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The Duchess of Cambridge has congratulated the heroes of a challenging evacuation from Kabul, as she visited Brize Norton to meet those who saved the lives of civilians.
The Duchess, wearing a cream blazer, wide-legged black trousers and high heels, was greeted with a salute on the ground at the airbase, before meeting those who supported the UK’s mission to evacuate from Afghanistan in Operation Pitting.
The evacuation, the largest humanitarian aid operation since the Second World War, saw some 15,000 people were flown out of Kabul by the Royal Air Force.
More than 850 people arrived at RAF Brize Norton over the course of the two weeks, where they were given food, clothing, children’s toys, medical support, and childcare and sanitary products while their details were processed.
The visit has echoes of the King’s visit to returning troops from Dunkirk in 1940, when the then-Princess Elizabeth sent sweets for British and French soldiers
During the visit, the Duchess heard how an RAF pilot narrowly missed a bus full of people as he flew a plane carrying 377 refugees out of Kabul airport.
‘That was quite scary’
Wing Commander Kev Latchman told her how he had to make a snap decision to take off early to avoid hitting the bus as it drove across the runway in front of him.
He ended up missing it by just 10ft.
“That was quite scary,” he said.
Wing Commander Latchman, the officer commandeering 99 Squadron, did three flights out of Kabul.
He said later: “On my second flight, a bus drove out in front of me while I was on my take off run.
“At 95 knots we saw the bus, and then it turned on to the runway. I was like, ‘OK, that’s definitely not stopping’. At that point I wasn’t able to reject the take off so I wouldn’t have been able to slam on the brakes and stop, I would have hit the bus.
“After that I was committed to taking off and I was hoping that I could get enough speed for take off.
“Literally a moment later I realised I wasn’t going to be able to get up to the nominated take off speed and so I had to gently raise the nose to clear the bus.
“We normally take off at 125 knots, and I had to take off at 110 knots to miss the bus. We have had all the data back now, and we were less than 10ft over the top of the bus.
“We had 377 people on board, and I’m glad that I’m stood here right now.”
Carrying so many people on the flight from Kabul to Dubai was a “phenomenal sight”, he said. “The whole of the aeroplane is filled up with faces, and it’s faces of hope and it’s faces of relief and faces of shock.
“On the first flight, with 433 people, there were 212 children, of which 39 were babies. The kids getting on board the aeroplane were just like our kids, who get on and say, ‘Wow, this is an amazing sight,’ whereas the adults were relieved and shocked and scared, and they were just waiting for us to take off.
“Ultimately we were just trying to hand out lollies and sweets and give them some drink, as a lot of them were really dehydrated. There’s only one toilet, so that was a challenge over a three-hour flight.”
Challenges of flying into - and out of - Kabul
Flight lieutenant Andy Bell, captain of an A400M, told the Duchess it was “very challenging” flying into Kabul.
“It was a very rollercoaster ride,” he said. But while they were trained for that aspect of the job, nothing had prepared him for the emotional impact of rescuing so many desperate people.
“In 25 years of flying I have never experienced anything like it,” said Bell, 43, who has two sons aged eight and five. “I had to take a bit of time out to think about things.
“We’re trained to fly the aircraft, 100 per cent. But what they don’t train you to do is deal with the emotional side that this operation brought with it. They didn’t train me to put myself into a situation where you see families suffer like that - to see kids the age of my own kids, their lives completely thrown apart, sitting in the back of a dark aeroplane being shipped halfway around the word.”
A harrowing story
At the end of his first trip he went down the back of the aircraft to help the crew clean up.
“There was a lot of mess down the back there. There were ill people, people at the end of desperation.
“I was helping shepherd the refugees off the back of the aircraft, and it was the last family that really hit me.
“It was a family of four - a mother, a tiny little infant over her shoulder, fast asleep. The mother looked sick with worry. A young girl, no older than my youngest lad, had no idea where she was. And the dad seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Bewilderment, desperation, confusion. And a single backpack.
“That’s the bit that hit me. That’s the family that we have just taken out of a horrific situation. But they’re not out of it. The immediate threat has gone, but their life is in complete turmoil. I had to take myself away, find a quiet corner for 10 minutes while we turned the aircraft round and stuck some more fuel in it. Then it’s right, let’s go and do the same tomorrow.”
Corporal Guy Watts, whose job involved making sure the flights remained safe, told the Duchess of the anxiety on the faces of the Afghans they rescued.
Watts, who did seven flights to Kabul, told the Duchess: “None of them had seen a military jet before. The adrenaline was really pumping as we were getting them on. Then as soon as we were in the air and got to altitude, they just collapsed.”
She asked him: “Did they know what the plan was? You must have been asked loads of questions, like, ‘What’s happening next?’”
He said: “A lot of them did not realise we were going to Dubai. They were asking, how long is the flight to the UK? When is the next meal coming?”
He said afterwards: “They didn’t really believe they were leaving until the ramp was up. Once we got airborne, they started to relax, like the adrenaline was dropping. That was such a big burden that was lifted off their shoulders. It was lovely to see, it was very rewarding.”
He said the Duchess expressed her “thanks and her pride” in the job they had done.
“She appreciates that some of it wasn’t easy. And she appreciated how smoothly we managed to keep things running.”