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Americans Who Trained Afghan Pilots Now Fear For Pilots' Safety


Americans who trained Afghan pilots and ground crews are now raising the alarm about their safety. Though some flew out of the country, others are still in Afghanistan, hiding from the Taliban. And they are desperate to get out, fearing the Taliban may learn their identities and retaliate. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Jeremiah Harrington is a former Army helicopter pilot who now works for government contractors. And he'd worked in Afghanistan training pilots to fly the UH-60 Black Hawk.

JEREMIAH HARRINGTON: As soon as they left us, they were out flying missions.

KASTE: He says these were our friends, not just our students. So as Kabul fell, his phone lit up.

HARRINGTON: I was getting messages all night long, all day long from my former students and my interpreters. And they were, you know, just begging for help.

KASTE: Rough estimates are that there are about 200 pilots, ground crew and their families still in Afghanistan. And that's just in relation to the Black Hawk program. This is one of them whom we spoke to just this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: When someone knock, we think, like, that the Talibans are here.

KASTE: This young pilot is in Kabul. We're not using his name because he's afraid of being found by the Taliban. He does not believe their recent promise of amnesty.

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: Because we saw their behavior face-to-face.

KASTE: When he and his family tried to get to the airport, he says the Taliban outside the gates were brutal.

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: One of them just came in. He was slapping me. He was beating the men and women.

KASTE: And the crush of people at the gates was so bad, he says one of his children almost suffocated. For now, they've given up on that escape route.

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: I returned back home and started move from one - to my relatives homes and other homes, to not to be in one place.

KASTE: As he and his family stay on the move, he stays in touch with other pilots by phone. While many are there, some did get out. A few simply flew their own helicopters across the border.

SALIM FAQIRI: Six Black Hawks - they flew out.

KASTE: That's Afghan Air Force Colonel Salim Faqiri, a Black Hawk commander. Though six of the aircraft got out, he thinks about 25 to 30 of them are still in the country. The Taliban lack the training and maintenance systems to fly them, but there is a concern that they might try to force trained personnel to get them airborne. Colonel Faqiri escaped by flying into the Kabul airport and then leaving on a U.S. transport. Now he's in a hotel in the Washington area, working the phones to find ways to get more pilots and crew out. He's convinced that the Taliban know or will soon know the identities of everyone who flew Black Hawks.

FAQIRI: Because it happened so quickly. And a lot of documents and classified information documents - the Taliban have access for all of that.

KASTE: His priority is just getting them out. Whether they as Afghan military will qualify for visas is unclear. In the meantime, the American contractor who helped to train them, Jeremiah Harrington, says the messages keep coming into his phone. In one text, a friend says the Taliban burned his house. In another text, an Afghan says his son warned him not to come home because the Taliban want to kill him.

HARRINGTON: I saved them so I can remember, you know, that it's just heartbreaking what they're going through. And I feel ashamed - that's how I feel - that we just left.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.