300 was packed with 268 passengers. Their baggage totaled only 30 bags.

“They left with the clothes on their backs,” Newman said. The load was so light it resulted in a lower fuel burn for the aircraft—about 11,000 pounds less fuel than anticipated.

At one point, a flight attendant showed Newman a photo of one of the passengers—an Afghan child sound asleep in the back of the cabin. “You could see the exhaustion on their faces, even though they were asleep,” Newman recalled. “That hit me a lot.”

Meanwhile, one of the flight attendants began texting with their Delta replacement crew who were waiting for the airplane’s arrival in Frankfurt. They came up with a plan to buy—out of their own pockets—personal hygiene supplies for the passengers, including bags of wipes and diapers that would allow the evacuees to clean up after their escape from Afghanistan. After arriving at Frankfurt, the relief crew brought the supplies on board for the grateful passengers. For the children, crew members gave out candy, markers, and paper so they could draw pictures.

With a fresh crew, the Delta A330 continued on for eight more hours to its final destination at Dulles, arriving on August 30.

The Moving Parts

So far, Delta Air Lines has flown more than 6,000 evacuees, according to the carrier’s website. Along with the A330, the carrier chose some of the largest and most robust aircraft in its fleet for this mission, including its flagship Airbus A350-900 and Boeing’s 767-300ER.

Some of the CARF flights arriving at Dulles experienced delays blamed on bottlenecks in processing the evacuees, Delta reported on its website. Some passengers were forced to remain on board airliners for hours. Delta said it reached out to Department of Defense officials, who helped solve the problem by setting up an airport waiting facility for evacuees. This allowed passengers to get off the airplane sooner, gain access to family and friends as well as medical treatment, if necessary.

For its part, United Airlines said it has flown at least 13 CRAF missions, ferrying more than 3,900 U.S. citizens and Afghan evacuees.

Both United and Delta have launched programs allowing customers to donate frequent flier miles to evacuees who may need them to fly to other domestic destinations where they can reunite with loved ones.

At Philadelphia International Airport, American Airlines worked with airport officials to design a process aimed at getting evacuees off the airplanes as quickly as possible and escorting them to secure areas where they are vetted and screened, according to the company website.

The airline said on August 30 that more than 1,600 evacuees had arrived at KPHL in a three-day period.

The flights are historic because the Pentagon rarely activates the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. The idea was born in the wake of the Berlin Airlift, a 1940s Cold War crisis that started when the Soviet Union cut off all ground access to Western parts of the German city. As a result, in 1951 the U.S. government formed a plan to provide additional airlift capacity in case of a national defense emergency.

In exchange for volunteering to join the program, airlines “are given preference in carrying commercial peacetime cargo and passenger traffic” for the Department of Defense, according to the Department of Transportation website.

The Afghanistan pullout marks the third time CRAF has ever been activated. The other times were during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in the 1990s and Operation Iraqi Freedom during 2002 to 2003.

There’s More to Do

The overall evacuation, which President Joe Biden has called “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” isn’t over yet. As of Friday, there were still 10 additional flights scheduled for Delta, according to its website.

From Dulles and Philadelphia, some evacuees will be traveling by commercial, military contract flights to other temporary staging areas in the U.S., including 44 flights to Volk Field Air National Guard Base (KVOK) in Wisconsin, and 26 flights to Biggs Army Air Field, at Fort Bliss, Texas (KBIF), according to the U.S. military. Dozens more flights to these military facilities are expected in the coming weeks.

Overall, the CRAF evacuation flights are expected to continue through “at least the middle of September,” the military said in a statement.

Thom is a former senior editor for FLYING. Previously, his freelance reporting appeared in aviation industry magazines. Thom also spent three decades as a TV and digital journalist at CNN’s bureaus in Washington and Atlanta, eventually specializing in aviation. He has reported from air shows in Oshkosh, Farnborough and Paris. Follow Thom on Twitter @thompatterson.

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