Director of Safety Aircrew of Distinction: REACH 871

By Staff Writer

Reach 871
6th Airlift Squadron,
Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ

The Crew of Reach 871, 6th Airlift Squadron, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ, executed the single largest evacuation in the history of the C-17 by safely flying 823 Afghan civilians out of the hostile Kabul International Airport (HKIA). Twelve hours later, the crew delivered 231 additional U.S. forces to HKIA and evacuated another 297 Afghans on their return leg, earning them the 2021 Air Mobility Command (AMC) Director of Safety Aircrew of Distinction Award.

The crew believed they were on a routine noncombatant evacuation mission to HKIA. Shortly after landing, however, the airfield perimeter was breached, and thousands of Afghan civilians flooded the field. Air Traffic and Ground Controllers directed all aircraft to evacuate, declared the field lost, and evacuated the control tower. In response, the crew executed the Ground Evacuation Checklist and secured all classified materials. As the crew attempted to evacuate the aircraft, thousands of Afghan civilians engulfed the C-17, seeking sanctuary amid gunfire and blocking all aircrew exits. Reach 871 immediately realized evacuation was not an option. The Aircraft Commander and Primary Loadmaster secured and organized the cargo compartment, overflowing with 823 vulnerable Afghans. The copilots immediately secured the cockpit and readied the aircraft for engine start and evacuation. The crew quickly started the engines and assessed runway and airspace security. They maintained exceptional situational awareness, determined a safe window to take the runway, and executed a maximum performance departure using night vision goggles while avoiding small arms fire and mountainous terrain. The crew worked as a team to provide care and comfort for the Afghans while coordinating security and medical support at their destination.

The crew evacuated 1,120 people during two missions. Their record-breaking transport of 823 Afghans directly led to the AMC Commander increasing future floor loading operations from 300 to 450 personnel, ultimately resulting in the historic evacuation of 123,000 Afghans, Americans, partners, and allies. The crew’s compassion demonstrated toward their passengers was captured when a photograph of a loadmaster’s blouse covering an Afghan child went viral, changing the strategic narrative of the evacuation for the American public and garnering significant support for the U.S. military operation.