For Captain Alexander Kahn, who began his flight training and earned his private pilot’s license at Ramstein Air Base, there was an element of nostalgia to the mission.
When Delta Air Lines put out a call for crews to operate an urgent flight out of Germany, which at the time was simply coded as a “military operation,” Southfield-based pilot Captain Alexander Kahn happened to have a few free days in his monthly schedule.
“I accepted the rotation,” Kahn, 52 and a member of Southfield’s Young Israel synagogue, says. What the pilot didn’t know is that he would be flying a plane full of Afghan refugees escaping the violence and chaos of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to the U.S. for freedom.
Prior to the flight, which completed the mission in late August, several Delta crews met in New York’s JFK airport to fly an empty plane to Frankfurt, Germany. “There was much chatter as we introduced ourselves and tried to figure out what the flights were all about,” Kahn recalls.
The pilot, who has been flying commercial airlines for 21 years and Delta’s mainline for seven years, says there was speculation over whether the crews would be transporting active-duty soldiers back from a training exercise or mission, or family members returning to the U.S. after a three-year assignment in Germany.
Yet with the Afghanistan crisis central in the news, Kahn realized that the flight could in fact be transporting civilians who escaped its capital of Kabul. “That first night, nobody knew for sure,” he remembers. “After we arrived in Germany, the general feeling was that this was most likely an evacuation flight.”
Gathering Supplies for Evacuees
While Delta is known for operating regional and international flights, the airline also handles sports charters and military charters. As the crew touched down at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base, which serves as headquarters for the U.S. Air Force in Europe, they quickly got to work preparing the flight.
Pilots reviewed paperwork and programming, while flight attendants prepared the cabin for passengers. Ground support teams got everything ready for takeoff. However, as realization dawned that this was an evacuation flight for Afghan refugees, who left their lives behind and escaped Afghanistan by the thousands without preparation, it became clear that supplies were needed.
Without prompting, flight attendants stepped in to support the evacuees. “At dinner the night before, we all brainstormed what the needs might be,” Kahn says. “Not knowing the exact circumstances, our flight attendants theorized that the evacuees might have run with only what they could carry and there might not have been a chance to bathe since evacuating.”
This meant children, in particular, would be without crucial supplies like diapers, toys and other distractions to help soothe them during a physically and emotionally challenging process. “The focus quickly switched to the children,” Kahn continues. “What could they eat? Would western candy contain too much sugar? Would their diaper sizes be smaller than those of U.S. babies?”
The decision was made: the flight attendants purchased diapers, wipes, coloring books, gummy bears and balloons. While the three pilots offered to pay for the items, the flight attendants insisted upon their contribution. “All of this was very inspirational to me,” Kahn says.
During the next morning in the hours before the flight, Kahn met a friend, and the two visited the Base Exchange store to purchase additional supplies. He spoke with several mothers, who advised on what to get. “They instantly asked how they could help, once again illustrating that generosity is alive and well in our military families and American society,” Kahn says.
Element of Nostalgia
While the flight from Germany, itself, was uneventful, it held priceless meaning to Kahn, the Delta crew and the Afghan refugees who were transported to Texas, to begin the process of resettlement. For Kahn, who began his flight training and earned his private pilot’s license at Ramstein Air Base, there was an element of nostalgia to the mission.
“Because this is a military base overseas, I never expected to be able to fly there again,” he says. Knowing that Ramstein Air Base was central to military operations and the place where freed hostages, injured soldiers from war zones and more were taken before making their way home to the U.S., the mission came full circle for Kahn, the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“My father was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp by Patton’s 3rd Army on April 18, 1945,” he said. “Having lost his parents and most of the rest of his family in the Holocaust, he applied for and eventually received permission to immigrate to the United States in 1947.”
Kahn’s father, who arrived in the U.S. with just the clothes on his back, learned English, pursued an education, became a doctor and started a family in Los Angeles. Later, he accepted a job working as an internal medicine physician at a U.S. Army base in West Germany at the tail end of the Cold War, where Kahn was eventually born.
“The irony was not lost on me,” he explains. “These Afghan evacuees have the same path ahead of them. Some may come from wealthy lives; others don’t. Some may speak English already; others don’t. Some may already have an education, others don’t.
“But all are starting over in a new country.”
Mitzvahs and Giving Back
Despite the antisemitism and horrors that Kahn’s father experienced during World War II, his father was always grateful for the opportunity to build a new life in the United States.
“He knew that he was safe and secure on a national level,” Kahn says. “This was the country that accepted and protected him and treated him as an equal.”
Now, the pilot can only wish for Afghan refugees to experience the same feeling.
“I’m proud of my crew and others like them for providing what I hope is one of a series of welcoming gestures in the path to a new life,” Kahn says.
For Kahn, these missions are central to Jewish identity as well. He believes in a moral obligation to welcome guests, save people from terror and preserve human life. “Our Afghani partners will face certain death if left in Afghanistan,” the pilot explains.
While this flight was Kahn’s first in evacuating refugees, he isn’t hesitating to take on similar missions in the near future. “I will certainly volunteer again,” he says.
“But I will have a lot of competition. Many of our pilots are excited to be able to participate.”