The Taliban had them completely surrounded as darkness struck a week ago Sunday. The night the Afghan government toppled, there was no way out of Kabul airport. There was only one thing left for a dozen military pilots to do: fly.
The Taliban had carried out a savage assassination campaign in the weeks running up to the government’s submission, killing several of the pilots’ friends. “They will kill us,” said one of the NATO-trained pilots, who is now hiding in Tajikistan. “Because we are fighter pilots, we are certain they will kill us.”
Twelve pilots and an aircrew chief were killed when one of the Afghan Air Force’s single-engine AC-208 Eliminators, dubbed a “Cessna with Hellfire” by its troops because of its air-to-surface missile, crashed.
“A lot of people who were simply running to the airplane,” said the pilot, as the plane taxied for departure just as the first desperate wave of Afghan civilians escaping the Taliban neared the runway’s margins.
They flew into the night sky, leaving behind a dark, chaotic metropolis where sporadic gunfights and tracer fire marked the last gasps of the democratically-elected government they had promised to protect.
Three of the pilots were interviewed over the phone from Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. Their identities have been confirmed by military documents, but their names have been concealed in order to safeguard their lives and the lives of the families they left behind in Afghanistan.
Pilots who have flown AC-208s, MD-530 attack helicopters, and the UH-60 Blackhawk are among the group. They’re still dressed in their flying suits and claim they don’t have access to the Internet to contact their families.
Several Afghan military planes carrying more than 100 airmen and soldiers have arrived at various airports in Tajikistan, which shares a 1,350-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Separately, another Afghan military plane crashed in Uzbekistan a week earlier. It’s unclear if it was shot down or not.
Despite the fact that they are not under surveillance and are free to move around in Dushanbe, the aircrew who spoke to CBC News expressed concern that the Tajik authorities will hand them over to the new Taliban regime — either at the request of the Russians, who made it clear this weekend that they do not want to be involved in a refugee crisis, or as a goodwill gesture to the new government in Kabul.