A photo from the inside of Reach 871, a U.S. Air Force C-17 flown from Kabul to Qatar on Aug. 15.

A photo from the inside of Reach 871, a U.S. Air Force C-17 flown from Kabul to Qatar on Aug. 15. Courtesy photo

Inside Reach 871, A U.S. C-17 Packed With 640 Afghans Trying to Escape the Taliban

The Air Force evacuation flight from Kabul to Qatar came near the record for most people ever flown in the Boeing airlifter.

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely evacuated some 640 Afghans from Kabul late Sunday, according to U.S. defense officials and photos obtained by Defense One.

That’s believed to be among the most people ever flown in the C-17, a massive military cargo plane that has been operated by the U.S. and its allies for nearly three decades. Flight tracking software shows the plane belongs to the 436th Air Wing, based at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The C-17, using the call sign Reach 871, was not intending to take on such a large load, but panicked Afghans who had been cleared to evacuate pulled themselves onto the C-17’s half-open ramp, one defense official said. 

Instead of trying to force those refugees off the aircraft, “the crew made the decision to go,” a defense official told Defense One.  “Approximately 640 Afghan civilians disembarked the aircraft when it arrived at its destination,” the defense official said.

Word of the flight spread across late Sunday in the United States when audio from the crew estimating they were carrying 800 passengers was posted online. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the true number was about 640 people.

The flight was one of several that was able to take off with hundreds of people aboard, and some of the others may have had an even larger load than 640, the official said. 

In 2013, a C-17 evacuated 670 people fleeing a typhoon in the Philippines. Like that evacuation, the Afghans flown from Kabul to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, sat on the floor of the plane’s capacious hold. The procedure is known as “floor loading”; the passengers hang onto cargo straps run from wall to wall serving as makeshift seatbelts, according to a source familiar with the plane’s operating manuals.