As Reach 824 flew through Afghan mountains toward Kabul, the crew of the hulking New York Air National Guard C-17 counted six other C-17s headed the other way, each aborting their missions after being unable to land on the dark, chaotic runway of Hamid Karzai International Airport.
“The situation was rapidly changing so we were going into this not knowing what was going on,” said Capt. Matthew McChesney, the aircraft commander on Reach 824.
It was Aug. 16, 2021, the day the airlift from Kabul began in earnest. Civilians were chasing airplanes on the runway, and the Kabul airport still had no working control tower.
McChesney’s plane carried a secret payload, an MH-47 Chinook from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and 22 special ops personnel. Once unloaded, the helicopter had orders to launch into the countryside to collect Americans and Afghan allies hiding from the advancing Taliban, and the crew of the hulking cargo plane was determined to deliver it.
But for that, the crew of Reach 824 had to get on the ground.
“We were just pressing forward,” said McChesney. “Because, honestly, in my opinion, what other choice did we have?”
Last week, safely back inside a giant hangar at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York, McChesney and his crew received awards for the extraordinary series of flights during the evacuation of Kabul, including the Aug. 16 mission in the opening hours of the airlift. With that flight, Reach 824’s crew dodged bullets and rogue airplanes to deliver their special ops cargo into Kabul and pulled off an unprecedented on-the-fly air-to-air refueling. Amid the confusion on the ground, one of the loadmasters — a burly New York sheriff’s deputy in his civilian life — faced down a ramp full of Taliban fighters. The crew then flew more missions over the following two weeks as part of Operation Allies Refuge.
Their last mission flew the remains of the 13 Americans killed in the Abbey Gate bombing of the airport on Aug. 26.
The story of how the crew — three pilots, three loadmasters, and one onboard crew chief (the Air Force’s term for its mechanics) — delivered the secret helicopter to Kabul was released last week by the Air Force in a series of press releases as the crew received awards for the mission.
McChesney, Reach 824’s aircraft commander and a Delta Airlines pilot in civilian life, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the military’s fourth-highest award for valor in combat and the highest given specifically for flight. The rest of the aircrew were awarded Air Medals with Valor, including:
- Lt. Col. Andrew Townsend, a pilot from Goshen, New York.
- Capt. Jonathan Guagenti, a pilot from Bloomingburg, New York.
- Tech Sgt. Joseph Caponi, a loadmaster from Staten Island, New York.
- Staff Sgt. Evan Imbriglio, a loadmaster from Poughkeepsie, New York.
- Staff Sgt. Corey Berke, a loadmaster from Carmel, New York.
Tech. Sgt. Byron Catu, a flying crew chief from Monroe, New York, received the Meritorious Service Award.
In all, Reach 824 lifted 348 people out of Kabul during Operation Allies Refuge, including a 17-day-old girl. And then there was the work of the helicopter they delivered.
“We found out through our contact with the unit that we brought in there that they were able to get over 800 people out from the countryside who otherwise would not have made it to Kabul,” Guagenti said in an Air Force release. “So, if we did not complete our mission, that’s 800 people who would be stuck there still.”
It all started with what was supposed to be a “milk run” to South America.
According to Sendral, Reach 824’s mid-August mission was a routine training flight to South America, where the crew would practice delivering supplies to tight airfields.
“A very typical training mission for us,” said Lt. Col. Emile Sendral, Reach 824’s detachment commander for the mission. “A milk run.”
The crew scheduled to fly out of Stewart Air National Guard Base outside Poughkeepsie was a typical hodgepodge of Air National Guard flyers: two airline pilots, two cops, an IBM employee, and two full-timers with the Guard.
The two senior pilots made an unusual pair: McChesney, the aircraft commander, was relatively young, having joined the Air Force after college in 2014. He’d finished his final upgrade training to be a qualified aircraft commander in the C-17 in 2019.
But he was far from the mission’s senior pilot.
That was Andrew Townsend, a lieutenant colonel and United Airlines pilot with close to two decades of flying across a stunning breadth of Air Force airframes in which he’d earned three Air Medals for combat missions. According to Sendral, Townsend started his career flying RC-135 spy planes — a four-engine jet based on a commercial airliner — but had gone on to far more difficult flying, piloting both the high-altitude, gliderlike U-2 spy plane and the terrain-hugging HH-60 Pave Hawk in the low-and-dirty world of Air Force search and rescue.
