When they aren’t commanding United flights, Dominic Calderon and Andrew Townsend are leading military missions
In August 2021, the Taliban overthrew the government of Afghanistan, and chaos erupted across the country, particularly at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport. Two United pilots—who were also Air Force pilots—were called on for secret missions to deliver cargo and troops to Kabul. Newark-based Boeing 777 First Officer and Air Force New York Air National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew Townsend and San Francisco–based Boeing 737 First Officer and Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Dominic Calderon found their paths crossing as they both tried to land C-17 Globemaster III aircraft during the Fall of Kabul.
Calderon’s mission was to deliver soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division to Kabul to secure the airfield for upcoming evacuations. As he and his crew approached Kabul on August 15, 2021, the airport was operating normally, but things were rapidly deteriorating. “That entire evening,” Calderon says now, “there was a sense that we were on borrowed time.”
Ongoing threats from the Taliban forced Calderon and his crew to execute a blacked-out tactical arrival in Kabul, which required the crew to turn off all lights on the C-17 and land using night-vision goggles. Once on the ground, they observed vulnerable American and allied personnel in need of evacuation. So began a new, unexpected mission, to evacuate noncombatants out of Kabul. Calderon and his crew were able to quickly reconfigure their aircraft to allow 153 passengers to be seated on the floor of the C-17.
As they prepared for departure, a call went out over the radio that there were people on the airfield coming out of the civilian terminal, and air traffic control stopped responding to Calderon and other pilots. That’s when Townsend, on a separate mission to deliver a rescue helicopter that would be used to save more than 800 lives during the evacuation, tried to contact someone for guidance on his approach to the Kabul airfield. He reached Calderon, who told him that Kabu l had collapsed, the airport control tower had been abandoned, and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks were happening on the airfield.
“The feeling that everything was normal quickly changed,” Townsend explains. “It was apparent to us things weren’t quite as normal as we had initially believed.” Townsend and crew diverted to a nearby air base to spend the night, as Calderon prepared to execute a blacked-out tactical departure without clearance. “I pulled back hard on the stick, and we rotated the aircraft to 20 degrees nose high,” Calderon recalls. “We cleared the heads of the people on the runway in front of us by five or 10 feet.” He and his crew had just successfully conducted the first noncombatant evacuation out of Kabul.
Meanwhile, Townsend’s crew knew it was essential to continue their mission, even if it meant they would be in danger. By the following day, airfield conditions had become even worse, as runways were overrun with civilians. The crew decided to circle Kabul until it was safer to land, but the plane was running low on fuel. While a tanker can refuel a C-17 in flight, it’s a time-intensive process that requires pilots to fly the aircraft within 12 feet of the tanker by hand. To add to the complexity, the refueling would have to be done in total darkness. Townsend reached a KC-10 extender pilot close by who would give them 130,000 pounds of fuel throughout two refuel missions while they circled Kabul. “We finally got word that the field was open, and we had enough fuel to approach,” Townsend remembers. “It was pretty hot going in there. A bullet was shot through our aircraft’s left wing—we believe it’s from the Taliban fighting. I saw at least one RPG fired in our general direction.” Despite this harrowing experience, Townsend and his crew volunteered to stay for an additional 10 days to help rescue hundreds of refugees following their initial mission.
In April, the Air Force Reserve awarded Calderon the Distinguished Flying Cross, and in June, Townsend was awarded the Air Medal with Valor and the Combat Action Medal. Calderon traveled to be at Townsend’s award ceremony. “Dom and I, we didn’t know each other before,” Townsend says. “He was on a C-17 trying to take off, and we were on a C-17 trying to land. That was the first time I’d talked to him, and I thought it would be the last time.”
The two pilots still feel an immense connection with each other, both because of their overlapping missions and their careers at United.
“We could not have done this mission without the support of companies like United,” Townsend says.
“I don’t know where my career will take me,” Calderon adds, “but no matter what path I pursue, United will always be a part of it.”