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Military Clears Crew of Plane That Took Flight as Afghans Fell to Their Deaths

WASHINGTON — The Air Force has cleared the crew of a US military C-17 cargo plane that took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul last August with people hanging from its wings during the frenzied days of the evacuation of Afghanistan.

Twin assessments of the harrowing incident, in which human body parts were later discovered in the aircraft’s wheel arch, concluded that the crew “complied with applicable rules of engagement,” Ann Stefanek, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in a statement Monday. . The assessments were conducted by the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command and the United States Central Command.

It remains unclear exactly how many people died in the August 16, 2021 episode, when a mob of Afghans, desperate to flee the country after their government collapsed under the Taliban, climbed the outside of the plane and fell out after the flight took off.

Video of the horrific scene, recorded by the Afghan news media, circulated around the world.

“This was a tragic event and our hearts go out to the families of the deceased,” Ms Stefanek said in the statement. Pentagon officials said traumatized aircrew members were later sent for consultations with mental health professionals and chaplains.

Ms Stefanek said the crew had “acted appropriately and decided in common sense to take to the skies as soon as possible when faced with an unprecedented and rapidly deteriorating security situation.”

During the panic at the airport in the days following the fall of the Afghan government, American pilots and troops had to make tough decisions on the spot. Hours before the transport plane left Kabul, another C-17 with 640 people on board — more than double the planned number — had taken off after hundreds of Afghans cleared by the State Department for evacuation charged onto the loading ramps. . military officials said. The pilots decided the immense plane could handle the payload and took off, officials said. That plane landed safely at its destination.

Early the next morning, a gray Air Force plane — call sign REACH885 — descended on the runway. The bulky jet was carrying equipment and supplies for the U.S. Marines and soldiers who guarded the airport in Kabul and helped evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghans.

Minutes after the plane landed, came to a stop and lowered the tailgate, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Afghans rushed forward.

The crew members jumped back into the plane and pulled up the ramp before finishing unloading, officials said.

By then, throngs of Afghans had climbed aboard the wings and, unbeknownst to the crew, inside the wheel arch where the landing gear would collapse after takeoff, officials said.

The crew contacted air traffic control, which was operated by US military personnel, and the plane was given permission to take off.

The pilots taxied slowly at first. Military Humvees rushed alongside, trying to chase people off and on from the plane. Two Apache attack helicopters flew low, trying to scare people away from the plane or push them away with their powerful rotor slush.

REACH885 accelerated and was in the air.

Minutes later, however, the pilot and copilot discovered that the landing gear would not fully retract. They sent a crew member down to peer through a porthole.

It was then that the crew saw the remains of an as-yet-undetermined number of Afghans stowed in the wheel arch, apparently crushed by the landing gear. Scenes captured in videos of the flight showed other people plunging to their deaths.

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