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Draco crew excels despite adversity in Afghanistan withdrawal

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Dylan Gentile
  • 919th Special Operations Wing

Garbage and signs of carnage lined the runway of Kabul International Airport days after the Afghani government’s collapse. American forces and their allies were dispersed across the airfield attempting to maintain security as the remaining troops make their way back home. Intermittent gunfire signified the last gasps of the dissipating governmental order while refugees crowd the tarmac to escape the ensuing chaos.

Amidst all of the movement, a U-28A Draco crew from Hurlburt Field, Florida, circled above the airfield relaying information to friendly forces regarding the situation on the ground. When one Draco comes down, another one went up to maintain constant surveillance as enemy forces have infiltrated the crowds and the airport.

One Draco aircrew consisted of Lt. Col. Scott Hardman, 5th Special Operations Squadron pilot and aircraft commander, Senior Airman Max Sohlberg, 25th Intelligence Squadron intelligence specialist, Capt. Pedro Barrientes, 319th Special Operations Squadron copilot, and Capt. James Ryan, 319th SOS combat systems officer.

On Aug. 16, 2021, Hardman and his crew unexpectedly woke up at 2 a.m. to relieve another Draco team while the situation on the ground in Afghanistan deteriorated. They drove to the tarmac while gunfire rang out on all sides of the airport. The crew started the aircraft’s engine and Hardman taxied through the aftermath of recent attacks.

“There was pretty much no one controlling the airfield anymore,” said Hardman. “I think the urgency of trying to get airborne and support the guys on the ground kind of outweighed any nervousness we had.”

Insurgents fired on the Draco while they accelerated efforts to climb to altitude. The crew persevered with their assigned tasks while cautiously aware of the bullets that were passing ever close to the airframe. Meanwhile, they ensured their video feeds had the highest resolution and began passing crucial information to command centers below them enabling senior leaders to oversee the operation.

“I was pretty confident we were out of small-arms range,” said Hardman. “[The takeoff] was a little bit nonstandard, but the guys on this crew demonstrated why they are true professionals.”

As countless unidentified personnel were flooding the airfield, Barrientes focused his efforts on locating penetration points of armed combatants so coalition forces on the ground could take action as appropriate.

“It was definitely trial and error as we [worked] to try and deter more people from running onto the runway,” said Hardman. “At the same time, some of our technology is easily visible from the ground so it makes you an easy target to shoot.” 

U.S. Marines on the ground reported to the crew that they were receiving fire from an overrun air traffic control tower. Barrientes worked feverishly to assist ground forces by leveraging the Draco’s array of capabilities while Ryan monitored the exit points on the Kabul airfield and continued sharing data with coalition forces.

Shortly after sunrise, the number of people on the tarmac reached a breaking point as friendly forces struggled to maintain order. The Draco crew opted to stay in the air despite having dangerously low fuel to help allied forces form a new perimeter around the military side of the airport.

“All the people pouring into the airfield looked like a giant black blob taking over empty space,” said Barrientes. “We knew we’d have to land soon or we wouldn’t have a [functioning] runway.”

Another Draco crew on the ground preparing to relieve them had to abort their taxi and takeoff as a mob swarmed the airframe. They chose to shut the propeller down to avoid critically injuring civilians.

Hardman and his crew switched their focus to coordinating ground forces to clear the area around the grounded Draco as their own aircraft was further depleting its remaining limited fuel. Ryan used on-board technology to stay engaged with the Draco crew on the ground while Sohlberg fed information to and requested assistance from outside agencies.

“Everyone went into problem solving mode,” said Barrientes. “There was that feeling where your heart sinks for a moment but then we sprang into action.”

The Draco crew’s below-emergency-fuel level forced them to navigate a precarious landing. Hardman prepared the aircraft to land on a taxiway with fewer obstructions, but with seconds to spare and the help of Barrientes, found an opening in the mass of people on the runway.

“We had to make an incredibly steep landing to make it into the small opening to get the aircraft on the ground,” said Hardman.

He switched courses, made a successful landing and began to taxi the Draco to the hangar. The crew then noticed the swarm of people running towards the aircraft. Hardman put the plane in park and turned off the propeller to avoid injuring civilians. He and Sohlberg braced the door while Ryan monitored the wave outside and Barrientes coordinated with security forces.

“There was this giant mass of people coming from every direction, the crowd was so dense you couldn’t even tell it was people,” said Barrientes. “They all wanted to get on this plane and get out of there.”

An AH-64 Apache helicopter hovered just feet above the crowd in an unsuccessful attempt to dissipate them. A group of trucks then surrounded the aircraft and used flash grenades to push the mob back, which created a hole for Hardman and his crew to take up arms and escape on foot.

He led the crew to safety in a nearby hangar, ending what they called “the most precarious day in U-28 history.” The crowds overran the Draco hangar and aircraft, which friendly forces immediately recovered.

Hardman received the Aviator Valor Award in recognition of his exemplary actions leading his team to safety. The award, which is sponsored by the American Legion, is presented to a rated Air Force officer for an act of valor or courage performed during aerial flight.

 “I think the award was more of a testament to how every guy in my crew handled themselves on the aircraft,” said Hardman. “It required input from the entire aircrew to make safe and informed decisions. It's never a one man show on any of our missions regardless of whether it's a benign or a difficult one.”

[Lt. Col. Scott Hardman is a U-28A Evaluator Pilot as an Active Guard Reserve member. He is part of the Total Force Integration of the 5th SOS and the 19th Special Operations Squadron as part of the primary Formal Training Unit for Air Force Special Operations Command.]