He flew refugees out of Afghanistan. From an airstrip in Kabul, he also pursued an MBA.

Brad States is pursuing an MBA while holding down a full-time job as a C-17 pilot with the U.S. Air Force. He estimates he flew almost 1,400 refugees out of Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control. Courtesy photo

Holding down a full-time job while pursuing a degree is par for the course for most students. But then again, most students aren’t Brad States.

He has a year to go for his master’s degree in business administration, which he hopes to parlay one day into a career analyzing stocks. After completing Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at Elmira College in New York—where he was a math major—he was commissioned and went active duty with the U.S. Air Force in 2014.

Today, States takes online MBA classes when and where he can, even if he’s on a military base in Afghanistan waiting to evacuate panicked refugees.

“We did a class project during the Kabul evacuation,” says States, “and I’m sitting at the base while airplanes are taking off while we’re recording our class session. I apologized to the professor for the loud background noise, and he just laughed and said, ‘it’s OK.’”

States piloted five flights—“missions” in military parlance—in and out of Kabul during August’s hectic evacuation. He figures he flew more than 1,400 Afghan citizens from their homeland as the Taliban seized control.

“They were very grateful to be leaving,” he says, but the language barrier was initially a challenge. In time they found passengers who could translate. “We just handed them the microphone and they translated for us.”

States and the flight crew were particularly touched by their passengers’ generosity in the face of terror. “Some of them were offering us food,” he remembers.

“I can’t imagine what these people had gone through just to get to the point that they were at, and the amount of uncertainty they are about to face in their lives, and they’re offering us food,” he says.

States first deployed to the Middle East a few months earlier—in May—to assist with the drawdown of U.S. personnel and equipment. “We were bringing everything out of Afghanistan and shutting down all the different bases with our NATO partners,” he says.

States eventually returned home to Charleston, South Carolina, where he looked forward to some down time before his wedding in early September.

“And then my boss called and said, ‘Sorry, but you’ve got to go,’” he says, laughing. He and his crewmates were soon airborne en route to Kabul, about 26 hours of flight time, including a refueling stop.

States earned his wings when he graduated from pilot training in the summer of 2016 before applying to fly the hulking C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, built to carry troops and cargo. The rear and side doors of the plane drop open, allowing paratroopers or pallets of equipment to exit in mid-flight.

It takes quite a bit of skill to pilot an aircraft that costs more than $200 million.

“You’re continuously in training,” States says. “I’ve been flying the C-17 for five years and I’m not even at the highest qualification.”

Even people who can’t tell a military cargo plane from a fighter jet got to know a C-17 on Aug. 15, 2021, when desperate Afghans clung to the outside of one as it sped down the runway at the airport in Kabul. Footage showed people falling hundreds of feet to their deaths.

States says he was not the pilot of the particular flight. Back home in Charleston, where his military base is located, he recalled watching the infamous video footage with fellow pilots and others who work on the plane.

“Everybody was saying ‘Did you see this? This is insane,’” States remembers.

The operation was the largest airlift of people ever undertaken by the U.S. Air Force, and it depended on an aircraft fleet that doesn’t usually lead military missions, but supports them.

States contacted News@Northeastern when he read a story about four refugees who ended up as students at Northeastern. Was it possible that they were on one of his flights? The likelihood was slim given the sheer number of Afghans who were flown out. What were the chances that four of them would end up at the same university where he was pursuing an MBA?

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The four were originally scheduled to depart on a night flight on Aug. 18, but they were unable to make it to the airport in time. They ended up on an early morning flight the following day on a C-17—just not States’.

He sees similarities in the humanitarian crisis that unfolded in Afghanistan with what is happening in Ukraine. “Think about the uncertainty that they’re going through,” he says of the 2 million-plus Ukrainians who have fled since the Russian invasion in mid-February. “Anytime you have a conflict, the human side of it is just heartbreaking.”

The exodus from Ukraine “is now the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II,” the UN tweeted.

Military life makes it hard to plan anything long term, including obtaining an MBA. States has learned over his nearly eight years in the Air Force that flexibility is key, which is what drew him to Northeastern’s online MBA program.

“I have class tonight, for instance, and if I can’t make it then I can watch the recording and make sure I get all my assignments in.” He also appreciates the dual nature of the MBA program, which affords him a master’s in finance, too.

Courses provide States with real-world perspective on issues such as the impact of Russian sanctions or raising U.S. interest rates to ward off inflation. “Now I can take that knowledge that I’ve learned from Northeastern and have a little bit more of an educated thought process about those issues,” States says.

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