Pilot who fled Afghanistan helps fly refugees decades later

Published: January 21, 2022 7:48 AM EST
Updated: January 21, 2022 7:50 AM EST
Zak Khogyani and his family fled Afghanistan. But he eventually moved to the U.S. and fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot. Courtesy of United Airlines

Growing up, Zak Khogyani always loved airplanes. He says his grandfather, who learned to fly in 1924, was one of the first pilots in Afghanistan and influenced his fascination with flight. Khogyani loved building model airplanes and watching them from afar.

“Whenever we flew, my parents would say I would vanish mid-flight. I’d be going and checking out the galley, the lavatories, talking to the flight attendants,” he told CBS News. Sometimes, he’d even end up in the cockpit, hanging out with the pilots for as long as they’d let him.

But before he reached his goal of becoming a pilot, Khogyani and his family had to flee Afghanistan. His father was a politician, and a target of the Soviets during their invasion of the country in the 1970s.

The family faced many obstacles in trying to leave the country. “They allowed us to get on a fight and we flew to Tehran and when we got to Iran, my father met us there. And that’s the first time my brother and I found out we’d never be able to go back,” Khogyani said, tearing up at the thought of leaving his home.

The family eventually made their way to the United States and Khogyani had a family of his own – and fulfilled his dream of becoming a pilot.

He now lives in Phoenix and has flown for 27 years – more than half of those with United Airlines. He says he loves experiencing new places and meeting new people. “And it’s not lost on me the tremendous responsibility of flying people from A to B,” he said. “Reuniting families, reuniting couples, you know, bringing meetings together, it truly makes the world a much smaller place.”

In the summer of 2021, Khogyani got to take some life-changing flights. When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, United Airlines helped fly refugees to the U.S.

“We all watched the news as the situation in Afghanistan was unraveling and I heard the Department of Defense might trigger the CRAF flying,” Khogyani said, referring to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, which helps the Department of Defense with airlifts in emergencies. “I knew I had to do something.”

“I was in a very unique position where I thought maybe I could make a difference whether big or small. And I couldn’t just simply sit on the couch and watch it happen without doing something to help the situation,” he continued.

United was able to fly 8,500 passengers on at least 30 international and 30 domestic flights, a spokesperson for the airline told CBS News. Khogyani was on three round-trip flights – sometimes in the cockpit, sometimes in the cabin, translating for people.

“For many, many of them this was their first time on a passenger aircraft, so there was a lot of unfamiliarity, there was a language barrier,” he said. “Not to mention the emotional aspects they were experiencing.”

Khogyani knows what it is like to flee your home and he had the opportunity to relate to the refugees on the humanitarian mission.

CRAF at Dulles International Airport in Dulles, VA. August 26, 2021. Khogyani helped on three round trip flights from Afghanistan to the U.S.
Chris Kleponis via United Airlines.

“Many individuals came up to me. First of all, they were maybe amused that someone in a pilot uniform spoke their language and was from Afghanistan. But the overwhelming thing that they conveyed was that one, that they were very proud of me, which was very humbling,” he said, getting emotional again. “And also that I gave them a lot of hope to see that someone who left under similar circumstance and had overcome similar obstacles…and succeeded in life.”

Khogyani said he was glad he could comfort the refugees, many of whom left with nothing but the clothing on their backs.

“It became very evident that they needed everything,” he said, adding 8,000 volunteers from the airline helped donate goods.

“By the second flight, we had pacifiers on board, baby bottles, formula, diapers,” he said. “By the third flight we had nurses on board, we had paramedics on board, to meet all their needs.”

Khogyani also said individual crew members brought bags of candy with them, and toys for the kids on board. “To walk to the aft galley to just check to see how things are going and to see five little girls sitting on the galley floor and flight attendants braiding their hair is a moment I will never forget,” he said.