How a S African pilot and a 41-yr-old Boeing 727 saved 600 Afghans in Kabul

All of the refugees were taken back to Tajikistan where they waited in a tent community until a further airlift arranged by the US government could move them on to other locations

Representative image
Representative image
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IANS

A South African pilot, a multi-national crew and a 41-year-old Boeing 727 saved the lives of more than 600 displaced Afghan people last week as they hot-footed it into and out of Kabuls airport in a race against time and possible further bomb attacks, the Mail & Guardian reported.

"We received a desperate call from the US State Department's officials in Kabul after the suicide bombing attack on August 26 (which killed 170 Afghans and 13 US soldiers) asking whether we would be willing to assist with mercy flights," Captain Niel Steyl told the Mail & Guardian from Kulob in Tajikistan, which borders Afghanistan.

At the time, Steyl, his crew, and their 727, which carries the Kenyan registration number 5Y-IRE and is aptly nicknamed Irene, were forward based out of Kulob.

In the past, they had supported what was a relatively steady drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan before the final dangerous push out of Kabul, which fell to the Taliban on August 15th, The Drive reported.

Their cargo for the dangerous sortie would be hundreds of former Afghan special operations forces that were being lodged in a warehouse within the confines of the airport.

These troops had worked with the Americans for years and they would be top Taliban targets, but finding room on military airlifters leaving the country became a huge challenge. Hence the mercy flights by Irene, the report said.

It only took just 40 minutes to load up 308 people onto the cargo-configured 727, which would normally carry between a half and a third of that load during the type's career as an airliner.

Because the soldiers and their families could not fit on a single 727 flight, another trip would be needed.


On the second trip, they had to stop all movement on the ground at Kabul and could not load and depart quickly because US forces were executing a departure ceremony for the 13 Americans who died during the bombing at Abbey Gate.

Once cleared to load and leave, the second flight saw 329 souls packed aboard the old 727.

All of the refugees were taken back to Tajikistan where they would wait in a tent community until a further airlift arranged by the US government could move them on to other locations once the evacuation of Kabul was complete.

The passengers didn't even know where they were when they landed, they were just happy to be out of Afghanistan and away from the Taliban, the report added.

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