Google Trends registered searches for “last flight out of Afghanistan,” “flight out of Afghanistan,” “Kabul,” “flight out of Kabul,” and “last flight out of Kabul” between August 16 and 17 2021. None of the versions popular on social media were accompanied by mention of a source, but a later variation shared to Reddit made a titular if confusing claim that a military friend who had first seen the image on Reddit forwarded it to the submitter:
My friend in the air force just sent me this that he found elsewhere on Reddit. Refugees just out of Kabul, this flight is still in the air heading to a US airbase in the Persian Gulf.
Reverse image search indicated that the r/pics post above was the first crawled version of the image, but the post itself made no reference to the image’s origin. In a comment, the r/pics submitter (u/Dick_Pain) responded to a user’s remark that the image represented a “load master’s nightmare,” suggesting the image was originally shared to r/AirForce:
According to the /r/airforce thread the loadmasters received mental health care immediately on arrival (and the rest of the crew of course)
We looked at r/AirForce and quickly located a thread with 2,000 upvotes (versus over 110,000 on r/pics), presumably on the image’s original iteration. That submitter also shared the image to r/interestingasfuck:
A reverse image search also led to a New York Post item about the image (“SEE THE PHOTO: Near-record number of evacuees pack into plane fleeing Kabul,”) which cited an August 16 2021 Defense One article about the flight. The image included the following caption:
Afghan citizens pack inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, as they are transported from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (Capt. Chris Herbert/AP)
Defense One reported:
A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely evacuated some 640 Afghans from Kabul late Sunday, according to U.S. defense officials and photos obtained by Defense One.
That’s believed to be among the most people ever flown in the C-17, a massive military cargo plane that has been operated by the U.S. and its allies for nearly three decades. Flight tracking software shows the plane belongs to the 436th Air Wing, based at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
Word of the flight spread across late Sunday [August 15 2021] in the United States when audio from the crew estimating they were carrying 800 passengers was posted online. A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the true number was about 640 people.
A striking photograph of 640 people crowded onto a single flight out of Kabul, Afghanistan on August 15 2021 appeared to first emerge on r/AirForce, quickly spreading to r/pics and Facebook. Later, news articles about the image corroborated the labeling, but early iterations were viral before the photograph was attached to news stories. Defense One reported that news of the crowded flight began spreading on August 15 2021, clarifying that 640 people were on board (not 800). The photograph — which was taken by Capt. Chris Herbert — was by all accounts authentic, accurately described, and from August 2021.