The images of August 16 on the tarmac of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport are by now seared into humanity’s memory, Afghan citizens invading the airport precincts for air evacuation, clinging to air-bridge stairs, chasing aircraft on the runaway and – most heartbreaking of all – riding the wheel covers of a military jet transport even as it revs up for take-off.
The images showed the desperation of the Afghan public as the Taliban made its second coming, with the memories of atrocities of 20 years ago as fresh as yesterday. The suddenness of Kabul’s fall, the cut-and-run policy of the United States, and nervous opportunism of neighbouring countries in this part of High Asia made for dramatically heightened world interest on Afghanistan – all of this against the hope that the “talibs” would act more humanely this time around, also given that the Afghan citizenry and polity is vastly transformed since 2000.
In the rush of events making the news, one must stop press and study the tragedy present in the series of smartphone video clips available in the public domain, showing young Afghans riding the wheel pod of a C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift transport of the US Air Force, to their doom. Was this the result cumulatively of Taliban-induced terror, a hope for exit to the West, ignorance of aerodynamics, and added the expectation that the aircraft crew would eventually stop and take them in?
It is hard to comprehend the suicidal nature of the what happened that afternoon, over and above the unusual view of such a mass of people on an airport tarmac and runaway. These are places that have always been out-of-bounds for the sake of security and immigration, besides allowing ponderous aircraft free passage while taxiing.
There are at least seven video clips available in the public domain, excruciating moving images that help us to try to make sense of what happened on 16 August. There will obviously be more evidence available to the US Air Force, which was controlling the airport as the Taliban took over the rest of Kabul and which must be held accountable for a thorough investigation into the tragedy.
One video is taken while the C-17, serial number 1109 of the squadron from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State, taxiing in preparation for takeoff. It shows hundreds chasing the aircraft or running alongside, with some individuals seen trying to latch on to the covers of the front wheel carriage.
As the aircraft passes by, unbelievably, one sees a dozen men sitting outside the fuselage on the bulge of the wheel covers, the section of the pod that shuts after the wheels are retracted. Some of the men are seen trying to secure themselves to whatever they can find on aircraft’s smooth sides including seals, intakes and vents.
The second video clip is taken with a handheld smartphone by a young man on the pod. He seems calm and composed, one can discern even a thin smile of satisfaction on his lips, perhaps for having made it unto the plane.
After a selfie, the lens pans to the other occupants of the pod, and indeed it seems like they are all off on a bus ride, one person waving at the people on the ground, another giving a thumbs-up. (It is not clear how this video became available, whether the youngster survived or his phone got picked up.)
In this clip, just as the turbofan engines seem to be roaring for the take-off run, behind the inner starboard engine (at 0.05 seconds), one can see an Apache helicopter flying low above the people on the ground. This would be one of the helicopters reportedly used to clear the runaway to allow the C-17 to depart.
The third and fourth video clips show the military transport in flight departing the airport. One is taken from the tarmac, the other from a neighborhood just outside the airport.
The latter clip clearly shows two persons, mere moving dots, falling off the side of the aircraft, plummeting to the ground. One Afghan news portal report of the day (in machine translation from Pashto) says: “The bodies of four people were lined up at the airport runway. Two more bodies were found on people’s roofs.”
A head count shows that there were about a dozen persons on the starboard (right) side of the C-17. I was wondering about the port side where, certainly, there should be a similar number who would have managed to clamber up. While it was the fourth video clip that was most widely shared, research revealed a video clip showing the other side, showing people similarly bunched up for the tragic ride.
The proof of the helicopters being used like brooms to sweep the runaway of people is seen in the following two clips, one Apache following the other, with the C-17 coming up behind.
As the airplane passes the camera, in the second clip, you can see the dozen people riding the “wheel arch” on the port (left) side. Here too, some of the riders are seen waving to the crowd and there is
cheering from the ground.
As the airplane passes the camera, you can see the dozen people riding the “wheel arch” on the port (left) side. Here too, some of the riders are seen waving to the crowd and there is cheering from the ground.
A seventh clip shows the aircraft immediately after takeoff, with men, women and children dangerously seen to be on the runway. Doing an amateur study of the wheel covers of the department aircraft, it does seem (as would be likely) that most of the riders have fallen off by this point.
It is notable that while the video footage of the mass of people heading for the airport that day show women, children and the elderly, it is mostly (young) men who are out on the tarmac chasing the C-17 or riding its side. This is also indicated by the two individuals who have been identified by Afghan media as having been the riders who fell off: Safiullah Hotak, a dentist, and another man named Fida Mohammad.
Zaki Anwari, member of the national youth football team (and also reportedly of the Khorosan Lions), whose relatives told a news agency that he sought to flee the Taliban for a better life in the United States as a footballer. He was one whose remains were found on the landing gear of the aircraft when it arrived at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
“Mr Anwari’s remains were discovered in the wheel well of a US C-17 transport jet when it arrived in Qatar,” said an United States Air Force spokesperson. The C-17 has apparently been impounded for the purposes of the investigation.
The August 16 event was tragically extraordinary, enough for some conspiracy-seekers to believe that it never happened. Indeed, for a while there were those questioning the veracity of the videos available in the public domain, and claiming that the C-17 aircraft shown was nothing but an “inflatable decoy”. As more information came out indicating that the tragedy was indeed very real, the conspiratorialists went silent.
The desperation of Afghans wanting to leave Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is a reality, for the fear they hold of the Taliban excess despite the reassurances of the new regime’s spokesman when confronted by the media. At the same time, it is worth pondering whether the crowd on the Kabul tarmac represented those who were most fearful of the takeover, viz. the Afghan interpreters, contractors and other service-providers to the American and NATO/International Security Assistance Force forces.
