The 18 members of Shadow 77 and Shadow 78 described the scene in the Afghanistan capital on August 15, 2021, as “chaos”.
“There were just cars and people everywhere trying to get on to the airfield,” said 1st Lt William Bachmann, 73rd Special Operations Squadron co-pilot aboard Shadow 78.
Shadow 77 and 78 flew nearly 30 hours combined in support the US withdrawal from Afghanistan during Operation Freedom's Sentinel– resulting in the evacuation of roughly 2,000 Americans.
Those members of the 73rd SOS were honoured for their efforts as recipients of the 2021 MacKay Trophy during a ceremony at the National Museum of the US Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, December 7, 2022.
In the days and weeks leading up to August 15, the gunship crews tracked the latest updates as Taliban forces made advances throughout Afghanistan.
At the time, the members of the 73rd SOS were deployed to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and were on standby to support the US withdrawal.
On the morning of August. 15, the team assigned to Shadow 77 woke up to a notification telling them to report earlier than planned.
Capt Lawrence Bria, 73rd SOS aircraft commander of Shadow 77, said the crews had just enough time to quickly grab food before heading to the gunship to get ready for take-off.
“We didn’t know how long the night was going to go,” Bria said. “But, as we flew toward Afghanistan, we talked about how we were going to be there as long as we needed to be and as long as leadership would allow us to be there.”
As the gunship approached Kabul, they could see celebratory gunfire from the Taliban, as well as fireworks in the distance.
Upon arrival, Shadow 77’s initial mission was to provide overhead support as helicopter crews worked to evacuate the embassy and transport Americans to Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
Shortly after, Shadow 78 arrived on scene to assist in the evacuation efforts.
Ultimately, the crews on board Shadow 77 and Shadow 78 served as “eyes in the sky,” Bria explained.
“We were there in case things went even worse and a threat came to the Americans, either at the embassy or on the airfield, we would be there, ready for it,” he said.
A highly modified aircraft, the AC-130J is used to perform close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance missions. Unique to this gunship, the AC-130J features a precision strike package that includes 30mm and 105mm weapons.
Additionally, the gunship is equipped with non-lethal, overt lasers that can be used for crowd control and to deter violence.
This feature became helpful as chaos broke out on the airfield, Bria said.
“During the rush toward the airfield, we were able to use the spotlight to help friendly forces on the ground,” Bria explained. “If we saw anyone try to jump the fence or make a break for it on the runway, we used it to help ground forces stop them.”
Their crowd dispersion efforts allowed eight USAF C-17 Globemaster IIIs to land and take off from Hamid Karzai International Airport – carrying the Americans and Afghan refugees to safety.
In total, Shadow 77 and 78 executed a 29.8-hour mission – with Shadow 77 flying the longest unaugmented AC-130J flight to date at 15.7 hours.