Aviation History

Travis Air Force Base Airmen reflect on Operation Allies Refuge, the largest non-combatant evacuation operational in US history, One Year Later

Team Travis deployed eight C-17 Globemaster IIIs, seven KC-10 Extenders and one C-5M Super Galaxy, moving a total of 10,310 refugees and 2 million pounds in airlifted cargo.

One year ago, the US Air Force (USAF) performed the largest non-combatant evacuation operational in US history, Operation Allies Refuge, which saw to the successful evacuation of 124,334 individuals from Afghanistan.

“We love data. We can roll numbers and metrics into a report to demonstrate effect,” said Chief Master Sgt. Keith Scott, 60th Air Mobility Wing command chief, during an event earlier this year. “For this operation alone, I could rattle off countless more stats that attempt to capture the impact of our Travis Airmen, but so much of what made this operation incredible was not what we did … rather who did it and how.”

As explained by Nicholas Pilch, 60th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs, Operation Allies Refuge: One year later, there were 347 total Airmen, 202 support personnel and 143 aircrew deployed from the 60th Air Mobility Wing at a moment’s notice. For some Airmen, that meant a 45-minute notice. However, these numbers don’t account for how many Airmen from Travis AFB were already deployed to other locations supporting this mission.

“I found out August 24. I had just gotten off a night shift, and I went to bed about 7 a.m.,” said Airman 1st Class Thomas Gustafson, 60th Aerial Port Squadron fleet apprentice. “I got a call at 10 a.m. asking if I had my COVID vaccine and my GTC (Government Travel Card), and I said yes. Approximately 45 minutes later, I was sitting in a briefing, getting ready to leave.”

Team Travis deployed eight C-17 Globemaster IIIs, seven KC-10 Extenders and one C-5M Super Galaxy, moving a total of 10,310 refugees and 2 million pounds in airlifted cargo.

There were 62 total Air Force medics assigned to the medical task force at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Of those medics, 29 were from Travis AFB, which was nearly 50 percent of the total Air Force medical footprint.

Medical support personnel from the 86th Medical Group help an Afghan mother and family off a USAF C-17, call sign Reach 828, moments after she delivered a child aboard the aircraft upon landing at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Aug. 21, 2021.

“We found out that we would have to go to the Hamid Karzai International Airport Hospital, which is a NATO run hospital,” said Senior Master Sgt. Louella Campbell, 60th Medical Group and Task Force Medical – Afghanistan austere ground surgical team and administrator. “We were just going to go there for maybe a couple of weeks to help things settle down and potentially take over, if necessary, until we completely withdrew forces, but we stayed to the end.”

Aircraft were escorted by security personnel to ensure safety and Staff Sgt. Riley McFerran, 60th Security Forces Squadron Phoenix Raven team lead, was on security detail for these movements.

McFerran described how his C-17 was 30 minutes away when he was handed a note warning of two young suicide bombers possibly on the flight line.

“When the aircraft landed it was pitch black, and only tracer rounds could be seen flying through the air, said McFerran. “I stood there in complete darkness with my night vision goggles on looking for any possible threats when I saw a sea of glow sticks and hundreds of army personnel walking up to the jet with their rucksacks and all their gear on. As soon as they boarded, we loaded them up, and the reaction and relief on their faces was heartwarming to see.

“While we were leaving, the aircraft took fire. We popped off flares, but no rounds hit the aircraft, and all of us were able to leave the airfield unscathed.”

Capt. Kayleigh Migaleddi, 60th Aeromedical Evacuation flight nurse, was in-route to the Abbey Gate on the ground in Kabul, but was handed a newborn baby that was passed over the fence which prompted her to head elsewhere.

“August 26, 2021 at 5 p.m., I was tasked by a doctor to report to the Abbey Gate to assist in a medical emergency,” said Migaleddi. “On my way to the gate, three Marines handed me a beautiful baby girl that we later called ‘Joy.’ I was told that Joy was tossed over the fence in hopes for a better life.

“While taking care of Joy, I received an alert saying there was a mass casualty event at the Abbey Gate; the gate I was headed to before Joy was handed to me. Baby Joy saved my life so I could help the patients who had arrived at the hospital.”

A newborn baby is being looked after prior to being taken off a C-17 Globemaster III, on Aug. 23, 2021 at a Middle East staging area. A 315th Airlift Wing aircrew from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina helped to deliver a baby aboard a Charleston C-17 Globemaster III carrying vulnerable Afghans evacuated from Afghanistan, Aug. 23, moments before landing at a Middle East staging area. Capt. Leslie Green, 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron flight nurse, was part of the mission crew and she helped deliver the baby.

Not only were support personnel on the ground doing the work, aircrews were moving people out of Kabul as fast as they could. Capt. Marcial St John, 21st Airlift Squadron C-17 pilot, talked about the difficulties of getting refugees to various bases in theater, and how they moved the first aircraft full of Afghan Nationals to Isa Air Base, Bahrain.

Lt. Col. Gary Sain, 9th Air Refueling Squadron KC-10 Extender pilot, and Capt. Marcelli Magday, 660th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron maintenance officer in charge, were expecting an aerial refueling mission, but the KC-10s were reconfigured for passenger movement instead.

“This is part of history. This doesn’t happen every day,” said Magday. “For me, the most rewarding part was meeting them at the bottom of the stairs and seeing the looks on their faces thinking ‘wow, this is what I joined the Air Force for.’”

Some people evacuated from Afghanistan were visiting family there and desperately needed a lift out.

“I was talking to one of the moms of one of my kids’ teammates, and she was in Afghanistan visiting her family in July and left right before everything happened,” said Sain. “Her sister, also visiting, actually ended up getting stuck there and was evacuated on a C-17. She eventually made it out and back to the States through the way of our efforts.

“It’s like this giant operation that happens, and then it’s over now that it’s not affecting my day-to-day life,” he continued. “Every one of those 120,000 people, they’ve got a story, and they’re still living with it.”

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. C-17A Globemaster III 60th Air Mobility Wing / 349th Air Mobility Wing, 21st Airlift Squadron, 06-6160 – Travis AFB, CA

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