“This water is usually very shallow, but now we had raging rapids,” said Capt. Tyler Rennell, a chief Mi-17 pilot advisor. “Many of their structures were precariously close to the water. If someone had attempted to go into this river, they would have drowned within moments; that was how much water had been torrentially coming down. Water continuously moved in on this sandbar. We were looking at what could have been the washing away of an entire village along with all its people.”
The request for help had come from a village elder, and Maj. Gen. Abdul Raziq Sherzai, the Afghan National Army Air Corps Kandahar Air Wing commander, quickly received approval from the Ministry of Defense to conduct the rescue mission.
He accompanied a team of Afghan soldiers and their U.S. advisors as they took off in two Mi-17 helicopters to search for the distressed villagers in the vicinity of Nahr-e-Shafa, approximately 30 kilometers southwest of Kandahar Airfield. There were three U.S. pilots, an Afghan copilot and two Afghan flight engineers.
They faced several challenges on the way. The first was visibility.
“We were somewhat in the middle of a dust storm,” said Capt. Clell Knight, an instructor pilot advisor. “In some places, visibility decreased to about a quarter-mile.”
Another challenge was finding the location.
“We received a very vague coordinate, so when we arrived, we had to initiate a search pattern for what we were looking for,” Captain Rennell said. “We really didn’t know what we were looking for and the villagers calling for help didn’t know how to read a map.”
The crewmembers landed in three different locations before they finally found the villagers. Next, they faced the challenge of landing on the small sandbar.
“The land all around was really muddy and saturated with water,” Captain Knight said. “You don’t want the wheels of a 13,000 kilogram helicopter sinking down into the mud where you’ll be unable to get it out. That made the landing a little more difficult.”
Once there, the Afghan soldiers rushed out to provide guidance and lead the villagers to the helicopters. Most of them had not seen or been on a helicopter before. Some children were carried reluctantly onto the aircraft because they’d been too frightened.
However, they were also unwilling to get out of the helicopters as they soon found the ride to be quite fun.
“(Our interpreter) was very helpful in getting out and providing direction to the people,” Captain Rennell said. “He gathered them together and made sure they stayed away from dangerous locations, such as the tail of the helicopter. He also worked with the aircrew inside the helicopters to make sure people loaded from the back toward the front.”
Maj. John Baer, a flight nurse advisor, helped get everyone situated inside the helicopters and performed initial medical assessments.
“There were three Afghan medics and three advisor medics in case there were any injured,” he said. “The Afghan medics did a very good job. They responded, brought the appropriate medical supplies, and did a quick survey. If we had more time, we probably would have done more for the people. They were definitely not clothed very well and seemed hypothermic. They were shaking; but it was such a quick turnaround that we had minimum contact with them.”
No one was injured.
“Between the security, medical team, aircrew and Afghan interpreters, everyone worked really hard and was on top of their game,” Captain Rennell said. “Honestly, given all the challenges we had, it really went off without a hitch. Our job was to pick up the Kuchis and airlift them to the other side of the river onto higher ground. We repeated that twice, and then we returned to Kandahar.”
Captain Rennell said the biggest challenge was fitting a great number of people inside their aircraft. The normal seating capacity for adults is 24, but there were many children in the group.
“We went out of our way to make sure we could take as many as we could,” he said. “We had to basically rely on all of our training and experience in order to bring about a successful completion of the mission.”
The following day, Feb. 9, the team flew out for a recovery mission. They searched several locations near rivers. By that time, the water levels had dropped and people could be seen walking across rivers again. Everyone seemed to be doing well.
“Even though we didn’t find anyone, it goes to show that we were able to still launch another no-notice humanitarian mission again,” Captain Rennell said. “If we did find people, the Afghans, the Afghan Air Corps, the pilots and the helicopter crew, would have had the capability, with our help, to go out and do this. It gives them the confidence to be able to go out and help their fellow Afghans in trouble. It’s something they’ve done, they’ve seen and it’s more practice until they’re able to do it on their own.”
“The ANAAC was very responsive to the public’s request for help,” Major Baer said. “They supported the public very well, and we’re happy to see that.”
“This mission was unremarkably very dangerous,” said Ali Zada, an Afghan interpreter. “We landed three times, asking people if they needed help. They really appreciated the ANAAC and U.S. Air Force’s cooperation.”