Fifty-one aircrew and other Air Force personnel were awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross at a ceremony at Joint Base Charleston on Monday, Nov. 21, for missions flown during the Kabul airlift. Photo from Air Mobility Command Facebook.
A flight nurse and a loadmaster delivered a baby as their C-17’s pilot made an emergency landing. A maintenance specialist arrived in the first chaotic hours of the airlift and worked around the clock for two weeks to keep planes flying. A pilot and his crew made sure the last Americans in Afghanistan were safely on their jet, then piloted the final blacked-out C-17 out of the country.
In all, 51 Air Force personnel received the Distinguished Flying Cross Monday, Nov. 21, at Joint Base-Charleston, South Carolina, for missions at the heart of the Kabul airlift in August 2021.
Among those awarded DFCs were members of the crews that flew the final two C-17s out of Kabul on Aug. 31, evacuating the last soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division and other units that provided security at the airport. One those pilots, Capt. Rhea McFarland, became the first Black woman in Air Force history to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross when Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, pinned the red, white, and blue ribbon on her flight suit Monday.
Capt. Rhea McFarland recieves the Distinguished Flying Cross from Air Force General Mike Minihan, the commander of Air Mobility Command. McFarland, a C-17 pilot stationed at Joint Base Charleston, flew two missions in the Kabul airlift, including the second-to-last aircraft to depart Kabul. She is the first Black woman in Air Force history to receive a Distinguished Flying Cross. Photo from Air Mobility Command Facebook.
Others who received DFCs included Air Force flight nurse Capt. Leslie Green and a loadmaster, Tech. Sgt. Leah Schmidt. The two were assigned to a refugee flight on Aug. 23, more than a week into the airlift. Green was the only medically trained person on board for the flight of 456 refugees, a number far beyond normal C-17 carrying limits.
Near the end of the flight to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Schmidt found that a woman had locked herself in the restroom at the front of the plane. She summoned Green, and the two discovered that the woman was in labor.
As the flight’s pilot, Capt. Dennis Conner, declared an in-flight emergency and prepared for an emergency landing, Green and Schmidt helped the woman deliver a baby girl.
The baby was born as the plane was on final approach, at an altitude Conner said was about 800 feet.
A C-17 attempts to take off from Kabul while surrounded by a crowd of Afghans on the first day of the Kabul airlift. Screenshot from Twitter video.
After leaving Kabul with 456 refugees on board, the flight landed with 457.
“The baby was perfect!” Green said in an Air Force release soon after the flight. “A little bit small; it definitely didn’t make it full term, but it came out crying. She seemed to be doing well in this world.”
All the crew members on board received the Distinguished Flying Cross Monday.
At a ceremony last week at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown Jr. presented a Distinguished Flying Cross to Tech. Sgt. Katherine Rosa Orellana, a critical care and trauma team respiratory therapist, for missions evacuating those wounded by the Abbey Gate bombing on Aug. 26, 2021.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown Jr. presents a Distinguished Flying Cross to Tech. Sgt. Katherine Rosa Orellana, a critical care and trauma team respiratory therapist, for missions evacuating those wounded by the Aug. 26, 2021, Abbey Gate bombing. US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Violette Hosack.
The Distinguished Flying Cross is the highest award in the US military given exclusively for actions during flight, and ranks just below the Silver Star in precedence. Though legendary early flyers like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart received the award, since World War II it has nearly always been awarded for combat missions.
In October, the Air Force announced it would award 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses to active-duty and reserve aircrew and others involved in the Kabul airlift, joining a handful of Air National Guard crews already awarded DFCs by their respective home units.
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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