Rock Solid Draco Crew in Afghanistan Withdrawal > 919th Special Operations Wing > Article View

Garbage and signs of carnage lined the runway at Kabul International Airport days after the Afghan government collapsed. American forces and their allies were scattered across the airfield in an attempt to maintain security as the remaining troops returned home. Intermittent gunfire signified the final gasps of government order dissipating as refugees swarmed the tarmac to escape the ensuing chaos.

Amid all the movement, a U-28A Draco crew from Hurlburt Field, Florida circled over the airfield to relay information to friendly forces regarding the situation on the ground. When one Draco descends, another ascends to maintain constant watch as enemy forces have infiltrated the crowd and the airport.

A Draco crew 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, co-pilot of the 319th Special Operations Squadron, and Capt. James Ryan, 319th SOS Combat Systems Officer.

On August 16, 2021, Hardman and his crew unexpectedly awoke at 2 a.m. to relieve another Draco team as the situation on the ground in Afghanistan deteriorated. They headed for the tarmac as gunfire rang out from all sides of the airport. The crew started the plane’s engine and Hardman taxied after the recent attacks.

“There was hardly anyone controlling the airfield anymore,” Hardman said. “I think the urgency of trying to get off the ground and supporting the guys on the ground kind of overrode any nervousness we had.”

The insurgents fired on the Draco as they accelerated efforts to climb to altitude. The crew persevered with their assigned tasks while being cautiously aware of the bullets still passing close to the airframe. During this time, they ensured their video feeds had the highest resolution and began transmitting crucial information to command centers below them, allowing senior leaders to oversee the operation.

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

As countless unidentified personnel flooded the airfield, Barrientes focused his efforts on locating armed fighter penetration points so that coalition forces on the ground could take appropriate action.

“It was definitely trial and error because we [worked] to try to deter more people from running on the track,” Hardman said. “At the same time, some of our technologies are easily visible from the ground, making you an easy target to shoot.”

US 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 taking advantage of the Draco’s range of capabilities while Ryan monitored exit points on Kabul airfield and continued to share data with coalition forces. media:1:right

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

“All the people pouring onto the airfield looked like a giant black blotch invading the empty space,” Barrientes said. “We knew we had to land soon or we wouldn’t have a [functioning] track.”

Another Draco ground crew preparing to relieve them had to abort their taxi and take off as a crowd swarmed the airframe. They chose to shut down the propeller to avoid serious injury to civilians.

Hardman and his crew focused on coordinating ground forces to clear the area around the grounded Draco as their own aircraft further depleted its limited remaining fuel. Ryan used on-board technology to stay in contact with the Draco ground crew while Sohlberg provided information and requested assistance from outside agencies.

“Everyone went into problem-solving mode,” Barrientes said. “There was this feeling where your heart is sinking for a while, but then we swung into action.”

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

“We had to do an incredibly steep landing to get into the small opening to land the plane,” Hardman said.

He changed course, made a successful landing, and began driving the Draco back to the hangar. The crew then noticed the swarm of people running towards the aircraft. Hardman parked the plane and turned off the propeller to avoid injury to civilians. He and Sohlberg reinforced the gate while Ryan watched the surge outside and Barrientes coordinated the security forces.

media:5:left:medium “There was this giant mass of people coming from all directions, the crowd was so dense you couldn’t even tell it was people,” Barrientes said. “They all wanted to get on that plane and get out of there.”

An AH-64 Apache helicopter hovered a few feet above the crowd in an unsuccessful attempt to dispel them. A group of trucks then surrounded the plane and used flash grenades to push back the crowd, 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 crowd swarmed the hangar and the Draco planes, 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 given to a qualified Air Force officer for an act of bravery or courage performed during an air flight.

“I think the award was more of a testament to how each member of my crew performed on the plane,” Hardman said. “It took input from the entire crew to make safe and informed decisions. It’s never a one man show on any of our missions, whether mild or difficult.

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