But despite thousands of hours flying some of the Air Force’s most demanding airframes, Townsend was so new to the plushy flight deck of the C-17 that he was only rated to fly as McChesney’s co-pilot.
The third pilot on the trip, Guagenti, was about two years into his flying career.
Also on board were three enlisted loadmasters and a maintenance crew chief to troubleshoot any mechanical issues that popped up. Of the three loadmasters, two held full-time jobs as cops — Caponi with the New York City Police Department; and Berke, a former Army soldier, as a Putnam County Sheriff. Imbriglio worked at IBM.
Catu, the flying crew chief assigned to the mission, was a full-time Guard member.
“That’s what’s cool about the Guard,” said Sendral. “You get all these people who can add their own background.”
As the crew prepared for what they expected to be an easy trip, Taliban forces were closing in on Kabul far faster than anticipated, and American forces, Afghan allies, and civilians were all rushing to Hamid Karzai International Airport. There, special operators planned to fly 160th SOAR Chinooks into the Afghan countryside to collect allies. For that, a C-17 would need to deliver the helicopters.
“That’s how these things get assigned,” said Sendral. “They look across the force, not at who is closest or who is most qualified, but who can get there fastest. That was us.”
As the crew flew to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, the Kabul airport was quickly descending into chaos. One MH-47 was already on the ground in Kabul, but two others scheduled to arrive were delayed by maintenance issues. Reach 824’s helicopter was needed to launch missions.
On the night of Aug. 15, the crew made its first attempt to reach Kabul but could only establish communications with another C-17 already on the ground. That crew reported heavy small-arms fire at the airport, other aircraft taking off with no warning, and panicked civilians overrunning the airfield. Pandemonium was so widespread that another C-17 left Kabul that night with what the crew reported as an astounding 800 people on board.
McChesney aborted the mission and returned to Al Dhafra, two and half hours away.
“After we turned around that first night, the whole crew felt disappointed, discouraged, upset because it was a hard decision to make, and I have no doubts that it was the right decision,” McChesney said in an Air Force release. “I feel like that discouragement and disappointment only motivated us to want to get in there even more.”
Air to Air
As the crew began planning for a second attempt the next night, Townsend suspected that fuel would be an issue. Reach 824 needed enough gas to fly to Kabul and perhaps orbit before landing, then sit on the ground with its engines running long enough to unload, which could be hours, plus the flight home. But flying with more fuel meant flying heavy, which would make the plane harder to land and to take off on Kabul’s sketchy runway.
The solution was air-to-air refueling.
For that, they needed a tanker. To find one, Townsend set off on Al Dhafra to find the 908th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, which controlled the base’s KC-10 tankers, hoping to smooth out a request for gas that night.
To Townsend, coming from RC-135s and the short-range world of HH-60 rescue helicopters, air-to-air refueling was second nature. Helicopter pilots in particular practice taking on fuel from HC-130s on nearly every training flight and might do it a half-dozen times on a real mission. And Townsend also knew that in the complicated world of arranging fuel-thirsty airplanes across a night sky, face-to-face talk went a lot farther than phone calls.
The tanker unit had bad news. After checking their schedules and requests from across Afghanistan, it didn’t look like any tankers would be available near Kabul.
But, said one of the tanker operators, we can give you our open radio frequency that every tanker in Afghanistan monitors while in the air. Maybe somebody will have some extra gas.
Hours later, as Reach 824 flew toward Kabul, watching other C-17s ahead of them abort their missions, it looked like another futile trip. The airport was “closed” with no control tower giving instructions, and gunfire and chaos were again reported around the airfield.
Even connecting with the MH-47s on the ground was proving difficult. While Townsend had gone looking for tanker support, McChesney had asked the MH-47 crew to talk with their teammates already at the airport. The word came back from the special operators: You get close, we’ll get you an open runway.
But as Reach 824 arrived near Kabul, they found the radios used by the special ops team on the ground could only reach about 10 miles — unnervingly close to the chaos of Kabul for a C-17.
And the danger was not just fire from the ground. At uneven intervals, an alarm would sound and a voice would order the crew to make an emergency maneuver, either “Climb!” or “Descend!”
