The crew of Reach 871 received Distinguished Flying Crosses Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, for carrying 823 passengers out of Kabul in August 2021. The Air Force is giving more than 100 major valor awards to aircrews and ground personnel involved in the Kabul airlift. US Air Force photos by Senior Airman Izabella Sullivan and Senior Airman Joseph Morales. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
The airfield was “lost.”
The pilots of Reach 871, a C-17 heavy-lift cargo plane, heard the dire announcement from air traffic controllers, that it was no longer safe to land or take off from Hamid Karzai International Airport, as they sat on the airport’s tarmac on Aug. 15, 2021.
It was the opening minutes of the Kabul airlift, and Reach 871 was one of the first planes to touch down in a city filling with chaos and Taliban fighters.
The crew of Reach 871 ranged from Erik Kut, a lieutenant colonel with two decades of flying, to Nicholas Baron, a junior loadmaster just six months out of training school. They’d flown to Kabul to deliver troops and cargo on a “no notice” emergency mission from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey.
Civilians swarm the ramp of a C-17 in a picture from Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport. Picture from Twitter.
But it was their flight out that made history. Within minutes of unloading, the pilots and crew of Reach 871 took off with a record-shattering, airplane-stretching 823 passengers, nearly all refugees and families fleeing the Taliban.
C-17s are designed to carry fewer than 300 passengers.
The now-legendary flight set the tone for the next two weeks of full-throttle evacuation flights of Operation Allies Refuge. Almost immediately, the commander of Air Mobility Command issued an order increasing by 50% the number of passengers allowable on C-17s. By the end of August, US C-17s and allied aircraft had lifted 124,000 Afghan civilians out of Kabul, along with delivering and then extracting 8,000 US troops.
This week, Air Force officials began awarding 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 12 Bronze Stars to Air Force aircrew and ground personnel whose actions were particularly valorous during the airlift, along with what officials said would be hundreds of additional awards to others involved.
The first round of those awards went to the crew of Reach 871, who received the medals from Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, at JBMDL on Tuesday, Nov. 1.
A C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 305th Air Mobility Wing is parked on the flight line at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., April 5, 2020. Air Force photo illustration by Maj. Brian Wagner
“You are now giants whose shoulders we stand on because you decided to act when called upon, putting your lives at risk so people you didn’t even know could have hope for a different life,” Minihan said. “Their selfless actions changed the strategic narrative of Operation Allies Refuge for the American public.”
Along with recounting the details of the flight, Minihan apologized that it had taken more than a year for the Air Force to formally approve the valor awards, including those for Reach 871’s crew.
“It has been over 14 months since our nation’s sons and daughters displayed selfless devotion to duty, a delay undeserving of your patience,” Minihan said. “This recognition is long overdue, and I own that delay as a commander.”
Besides recognizing Reach 871’s crew, Minihan awarded DFCs to another C-17 pilot and two aeromedical specialists.
Capt. Andrew Perrella flew a mission to and from Kabul on the same day Reach 871 did. As he departed Hamid Karzai International Airport, the tarmac was so overrun with civilians that he coordinated with US helicopters to buzz down the taxiways and runways to clear the path forward.
U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, Air Mobility Command commander, at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., Nov. 1, 2022 while presenting valor awards to the aircrew of Reach 871 and other troops. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Morales.
Capt. Jedd Dillman, a flight nurse with the 514th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, and Master Sgt. Matthew Newman, a respiratory therapist with the 514th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, both responded to the suicide bombing at Abbey Gate that killed 13 American troops and over 100 Afghans, treating dozens of wounded and flying out critically wounded patients.
Minihan also presented eight Bronze Star Medals to the 621st Contingency Response Wing troops who deployed to Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation.
But while Reach 871 would come to define the massive airlift, all the seven men on board knew on the tarmac in Kabul was that they were being overrun.
Within minutes of landing, the giant airplane was surrounded by thousands of Afghan civilians. Gunfire rang out, and within minutes, a mob had pushed its way onto the plane, Minihan said.
Two of the crew — Kut and Tech. Sgt. Justin L. Triola, the senior loadmaster — held back the surging crowd from reaching the flight deck as then-1st Lt. Mark Lawson and Capt. Cory Jackson ran through checklists, preparing to fly.
In the midst of it all, an engine wouldn’t start.
Marines with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Crisis Response - Central Command, provide assistance at an Evacuation Control Checkpoint (ECC) during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 21, 2021. US Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla.
The crew’s two flying crew chiefs — hand-picked mechanics who fly with C-17s, trained to fix major problems far from home — jumped into action. Staff Sgt. Derek R. Laurent and Senior Airman Richard Johnson got the engine running as the crew counted the minutes.
As the plane taxied, loadmasters Triola and Baron moved through the sea of people in the cargo bay, a crowd perhaps five times the size of what they knew their regulations allowed. They seated people in every open spot on the giant plane’s floor, using cargo straps strung across the fuselage for seat belts.
Baron took off his blouse and covered a child with it. The uniform now hangs in the Museum of the Air Force.
Finally, Kut pushed the C-17 down the runway, pulling up in a steep tactical departure, leaving the city with what the crew later said was 823 passengers on board, by far the most people ever flown by an American airplane.
As the crew turned south toward Qatar, dozens of C-17s were racing from across the globe to the besieged city of Kabul.
The Kabul airlift was underway.
Paratroopers with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division are assisting with evacuation efforts from Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Operation Allied Refuge awards presented Tuesday:
Crew of Reach 871 (with "V" device):
Abbey Gate bombing responders (with "C" device):
The 621st Contingency Response Group received the Gallant Unit Citation.
“He’s such a great fighter.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the squadron to which Capt. Jedd Dillman was assigned, He was assigned to the 514th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.
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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