Marines heading to support the coalition forces participating in Operation Desert Shield board a commercial aircraft chartered by the Military Airlift Command in September 1991. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense/DVIDS.
For just the third time in history, passenger airliners from several major American airlines have been activated to help carry out an emergency airborne evacuation — this time, to help American citizens, Afghan partner forces, and Afghan refugees escaping from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan airlift highlights the pilots and aircrew of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, or CRAF, a volunteer program in cooperation with the Department of Transportation, the Department of Defense, and the civil air industry. Through a Cold War arrangement that dates back to 1951, the CRAF provides a dedicated fleet of commercial planes to assist the US government in emergencies at home and abroad.
The ongoing crisis in Afghanistan has so far required the use of 18 CRAF aircraft: three each from American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, and Omni Air. Hawaiian Airlines added two, and four more aircraft came from United Airlines.
Since the CRAF does not fly into active war zones, its duties are not required at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Its role is to provide onward movement from temporary sanctuaries and military staging bases in countries such as Qatar, Pakistan, and others across the Middle East.
“It’s a vital program; it does supplement what the military is capable of doing,” Alan Stolzer, dean of the College of Aviation at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, told The Washington Post. “It is only infrequently that the military needs that lift capability, so it makes sense that they would rely on commercial lines.”
Commercial airlines assisted the US Army’s Air Transport Command prior to and during World War II. When Nazi Germany lost the war, Soviet forces cut the capital city of Berlin off from virtually all food and supplies. This quagmire spurred the US to undertake a massive, coordinated relief operation that became known as the Berlin Airlift.
According to a short documentary titled, The Other Half of Contingency Airlift, “When all available US military transports were pulled from routine missions to support Berlin, the Department of Defense found it necessary to bring in civil airlines. They provided routine support to our other bases around the world.”
As a result of the Berlin Airlift, the CRAF was created through the Defense Production Act of 1950, which filled a void to free up other aircraft providing lifesaving aid to those who needed it most.
After its inception, CRAF assisted in airlift operations in the Vietnam War, in which military personnel and equipment were transported directly to the war zone from across all parts of the US. The CRAF aircraft and crews were able to assist in a “vital continuous flow of support over a ten thousand mile pipeline.” The CRAF made more critical deployments during Desert Storm and during the 2003 US-NATO invasion of Iraq.
“CRAF aircraft performed a vital role in Operations Desert Storm/Shield by providing 62 percent of the Air Force’s passenger airlift capability and 27 percent of its cargo airlift capability,” according to a report from Air Mobility Command.
As of this article’s publication, the CRAF comprises 24 carriers and 450 aircraft. “These numbers are subject to change on a monthly basis,” an Air Force fact sheet confirmed.
Anywhere in the world, if a national or international crisis occurs, the CRAF would be only 48 hours away from responding.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.