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Viral US C-17 jet evacuated record 823 people from Afghanistan – nearly 200 more than originally thought

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported 823 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport, Aug. 15, 2021. (U.S. Air Force courtesy photo)
August 20, 2021

On Friday, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command revised their estimate of the number of passengers on a now-famous evacuation flight out of Afghanistan captured in a viral photo.

Defense officials initially said around 640 Afghans were evacuated on a C-17 Globemaster III on Sunday. That number has been updated to 823, as the previously released total did not include the 183 children also sitting on the crowded flight.

On Friday, the Air Mobility Command tweeted, “CORRECTION: A @usairforce C-17 Globemaster III safely transported 823 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport Aug. 15, 2021. This is a record for this aircraft. The initial count of 640 inadvertently included only adults. 183 children were also aboard.”

The Air Mobility Command said its original number was based on a count of how many bus seats were filled after departing the aircraft and didn’t account for the number of children in laps.

An earlier report from The Drive estimated that around 800 people were packed into the cargo jet in Kabul, as thousands swarmed the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, looking for a way out of now-Taliban controlled Afghanistan.

The aircraft’s crew, callsign Reach 871, recognized the deteriorating situation and loaded as many people as the aircraft could carry before heading to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, The Drive reported.

Audio of satellite radio communications reportedly shared between the C-17 pilot and someone on the ground conveyed shock to hear the number of people on the military flight.

“Ok, how many people do you think are on your jet? 800 people on our jet? Holy…Holy cow…Ok…,” a man’s voice is heard saying in the audio recording.

According to a Department of Defense press release, a C-17’s typical seating capacity is about 300.

As reports began to indicate Reach 871 had been even more overcrowded than originally thought, rumors began to build that the aircrew could face punishment for carrying more than the typical capacity for a C-17.

On Friday, Defense One reporter Tara Copp tweeted, “Also — B/c there’s been rumors kicking around that the crew will face punishment for taking that risk: ‘That crew is facing no disciplinary action for the mission of Reach 871,’ 18th Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Thad Bibb told @DefenseOne. @[email protected]

The Defense Department said the military has airlifted about 7,000 evacuees since the start of non-combatant evacuation operations on Saturday, August 14. Only a few hundred of them were Americans.

Between 11,000 and 15,000 Americans still needed to be evacuated from Afghanistan as of Tuesday.

CBS News reported on Thursday that there are between 60,000 to 80,000 left to be evacuated, including more than 10,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghan allies and their families.