The majority of this category would probably be waiting for a hoped-for, orderly evacuation rather than seek to chase a military transport at the aerodrome – even though for long the US Administration has been delinquent in processing immigrant visas for Afghan support-staff.
It could be that many of those gathered at Kabul airport were simply seeking a way out as refugees to the West. The difficulty of a passage in that direction is well known, an example being the Afghans who take the perilous route over the Mediterranean waters to get to Europe. While Pakistan and Iran both presently harbour more than a million Afghan refugees each, many may have thought of the Kabul airlift as a ticket to the West which would not otherwise be available.
Desperation, escape from eternal violence, whatever it was that drove the men unto the side of the Globemaster III, could it be that they did not know the danger of clinging on to an aircraft revving for takeoff? Only a few would have been ignorant that you cannot not ride a jet plane on the outside – the air speed that will fling you away, the oxygen deprivation and the freezing if you do manage to get into the wheel well as the aircraft attains height, the near-certainty of death regardless.
We know of desperate individuals fleeing by secreting themselves up the undercarriage of commercial aircraft, but riding a heavy-lift C-17 is a different matter altogether. Firstly, the landing gear rides close to the ground, so it is difficult to get inside the well like in many commercial aircraft where the landing gear rides high (to accommodate engines that hang from the wings that are below the fuselage).
The wings of a C-17 are on top of the fuselage, which allows its undercarriage wheel-array to hug the ground closely. The undercarriage covers bulge outward on the two sides when the wheels are down, creating a flat space that would (we now realise) fit ten to 12 people. As the aircraft leaves the ground and the wheels are retracted, this “wheel arch” swivels and comes underneath the fuselage. There would be no hope for anyone left on the pod who may have managed to hold on against the rushing air flow, which would reach more than 250 kmph as the jet gets airborne.
It is hard to believe that the people did not know this much about the nature of aircraft, airflow and aerodynamics – that attaching yourself to the undercarriage mechanism would be heading for sure death on any jet aircraft, even if they did not understand the unique undercarriage configuration of a C-17.
Looking at the mood of the youngsters on the starboard pod, one does not at all get the feeling that they were in panic at the prospect of impending doom. The equanimity in their demeanour in the second video clip, the hand-waving and thumbs-up – gives one the distinct feeling that they did not believe that the aircraft would take off with them clinging to the side. They may have thought that the C-17 would eventually stop, and even take on them board to whisk them away from Afghanistan and to safety.
Questions to the crew
Hence the excruciating question: How could the C-17 air crew take off with people clinging to the outside? It is a matter hard to comprehend. We do know that the aircraft was bringing cargo to help in the Kabul evacuation effort, and that the air crew decided to take off without unloading after seeing the mayhem on the ground, with the crowd having breached the fence on the civilian side of the airport.
An investigation is required to understand if the C-17 crew took off knowing full well that there were people hanging on to the outside. Was the fear of being overwhelmed by the surging crowd such that their decision to depart was justified? Was not the fact that the US military was in command of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, with US helicopters buzzing around the airspace, enough to give the crew members confidence of their own personal safety? Or was the inhumanity of the take-off assisted by the sheer distance between the high cockpit of aircraft 0119 and the ground?
Perhaps there are no closed-circuit cameras to give the pilots a view of the side of the aircraft, to have noticed the stowaways. Perhaps the airport control tower was out of action amidst the chaos of the Taliban takeover. But then there were the helicopters being used to clear the runaway of the throng, with whom the pilots would surely have been in radio contact. Why was the decision made by the flight deck to push the four engines of the C-17 at full throttle and depart, and who exactly made it, which resulted in the death of and injury to the Afghan youngsters?
We know the names of the crew of another C-17, who on August 15 achieved a record of sorts by evacuating 823 people, including children, from Kabul, given that the normal capacity of the aircraft is 300. The crew of that C-17 received much adulation, but it will be as important to know who took Aircraft 0119 off the ground, and under what conditions.
Many questions come to mind. My own preliminary attempt at an answer is this: most of those riding the C-17 did not expect it to go for take-off, they would have expected it to stop after going a safe distance from the chasing crowd, allowing them to get off, if not taking them on board.
As the C-17’s turbofan engines begin their combination whine-and-roar as the pilots put full throttle, at least one of the Afghans on the starboard side seems to have realised the imminent danger. He reportedly says in Pashto, “It will fly and throw us away.”
For sure, as the jet takes on speed, many would have simply been swept away by the airflow. Studying the video taken towards the end of the runaway as the aircraft takes height, it does seem that many if not all those riding the “wheel arch” have been swept off.
Even so, there are other questions unanswered. How was it that some were still attached to the aircraft beyond the airport perimeter, when the aircraft was already hundreds of feet high? The place where the two bodies fell is 8 km from the airport. Could some people have had their body parts stuck to the closing undercarriage, or were they trapped somehow inside the wheel well? And would there have been many were mowed down as the C-17 moved down the runaway?
While we know of one person’s remains in the undercarriage of the aircraft discovered when it landed in Qatar, would there have been more bodies left behind on the Kabul runway? There is need for a thorough investigation.
The US Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations is said to be reviewing all information regarding the incident. The Air Force has said in a statement: “OSI’s review will be thorough to ensure we obtain the facts regarding this tragic incident. Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased.”
The interest of international civil society and the media on the Kabul airport tragedy should not lag amidst the rush of news worldwide and on Afghanistan. One is left hoping that majority of the C-17 riders were indeed simply swept off as the jet accelerated, and that most survived, even if with injuries. Not just the US Air Force, but the managers of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, now reporting to the Taliban regime, must come clean on what exactly happened there on the tarmac that afternoon on August 16.
Kanak Mani Dixit is a writer and journalist, and founding editor of the magazine Himal Southasian.