It was the C-17’s Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System, or TCAS, a radar system used in all US commercial planes to give a last-second warning before air-to-air collisions. In Kabul, an unorganized fleet of private and chartered planes, summoned by rich or well-connected civilians fleeing the country, were coming and going with no authority or coordination, roaring into the sky in every direction — some directly into Reach 824’s path.
Several times, TCAS picked up a fleeing plane, forcing the crew to take evasive action.
The crew tried a first approach to the field, but the chance to land never came, and the C-17 eventually reached its “bingo” fuel level, the minimum amount needed to fly back to base.
There was no choice. They had to head back.
Still, as they turned back to base, Townsend plugged in the tanker’s frequency and started making calls. As the crew passed over Pakistan, a KC-10 crew responded with good news: The mission they were supporting had changed and their jet now had enough gas to give Reach 824 four and a half hours’ worth of gas.
And rather than meet them over “safe” airspace, they’d fly in formation with them back to Kabul and orbit nearby to keep feeding Reach gas.
Townsend’s outreach had worked.
“It was like a no-hitter,” said Sendral. “You need every single play to go right, and they made all the right plays.”
As Townsend coordinated with the tanker to arrange an ad hoc rendezvous point, the crew made a bit of New York Air Guard history: In the 11 years the 105th Wing has flown C-17s, Sendral said, with hundreds of missions into and out of war zones, no plane in the unit had ever done an operational air-to-air refueling in combat.
“We practice it at home all the time,” said Sendral. “But it’s a lot different when you’re just doing a long refuel over New Hampshire than it is putting it all together over there.”
‘Land at Your Own Risk’
Once back over Kabul, the crew made a decision: They would fly in on a 15-mile visual approach and decide if it looked safe.
The crew got one instruction from controllers on the ground: “Land at your own risk. “
But on the pass, the plane took more small-arms fire and McChesney took the big jet around again.
As they set up for a third try, the crew contacted another military plane waiting to go in. A French A400 — similar in size to a C-17 but with prop engines — could not communicate with the air traffic controllers in Kabul. Townsend relayed instructions between the two until the French plane landed.
As Reach 824 descended into the airport for a third time, more small-arms fire erupted, with one bullet hitting the left wing. Townsend saw a rocket-propelled grenade fire. So many lasers from the ground lit up the plane that Imbriglio in the cargo bay ordered the helicopter passengers to put their heads down.
But within a minute, Reach 824 thudded onto the runway, taxiing toward an open ramp, where 12 vehicles awaited the jet.
As the C-17 came to a stop, the vehicles turned on their lights. All were heavily armed Taliban vehicles, with mounted machine guns and dozens of armed soldiers. The lumbering American plane had unknowingly turned the wrong way and was now on the Taliban-controlled side of the airport.
Berke, the sheriff, opened a troop door. A dozen Taliban stared up at him.
As the pilots engaged the plane’s thrust reversers, Berke passed instructions to the pilots, eyed by the Taliban. Once clear of a string of barbed wire, the plane taxied toward the US-held side of the airport as Taliban trucks darted around and under its wings.
There, the loadmasters and Army crew began pulling the helicopter out of the plane, a process that typically takes hours.
As Reach 824 rolled down the Kabul runway — to leap into the air, now 80,000 pounds lighter — it had been on the ground for 55 minutes.
In the following weeks, Reach 824’s crew flew three more missions to Kabul, transporting refugees to bases in the region. The final flight came in the last days of August, as the crew transported 13 coffins draped with American flags, carrying the remains of the 13 service members killed in Abbey Gate bombing, to Kuwait. There, a second plane was scheduled to carry the bodies back to Delaware. Reach 824 flew along with it as the “flying spare,” in case the primary plane had mechanical issues.
In all, three New York Air Guard C-17s flew in Operation Allies Refuge, with 23 crew members, most of whom left full-time civilian jobs for weeks for the mission. In all, said Sendral, the squadron evacuated close to 2,500 people.
“There were so many guys before me, so many instructors who had taught me on missions how to make commonsense decisions,” McChesney said. “There’s a squadron full of pilots back at Stewart that would have done the same exact thing I did.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the sequence of events performed by the crew during Reach 824’s Aug. 16 flight.