One by one, the cargo planes sped down the lone runway and out of Kabul.
Hours earlier, chaos at Hamid Karzai International Airport in August 2021 threatened to keep the C-17s — and the hundreds of people each carried to safety — on the ground. Until two U.S. gunship crews helped make their escape possible.
The work of 18 airmen across two AC-130J Ghostrider crews that week earned them the prestigious Mackay Trophy, an annual award honoring the previous year’s worthiest flight. Vice Chief of the Air Force Gen. David Allvin presented the trophy to the crews of “Shadow 77″ and “Shadow 78″ at a ceremony earlier this month.
“Your name is on the same board with the greats,” Allvin told the airmen of the 73rd Special Operations Squadron, according to an Air Force release. “You earned your way onto that by being the best airmen that you could when the nation called upon you.”
The squadron was among the units on standby across the region as the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan from U.S.-led coalition forces in a matter of weeks in mid-2021. When the extremist group closed in on Kabul, the last major city to fall, on Aug. 15, 2021, it ushered in a frantic new phase of evacuations from the nation’s capital.
That morning, AC-130J crews at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates got the call: They were needed in Kabul.
When they arrived, thousands of panicked Afghans were mobbing the airfield for a spot on an outbound U.S. military aircraft. The Taliban’s celebratory gunfire and fireworks popped in the distance.
“There were cars and people everywhere,” said 1st Lt. William Bachmann, a copilot on Shadow 78.
Gunships provide armed overwatch to ground troops with an arsenal of ammunition, bombs and missiles. They are also equipped with lasers that can highlight enemy forces — or, in this case, point to areas in need of crowd control.
The airmen kept Americans safe as troops evacuated 2,000 diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Kabul and made their way to the airport. The aircrews also helped clear the way for eight C-17 cargo planes to depart at a critical point for Operation Allies Refuge, the U.S.-run effort to evacuate more than 127,000 people from Afghanistan in July and August 2021.
More than 79,000 people left the country on 330 or so U.S. military flights Aug. 11-31, 2021, the Air Force said.
“During the rush toward the airfield, we were able to use the spotlight to help friendly forces on the ground,” said Capt. Lawrence Bria, the aircraft commander of Shadow 77. “If we saw anyone try to jump the fence or make a break for it on the runway, we used it to help ground forces to stop them.”
The crews also streamed live video of the evacuation to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, according to the National Aeronautic Association.
Their mission ended up lasting nearly 30 hours. Shadow 77 logged a new record for nonstop solo operations in the AC-130J, flying on its own for almost 16 hours straight, the Air Force said.
“At that point, your instincts just kick in to make sure the Americans on the ground are safe,” Bria said. “You push your exhaustion and your stress and your worries to the side to get the mission done.”
AC-130 crews were often been lauded for their valor in the throes of combat throughout the past two decades of war in U.S. Central Command.
The National Aeronautic Association announced in June it would honor the airmen of Shadow 77 and Shadow 78 with its Mackay Trophy. The trophy is on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
The crews include:
- Maj. Joshua Burris
- Capt. Lawrence Bria
- Capt. Sam Pearce
- Capt. Aaron Rigg
- Capt. Michael Shelor
- Staff Sgt. Daniel Mayle
- Staff Sgt. Kevin Heimbach
- Senior Airman Denver Reinwald
- Senior Airman Timothy Cisar
- Capt. Culley Horne
- Capt. Ryan Elliott
- Capt. Benjamin Hoyt
- 1st Lt. William Bachmann
- Staff Sgt. Tyler Blue
- Staff Sgt. Dylan Hansen
- Staff Sgt. Andrew Malinowski
- Staff Sgt. Gregory Page
- Senior Airman Miguelle Corpuz
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.