Crew of Last Flights Out of Afghanistan Describes Eerie Scene — and the Tension and Relief of Lift-Off

The last U.S. military plane left the Afghan capital of Kabul on Monday night, ending the country's longest war

US Afghanistan
Afghanistan. Photo: Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via AP

The view of the airport tarmac littered with destroyed equipment — set against a night sky glowing with sporadic gunfire — was altogether "apocalyptic." That's how Air Force Lt. Col. Braden Coleman described the scene as the U.S. made its final flights out of Kabul earlier this week, with Coleman telling the Associated Press that the view was like the scenes of aftermath in a horror movie.

"It just looked apocalyptic," Braden told the AP. "It looked like one of those zombie movies where all the airplanes had been destroyed, their doors were open, the wheels were broken. There was a plane that was burned all the way. You could see the cockpit was there, and the whole rest of the plane looked like the skeleton of a fish."

The last U.S. plane left the Afghan capital of Kabul on Monday, just before the clock struck midnight, ending the country's longest-ever war, which had climaxed in an enormous evacuation.

Speaking to the AP on Wednesday, members of the Air Force's 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron — who flew out on the final military flights out of the country — described the stressful final operation in the shadow of what officials had said was a terror threat.

a soldier, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, boards a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the final noncombatant evacuation operation
A soldier, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, boards a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of the final noncombatant evacuation operation. Senior Airman Taylor Crul/U.S. Air Force via AP

"It was just definitely very tense, and we were definitely all on edge watching everything going on to make sure that we were ready," said Air Force Capt. Kirby Wedan, who piloted the aircraft the led the final formation out of Afghanistan.

Wedan told the AP that, earlier in the night, a group of civilians attempted to get to the aircraft but were stopped by U.S. soldiers — a scene of confrontation that had repeated during evacuations after the Taliban takeover.

The Air Force captain added that lift-off on Monday night came with a sense of "visible relief," with cheers breaking out from the troops on board as the aircraft headed toward the sky.

"You could tell that they had been working really hard. Many of them hadn't showered in a couple of weeks. They were all incredibly tired," Wedan told the AP, adding: "You could tell that they were just relieved to be out of there and that their mission was accomplished."

US , Kabul, Afghanistan
A soldier in Kabul, Afghanistan. Senior Airman Taylor Crul/AP/Shutterstock

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, announced the U.S. had completed its withdrawal during a last-minute press briefing on Monday afternoon.

McKenzie said the final C-17 took off from Kabul's airport at 3:29 p.m. Monday, East Coast time, just before the clock struck midnight and Tuesday began in Afghanistan, which had been the deadline.

"There's a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure. We did not get out everybody we wanted to get out," McKenzie said as he announced the withdrawal.

Though the U.S. has been planning a full-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan since the Trump administration, the Taliban overwhelmed the Afghan government in recent weeks, taking hold of major cities and leading to widespread disarray in the Afghan capital as America wrapped up its planned exit.

Days before the withdrawal was completed, 13 U.S. service members were killed along with some 170 others last week in a suicide bombing at one of the Kabul airport gates.

That attack, along with the the scenes of chaos and violence as the evacuation effort took place, have fueled fierce criticism of President Joe Biden's administration.

Biden touted the evacuations as a major logistical feat rescuing more than 120,000 people, though more than 100 American citizens are thought to remain in the country.

He has said repeatedly that he hasn't wavered in deciding the 20-year war should end.

"I'm left again to ask of those who argue that we should stay: How many more generations of America's daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan's civil war if Afghan troops will not? How many more lives, American lives, is it worth?" the president, 78, said in a White House speech two weeks ago. "How many endless rows of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery?"

"I'm clear on my answer," he said then. "I will not repeat the mistakes that we've made in the past."

If you would like to support those in need during the upheaval in Afghanistan, consider:

* Donating to UNICEF to aid Afghans in the country or

* Donating to the International Refugee Assistance Project to help those fleeing.

Related Articles