Air mobility leaders discuss Operation Allied Refuge at Airlift Tanker Association conference

  • Published
  • By Capt. Christopher Herbert, Air Mobility Command Public Affairs

On Oct. 30 at the 53rd annual Airlift/Tanker Association conference, the A/TA hosted a panel on Operation Allies Refuge – the largest, non-combatant evacuation operational in U.S history, which saw to the successful evacuation of 124,334 individuals. 

Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, Air Mobility Command vice commander, moderated the panel, which featured Brig. Gen. Daniel DeVoe, 618th Air Operations Center commander; Col. Adrienne Williams, 521st Air Mobility Operations Wing commander; Col. Colin McClaskey, the commander of the Contingency Response Forces who ran airfield operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport; Lt. Col. Susie Lonsberry, C-17 Globemaster III pilot who flew several missions into Kabul; and Senior Master Sgt. Melanie Lamb, the lead production superintendent at the 8th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron.

Those present on the panel discussed what took place during the historic evacuation operation, lessons learned, and the numerous roles AMC fulfilled. 

McClaskey recounted the challenges and keys to success during the initial days of the evacuation.

“There were a whole lot of people [involved] … so communication was critical. We were dropping in there and trying to figure out the specific mission for the day as the political environment was continuously changing,” said McClaskey. “Having flat communication was important to understand our mission.”

DeVoe highlighted how a large portion of airlift planning took place at the 618th AOC. From Aug. 11 to Sept. 9—2,627 flights were planned and directed, 1,927 flights were flown by U.S. Air Force mobility aircraft, and 700 flights were flown by commercial aircraft.

During the 17 days of evacuation efforts, more than 500 Active, Reserve and National Guard aircrews flew missions around the clock. Approximately 330 U.S. Air Force C-17 missions flew in and out of HKIA, evacuating more than 79,000 people, including 6,000 Americans. They also withdrew more than 5,500 service members and their equipment.

“We got immediate volunteers, across all airframes--all of the force,” said DeVoe. “There was more capacity in the Guard and Reserves that was available via volunteerism that we had to tap into to utilize.”

The operation was a monumental lift for the C-17 fleet, with more than half of the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of 222 C-17s committed. On average, 7,500 civilians were evacuated daily, with the high point being August 23, when more than 21,600 civilians were evacuated every 34 minutes.

“You saw Airmen take the extra time, not just [to provide] for the physical security of the jet, but also [to attend to] the mental and emotional [needs] of our passengers,” said Lonsberry. “It was definitely a challenge and not something our aircrew were specifically trained for. It was something we learned as we went, and we shared with each other the best way to take care of our passengers.”

In addition to sustaining the aircrew, the large number of flights presented maintenance challenges that AMC Airmen overcame to accomplish the mission. Lamb explained how maintenance Airmen worked around the clock to ready aircraft for the next flight.

“Looking at the history of aircraft parts, we were able to send requests to our [logistics teams] to ask them for parts that we needed to be pre-staged prior to the NEO, said Lamb. “They gave us a realistic understanding of what parts we could receive [which] played a huge role as the operation progressed.”

More than 250 U.S. Air Force mobility aircraft contributed to the airlift, including the C-5M Super Galaxy, C-130 Hercules and all three of AMC’s aerial refueling aircraft – the KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender and KC-46 Pegasus.

“We deployed the KC-46 to set up a tanker bridge right off the east coast of the United States [and] we had KC-10’s set up [aerial refueling] across the black sea,” said DeVoe. “We provided quite a bit of gas to those U.S Air Force Central Command assets that were providing force protection overhead.”

OAR spanned nine countries, eight time zones and over 10 temporary safe havens.

“We saved lives. This was a humanitarian mission. We provided an avenue and gave all these people a chance at life—a new future—and we did it together. We all came together.” said Williams.