As the Taliban entered the city of Kabul on August 15, 2021, the country in complete collapse, Afghan pilots were instructed by US Advisors to get in their aircraft and fly to other countries so their planes and helicopters did not fall into the hands of the Taliban. This meant leaving their wives, children, and families behind. LTC Nabi, an A 29 pilot, commanded his squadron to Uzbekistan. While looking for a place to land, Uzbek pilots in Russian MiG’s intercepted them. LTC Nabi’s plane shuddered and exploded. Years of training in the US and sheer instinct prompted him to pull the ejection handle…
In 2010, the Afghan Air Force recalled young officers to active duty due to a shortage of pilots. One of those was Mohammad Nabi, a language teacher in a local school and an Afghan Air Force Lieutenant. Upon resigning his teacher position and joining the pilot training program, Mohammad Nabi was sent to the United States in 2011 to the Defense Language Institute (DLI) at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
"My father passed away in Afghanistan while I was at DLI Lackland AFB, but I was unable to attend the funeral due to the time constraints of the training schedules,” says Nabi. “We were a family of eleven. My father and I were the sole income earners to support our entire family. Since he passed away, all the responsibility now fell on my shoulders. It was very difficult to be in a foreign country [USA]; away from my family, studying, and being moved from base to base, but I knew I had to serve my homeland and support our U.S. allies, so I stayed focused and earned my wings in early 2013.”
Nabi returned to Afghanistan flying C-208’s and after a year, the U.S. advisors recommended he return to the United States for A-29 training so he could better support friendly forces during ground operations. In 2014, Nabi commenced training in the States with the A-29 Super Tucano. In 2016, he returned to Afghanistan and provided ground support in the province where he lived; which had become unstable during his absence.
“Shortly after my return,” says Nabi. “My family and I received death threats, and I had to move them to Mazar-e-Sharif which was safer, but I had to split them in two groups and still provide for all of their expenses as they were all young and students. It was a very hard time.”
In 2016, U.S. advisors recommended Nabi for the Instructor Pilot course, and he went to the United States for a third time for training. Away from his family for more than a year, Nabi returned to Afghanistan in 2017 and commenced night and day operations and also taught young future pilots. During this time, now Lieutenant Colonel Nabi, was shot down on a combat mission and managed to make his way back to friendly lines.
"Every minute of every day was consumed with protecting Afghan and Allied forces on the ground,” says Nabi. “We were workhorses. The heavy surge of missions gave me little time for rest, and we weren’t even able to recognize our most sacred religious holidays.”
Muslims from all over the world would celebrate Ramadan in unison, except Nabi and his pilots. Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam but Nabi and his team weren’t afforded a moment to reflect and worship in peace.
On the morning of August 15, 2021 Nabi’s squadron was in the team room waiting for the daily brief when chaos erupted in the city. His squadron learned ground troops were abandoning established positions; some on their own, some ordered by their chain of command. Nabi called his Commander and proposed several missions to protect Kabul city from the Taliban. While waiting for clearance to scramble aircraft and defend the city, some of the pilot’s cell phones stopped working, and Nabi had to borrow a phone to reach out to his U.S. advisors.
“They told me it would be best to get as many planes out as possible and fly to the UAE,” says Nabi. “While assembling our aircraft, our Aghan Air Force Commander called everyone to the ramp and said Kabul had fallen. He told us to gather as many planes and pilots as we could then fly our planes to Uzbekistan. All of us had to abandon our families. There wasn’t a chance to arrange for their safety or even to say good-bye. I left my wife and children knowing the Taliban would kill the families of Afghan pilots who fought alongside and supported the United States. Pilots and pilot families are at the top of the Taliban’s most wanted lists. I sacrificed, once again, for my country and for our allies.”
“We took off from Kabul in a three-ship formation to Uzbekistan. Upon arriving at Termez, the tower told us we could not land. When I suggested Qarshi airport as an alternative, the tower would not respond to my calls. When we arrived at Qarshi, all the runway lights were off. I did a low approach and determined it was impossible to land in the dark. I told my two wingmen we were returning to Termez. As we made our turn, Uzbekistan MiG 29’s fighter jets intercepted us. They circled around behind us, and after about two minutes I felt my plane shudder and a flash of light erupted in my cockpit. The MiG had rammed my plane and I began spiraling towards the ground. I pulled the ejection handle, separated from my plane, and launched into the darkness. When my feet hit the ground, the Uzbekistan Police were already waiting for me. I knew I was seriously injured. I could barely stand and my left eye seared. They searched me and took me to a hospital for treatment.”
After a week in the hospital, Uzbekistan Police loaded Nabi and another pilot (who was also forced down) into the trunk of a Russian military style Jeep and moved them to a humanitarian camp. During this time, the Police kept possession of their phones and wallets. On the night of September 12th, LTC Nabi reunited with American forces where they transferred him to a hospital in the United Arab Emirates. Doctors x-rayed his back and discovered thoracic and lumbar fractures. In addition, LTC Nabi could not see out of his left eye because of the explosion in his cockpit.
A month later, October 2021, LTC Nabi arrived in the United States and was placed in a refugee camp on a military base along with 15,000 other Afghan refugees. A representative from the Upperwood Foundation facilitated off based specialized treatment for Nabi with a neurosurgeon and a retinal surgeon. Slowly his back healed; the brace removed, and he started physical therapy. Consultation with several eye surgeons resulted in vision returning to his left eye. In January 2022, the Upperwood Foundation arranged for LTC Nabi to meet with an FAA certified medical examiner to discuss a future in commercial aviation in the United States. On February 5, 2022, one hundred and seventy-four days after the fall of Kabul, the Upperwood Foundation picked up LTC Nabi from the refugee camp and transported him to a Residence Inn by Marriott. The LTC has only the uniform he was wearing on August 15th, a set of clothes given to him in the UAE, and clothes provided by a volunteer.
We nicknamed the Residence Inn “FOB Scratch” because FOB stands for “Forward Operating Base” and a term commonly used for outposts in Afghanistan. “Scratch” – well because LTC Nabi is starting from scratch and is one of the pioneers in the Upperwood Foundation’s U Cadet Program – a program that will utilize his thousands of hours of flight experience, and years of training in the United States, to propel (pun fully intended) towards a career in commercial aviation. It’s a time of opportunity and excitement tempered with one harsh reality.
“My family did not make it out of Kabul on the evacuation planes,” laments Nabi. “My wife and children keep changing their location trying to stay ahead of the Taliban. They are being hunted. I can only hope the Taliban won’t find them, and I can bring them to the United States.” ∎
In partnership with The Upperwood Foundation, Awareness Ties produces and publishes the 'Hope For Afghanistan' stories written by Russ Prichard.
From delivering babies in Afghanistan to delivering supplies sent from the U.S., Russ Pritchard delivers hope to the people of Afghanistan. While he would say he’s just a glorified telephone operator, he’s so much more. He runs the U Medical Corps, bringing help and hope to those unseen and unheard.
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