PRINCE SULTAN AIR BASE, KSA --
There was a constant smell of human waste and body odor in the air. Burn pits were being utilized to dispose of equipment. The bite of discharged gunpowder filled every breath. All of it mixed together to create a smell Staff Sgt. Harold S. Balcom III will never forget.
The news of the largest non-combatant evacuation operation in U.S. military history echoed from countless media platforms. Military members and representatives from nations across the world were mobilizing to support the effort.
At Prince Sultan Air Base, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, two air traffic control liaisons from the 378th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron grabbed their 72-hour bags and made their way to the passenger terminal on Aug. 17, 2021. They were tasked to forward deploy with an hour’s notice. Destination: Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan.
“My initial thoughts were along the lines of, ‘wait, aren’t we all leaving Kabul?’ But once I realized the job I’d be doing there I was just ready to get there and get working,” said Staff Sgt. Jacob T. Crabtree.
Balcom shared the same sentiment as Crabtree. Both Airmen are 96th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers at their home station of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
“I was excited to know I would be assisting the evacuation of so many people and applying my job knowledge in a hectic environment,” Balcom said. “I knew it would truly test my abilities and training as an air traffic controller.”
Crabtree and Balcom usually work at PSAB with members of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where their main responsibility is to assist the RSAF controllers with coordination and ensure the safety of U.S. aircraft. They assist in the launch and recovery of 50-75 aircraft on any given day, enforcing air traffic procedures. But their mission in Afghanistan would call for every bit of their training and more.
“We had very minimal equipment to do our jobs so it was very bare-bones controlling,” Crabtree said. “Aircraft would call up from random positions in varying distances away from the airport. It was all just real-time decisions, doing the best we could to ensure the safety of all aircraft.”
The air traffic controllers were tactically disadvantaged by their gear and location as they worked from the ground with U. S. Marine Corps controllers and coalition combat controllers to ensure that the mission could be carried out.
“Due to the lack of equipment at HKIA, we had no radar to assist us, and no tower to work out of,” Balcom said. “The main change of my mission was stepping forward from a liaison role directly into controlling air traffic, among other duties in a hostile environment.”
In the midst of chaos on the infield of the airport, where they maintained their own security with their Marine teammates, they controlled more than 100 daily flights in and out of HKIA.
“The most intense part was that there was never a moment of silence,” Crabtree said. “From the moment we got off the C-17 to the moment we left, there was gunfire in pretty much a full 360 around us. I worked during the night hours most of the time and throughout the night you would see explosions going off in many directions, as well as tracer fire flying over aircraft that were landing or departing.”
For Balcom, the experience was set apart by the fear of the unknown mixed with an understanding of the magnitude of the task.
“Intel was passed down warning us of an attack with the possibility of snipers and/or IEDs to include suicide bombing,” said Balcom. “Working during and after the attack that killed 13 service members and still being warned that there was the possibility for further attacks kept all of us on edge at all times.”
Balcom and Crabtree controlled more than 1,000 aircraft over a 12 day period, contributing to the evacuation of more than 120,000 personnel and enabled this historic airfield evacuation feat. At the height of danger, the importance of what Crabtree and Balcom were working for remained clear.
“At one point, a family asked me for some water,” Balcom said. “After I handed it to them, the mother told me how happy she was for us to be helping them evacuate. Knowing that this family, among thousands of others, was being taken to a better place made me understand how important the mission at HKIA was.”