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For pilots, Kabul evacuations a flight like no other

By Mathieu RABECHAULT with Valérie LEROUX and Zain Zaman JANJUA in Islamabad Published Aug 26, 2021 10:26 pm

The approach is filled with danger. The conditions on the ground are chaotic, but precise organization and timing are needed. And the passengers are exhausted and tense.

For pilots in charge of the planes evacuating foreign nationals and Afghans from Taliban-controlled Kabul, the flights in and out of the Afghanistan capital have been a journey like no other.

Pilots must deal with the already complex location of the airport at high altitude and surrounded by mountains, with intense air traffic like that of a major travel hub with military planes and evacuation flights, relying on their on board Traffic Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) to avert crashes. 

As Western nations prepare to wind down one of the most complex evacuations of civilians since World War II, several pilots shared with AFP their experiences of landing and then taking off from Kabul airport as chaos gripped the country.

US forces, who have 5,800 personnel deployed at the airport, “are carrying out all air traffic control, ground control, tower control and approach control,” according to Commander Stephen, the captain of a French A400M military transport plane.

“With a plane like this, we are helped very much by our systems, but we end up landing by sight,” he told AFP at French base 104 of Al-Dhafra in the United Arab Emirates, the transit point used by France, on condition that his surname was not published.

“The fact that the system helps us a lot allows us to focus on the outside and monitor the threat,” he added.

To ward off possible missile fire, the A400M can drop infrared decoys that emit intense heat to deceive the projectile. On approaching the runway, the plane veers sharply towards the ground in order to “avoid the threat during our approach”, he said.

The incoming and outgoing air traffic is “regulated like sheet music,” said Stephen. 

“There is so much traffic from all the nations that if it was not organised it would not be possible,” he said.

The pilots must “absolutely” respect their slots with only “half an hour between landing and takeoff”. There are a mass of planes on the ground, but it is “well-organised”, he said.

‘We are going to take off’

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15, at a speed that was not anticipated by the international community, prompted thousands to head to the city’s airport, the only way to fly out of the country.

When he landed a passenger airliner that morning, everything seemed normal, said Maqsoud Barajni, a pilot of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).

Waiting on the tarmac to begin the return flight, “I started noticing that there was panic outside, and the situation was not normal. More people were rushing inside the airport and gunshots were also heard.”

Barjani started to push back ahead of take-off, but was then told by control that passenger flights had been suspended and he did not have authorisation to take off. 

He then made the biggest call of his flying career. “I had a conversation with my second officer that we are going to take off even if they don’t authorise it. It was not a normal situation.” 

“After observing the situation for an hour, I finally took off. The visibility was good which enabled me to avoid the military traffic. There were some Chinooks, Gunship helicopter and some other cargoes.” 

“Had we delayed for few more minutes we wouldn’t have made it. It was the last commercial flight of that day.” 

His PIA colleague Uzair Khan had taken off from Kabul airport a little while before on the same day. He remembered having to himself impose calm on the plane with passengers in a state of panic.

“Most of the passengers were either in the cabinet of president (Ashraf) Ghani or somehow part of the government. They were fleeing the country with their families and were pushing us to take off as soon as possible.”

“There was no communication and I was on my own when it came to the technical clearance. I was told to manage the situation by my self.”

The passengers were “ready to fly and get out of Afghanistan at any cost” and experienced a wave of relief when the plane finally arrived in Islamabad, he said.

 ‘Do our job’ 

The chaos only increased in the subsequent days. Photos of the hold of a British C-17 released by the Royal Air Force show people sitting cross-legged on the floor in rows of seven or eight, a single strap crossing the cabin to hang on. 

For the French colonel Yannick Desbois, commander of base 104, “you have to stay rational, analyse the performance of the aircraft and only accept the maximum number you can take, so as not to go too far.” 

A French A400M normally has 110 seats, “but here we are loading up to 235. People are seated on the ground—but in safe conditions,” he said. 

The American C-17s are designed to carry up to 400 passengers seated on the ground, but one of them in the early hours of the airlift took on 829. Desbois said “it is above all a question of weight” and while the passenger numbers are high, they include many children. 

After take-off, the job is easier. “People are tired. The pressure relents. In general, they sleep and we do our job,” said Commander Stephen. (AFP)