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First major air evacuation


There are certain potentially fatal situations where nothing but aircraft can save the day. This story is one of them. It was back in 1929-30 and the geography was Afghanistan and India. It was safe to be in India but it was getting hot as Hell in Afghanistan.

 

 

 

King Amanullah of Afghanistan had traveled to Europe and when he returned home he instigated a series of Western-style reforms. That didn’t go over well with the mullahs.

Before long there was rebellion among the Shinwari, one of eastern Afghanistan's main tribes. They seized the city of Jalalabad and cut off traffic and communication across the Khyber Pass, the famous route used, among others, by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. The British legation and other nationals in Kabul were cut off from an escape to India and in desperation they asked the British government to airlift them out.

Then on Dec.14, things got worse. Habibullah Khan, marched on Kabul with up to 1,000 men and took high positions to the northwest of the city.

On Dec. 17, the British authorities decided that the women and children would have to be evacuated. Then as the British officials in Kabul were requesting aircraft from the Royal Air Force in India, the wireless radio they were using became unserviceable.

Messages that were laid out on the ground by bed sheets greeted the first aircraft sent in to make arrangements for the airlift. Fourteen bullets pierced the two-seater de Havilland DH9A biplane, damaging a radiator and oil pump and forcing it down. A second flight the same day was also riddled with rifle fire, but delivered a signaling kit.

The RAF had troop carriers based in Iraq, seven X Vickers Victoria and a Handley Page Hinaidi.

King Amanullah organized his followers and drove back the rebels, and kept driving them back to give the aircraft an opportunity to land, the first on Dec. 23. Twenty-one women and children were crammed into a Victoria for the freezing cold journey over the mountains.

None of the aircraft had proper heaters and the evacuees almost froze to death huddled under blankets. The unstable air over the mountains meant that the majority suffered from airsickness. Buckets were passed around and emptied over the side.

During the first week, the RAF returned daily and by New Year's Day, 153 women and 163 children had been ferried to safety.

The world’s first major air evacuation continued. When the operation was concluded on Feb. 25, 1930 there were 586 civilians, nationals from 20 countries, rescued from the high, windswept airfield of Kabul to the safety of India.

By now, Habibullah Khan had lost control of his men and the city descended into chaos. The 586 had escaped just in time. As the last person evacuated looked back, he saw the city engulfed in flames.

The seven dependable Vickers Victorias and the single Handley Page flew 28,160 miles over high mountains without any accidents or injuries. These fragile biplanes of the RAF saved Kabul's entire diplomatic community from the jaws of a violent tribal revolt. Held aloft by little more than canvas, wood and wire, pilots braved freezing temperatures and snowy 10,000 ft mountains that offered nowhere for a forced landing.

Reference: Chronicle of Aviation

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