Delta crews volunteer for Afghanistan evacuee flights

Delta crews volunteered to work Afghanistan evacuee flights as part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet this week. Source: Delta

Credit: Source: Delta

Credit: Source: Delta

Delta crews volunteered to work Afghanistan evacuee flights as part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet this week. Source: Delta

Delta Air Lines pilot Todd Badura flew in Afghanistan when he served in the Air Force after Sept. 11, 2001, and found a chance to continue the mission this week.

When Badura learned that his airline was operating charter flights to transport Afghan evacuees to the United States, “it was just kind of like my heart was there,” he said.

Monday marked the start of flights by Atlanta-based Delta and other U.S. airlines as part of the Department of Defense’s activation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. The carriers are not flying into Kabul, but are moving Afghan refugees, U.S. citizens and other “at risk individuals” from temporary safe havens and staging bases in other countries.

Badura volunteered to fly evacuees from Hahn, Germany, to Washington Dulles International Airport. His passengers had arrived in Hahn from Qatar, where they landed after evacuating Afghanistan.

During the initial flights, Delta crews learned of some immediate challenges the evacuees faced.

An attendant on the flight from Qatar messaged a colleague scheduled to work the next leg that the flight was full of women and children who needed diapers, formula and baby food.

Crew members in Germany quickly left for a nearby grocery store with an airport manager in tow. They shopped for the goods in their Delta uniforms as the German airport manager translated labels on diaper packages.

“We weren’t really sure what ages they’re for,” Badura said. “We were just trying to get different amounts, different sizes and ages, so we’d have everybody covered, so to speak.”

That was not all that made this different from most charters.

“Everybody kind of understands the drill on the military trips, but we weren’t sure of the nuances of an evacuation relief flight,” said Dale Grimes, an attendant on the flight from Germany.

Delta’s Airbus A330-300 normally seats 219 people in the main cabin, but the manifest showed 267 people. To Badura, it seemed like a mistake.

“When I got to the airplane, I understood why,” he said. “We had probably 70% women and children. A lot of the children were small, so they were just riding on the laps.... It was kind of like being in a nursery.”

Even the adults seemed young, perhaps under 25 years old, he said. “When you reflect upon their ages... a lot of these people, they only knew what life was in Afghanistan pretty much post-Taliban.”

The passengers were “leaving their home, they’re leaving family and friends behind, they don’t really know where they’re going to,” Badura said.

Required to stay on the plane during the stop in Hahn, passengers were on the aircraft for many hours through multiple flights and delays on the ground. The charter flight scheduled to depart Hahn at 9 a.m. didn’t leave until 2:25 p.m., awaiting vetting of passenger manifests.

Delta has for years operated military charters carrying troops between military bases in the U.S. and overseas. Delays are not unusual, said Delta pilot Joe MacGillivray, the captain on the flight. “In a charter operation, things very rarely go on time,” he said.

Badura said, “I just looked at their faces and the overall feeling I got was they were subdued, or solemn.”

But that melancholy was overshadowed by the children, he said.

“Little kids are little kids wherever they are. They’re just having fun,” Badura said.

Grimes added: “Every time I turned around in the aisle, there was a child on my heel.” He and other flight attendants handed out the provisions including candy and pin-on kiddie wings for the children.

One difference to the onboard service stood out to Grimes.

“They asked for Pepsi.... Pepsi must be very big in that part of the world. We just gave them Coke.”

When the plane finally landed at Dulles, there was another wait on the ground for customs processing before passengers finally were able to get off the plane and onto U.S. soil.

MacGillivray said “That’s when the gravity of the situation hit me.”

He looked at the departing passengers carrying plastic bags and realized “that’s all that they have, that they left their country with.”

“That’s when it really hit me, what we just did,” MacGillivray said.

Civil Reserve Air Fleet activation

Delta has scheduled 25 flights through Aug. 31, to carry 6,700 passengers under the Civil Reserve Air Fleet program. The operation involves four jets — two Airbus A330-300s, an A350-900 and a Boeing 767-300ER — and hundreds of Delta employees coordinating and working the flights.