Below is a real story that comes from PIA Captain Maqsood Birjani, detailing his flight as one of the last civilian aircraft to depart out of Kabul, Afghanistan.
On 15th August 2021 (Sunday) we landed at Kabul Int’l Airport around 10:00am. The airfield status was normal and Air Traffic Control (ATC) was fully functional.
We were the first PIA flight in that day, followed by a company B777. The ground time was 3 hours at Kabul and then return to Islamabad. Our airplane was an A320, registration AP-BLS.
When we were almost done with boarding, ATC said:
“Due to emergency, we are evacuating the control tower and shifting to a mobile ATC unit from where we will call you back shortly.”
At this point, I began to see people running onto and invading the airfield; so I called PIA HQ in Pakistan for an update on the situation.
They called me back with the update that ATC was being shifted, meanwhile civil operations were being halted and troop evacuation operations were now underway.
“You’ll get pushback in 15 mins. Our management team is in the loop with various agencies.”
In the meantime, the ATC had been reactivated and had cleared the departure of a PIA B777, a Qatar B777 and an Air India A320.
When our turn came, the ATC said that all civil aircraft ops were being suspended for an unknown length of time.
We contacted our company department that coordinates all diplomatic channels. I also spoke to the diplomats who we were carrying onboard, they too were not sure of the situation.
Nobody, not even ATC, could tell us what was going on.
I requested ATC to give us pushback, then start-up and hold till clearance to depart was received. We were given approval and so we taxied out to near the runway; however, take-off was denied and civil ops remained suspended.
Then, keeping the volatile situation in mind, I discussed with my first officer that if we had to we would depart the aircraft without clearance, keeping in mind my responsibilities towards my passengers, company and my country.
In my mind I was thinking god forbid if we are caught or kept in Afghanistan, we could be used as hostages and I was worried for the safety of my passengers and crew.
My first officer agreed with me and we decided that approved or not we were departing, as we could not stay where we were.
After an hour or so of waiting for clearance, Kabul ATC said they were are shutting down and that the airfield was now uncontrolled.
I could see lots of military aircraft departing and I made the decision to take off. I had to avoid military traffic helicopters and troop carriers on the departure, but fortunately the visibility was clear. If it had been cloudy, I don’t know how we would have done that.
Climbing out to 15,000 feet we contacted Doha ATC, who finally gave us traffic separation radar control and that’s how we were able to return back to Pakistan.
I feel if we had delayed, even a little longer than we did, then the aircraft would have been engulfed by a mob and we would not have been able to go anywhere.
All I could see was military traffic and unauthorized persons entering the airport. Gunships were dropping flares for their protection. The situation was so unpredictable and I had to keep my passengers calm, for which my cabin crew is to be commended as well as the security staff onboard.
The above is a real story that comes from PIA Captain Maqsood Birjani, detailing his flight as one of the last civilian aircraft to depart out of Kabul (Turkish Airlines Flight TK707 was the very last one).