349 AMW readiness, resolve saves thousands

  • Published
  • By Grant Okubo
  • 349th AMW Public Affairs

When a call was put out across the U.S. Air Force to aid in the evacuation of approximately 124,000 people out of Afghanistan this August, the Reserve Citizen Airmen of the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, California, answered that call.

With their active duty counterparts at the 60th AMW, the reservists deployed in support of Operation Allies Refuge in mid-August, facilitating one of the largest rapid air evacuations in U.S. history. Night and day, for more than two weeks, U.S. citizens, Special Immigrant Visa applicants and vulnerable Afghans were airlifted to safety. By the end of that month, 349th AMW aircrews flying the C-17 Globemaster III, C-5M Super Galaxy, and KC-10 Extender helped evacuate thousands of people from Kabul.

“I’m immensely proud of our aircrews, maintenance, security, medical and support personnel for all their hard work, long hours and sacrifices that helped us succeed in this incredibly difficult mission,” said Col. Lee E. Merkle, 349th AMW commander.

Seasoned aircrews faced new and often frustrating challenges as they toiled tirelessly during the final two weeks August to move people to safety in other countries.

As one of the wing’s 73 aircrew members that flew on these missions, Maj. Dominic Calderon, a C-17 pilot with the 301st Airlift Squadron, served as an aircraft commander during the deployment. He and his crew were initially tasked with delivering the 82nd Airborne Division to help secure Hamid Karzai International Airport, however the mission changed significantly when Kabul fell on Aug. 15, 2021.

“We weren’t planning for any passengers or cargo out of Kabul,” Calderon recalled. “Our mission was changed to bring passengers; in fact, evacuees, out of Afghanistan.”

Reserve Citizen Airman train constantly to prepare themselves for any type of situation, and while Calderon and his crew were a good mix of seasoned and young aircrew members, some situations test even the most prepared.

“The conditions that day were like none I had ever seen,” said Calderon, who was flying in his fifth deployment in the Middle East. “The airfield was breached and there were mass crowds entering the airfield. Still, the crew performed well under enormous pressure. I couldn’t be more proud of the way the entire crew operated.”

Working relentlessly under rapidly evolving circumstances, they ultimately departed safely and airlifted 150 evacuees to safety in Qatar.

With the many trials, there were also many good lessons taken away from the operation, which was later renamed Operation Allies Welcome.

“There are a lot of things to be gleaned, and a lot of things to be learned from it,” said Calderon. “As an example, I think that there will be more emphasis placed on non-combatant evacuations in the years to come. We learned a lot about that, and how to efficiently configure the aircraft, so hopefully skills related to those type of missions and mission sets will improve.”

Lt. Col Troy Ogle, 301st AS commander, and his aircrew flew three missions in and out of Afghanistan.

On Aug. 26, a suicide bombing took place at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, killing at least 169 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members.

“The first time we landed was shortly after the bombing,” said Ogle. “That night we moved over 400 people out of Kabul.”  

The evacuees Ogle and his aircrew transported that night were mostly families, many of whom came onboard with whatever they could carry, he said.

On follow-up missions, Ogle’s aircrew helped airlift equipment and vehicles, including a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter with over a dozen U.S. Army Soldiers from the 82nd AD. Their final mission took place on Aug. 30, as a back-up aircraft during the final phases of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Other aircrews participating in the mission also faced their share of challenges during the operation.

A 312th AS aircrew with Lt. Col. Michael Drew serving as aircraft commander was tasked to deliver a medical personnel unit and equipment to Kabul. Upon completing the mission, more taskings came their way, which Drew said they gladly accepted.

“Everybody on the crew had signed up to do a regular mission,” said Drew. “But when they learned that they were going to be able to take part in the Afghan refugee evacuation, they were extremely excited and motivated and leaned forward.”

Drew said there were times when things weren't going well, but everyone knew and felt the gravity and importance of their mission.

“There was no grumbling. Everybody was very understanding of the nature of the situation that we were in. Everybody was all pulling in the same direction. I've never seen anything like it.”

Despite their immense efforts under the taxing conditions, the aircrew faced some unforeseen frustrations.  

Drew recalled a particularly deflating moment when he and his crew loaded approximately 400 evacuees on their aircraft, but were then directed to transfer the passengers onto a different aircraft. Additionally, there were plenty of other logistical hurdles, such as simply getting fuel, which was particularly challenging because many of the support agencies were overwhelmed, and factors beyond anyone’s control were taking place, he said. Despite the many frustrations with the conditions, the 32-year Air Force pilot was very appreciative of the efforts of the crews on the ground. 

349th AMW Air Reserve Technicians also played a critical role in the initial days of the evacuation efforts. In an impressive Total Force effort, the ARTs enabled the rapid deployment of KC-10 Extender aircraft and 60 AMW aircrews, said Maj. Paul Overdiek, 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron commander. 

In addition to long days the Reservist knucklebusters put in, they had to scramble to adapt the aircraft for the mission before departure.

“The KC-10 is normally used solely as a tanker,” said Overdiek. “It can also be used as a cargo airplane, but that rarely happens.” The crews used a floor load, allocating floor space on the aircraft for the evacuees to sit on.”

“I’m incredibly proud of the work that we did and how we supported our active duty partners. To know that we gave them the best airplane possible is our piece of Team Travis’s success,” Overdiek said.

“If these experiences have taught us anything, it’s the about importance of maintaining our readiness and resilience,” added Merkle. “Words fail to express the deep pride I feel for these Airmen who answered our nation’s call, and found ways to succeed during what was likely among the toughest weeks of their careers.”