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Afghan Air Corps takes off, slowly

The US is helping rebuild an air force that is badly needed in the vast country.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 19, 2008

Getting their wings: This year President Hamid Karzai hailed what he called the rebirth of the Afghan Air Force. The US is helping rebuild its professionalism and capacity.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters

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Kabul, Afghanistan

Lt. Col. Bryan Harris was not surprised that the Afghan Army's helicopters were punctured by the odd bullet hole. These Soviet-made Mi-17 transports had been the workhorses of more than two decades of unceasing war.

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What surprised him was the remedy – not industrial rivets, as American mechanics would use, but old bottle caps.

For Colonel Harris, it was a glimpse of the job ahead. He is here to help Afghans resuscitate their Air Corps – a force that had steadily decayed since its heyday during the Soviet-backed regime of the 1980s.

It is a job with serious implications: The Afghan Army needs an Air Corps to become self-sufficient. But the first order of business, says Harris and others, is to persuade Afghan colleagues to stop scavenging crashed aircraft for spare parts or taking off without even making a flight plan.

"They treat it like it's their car and they're taking it out to the mall," says Col. Todd "Burt" Lancaster, one of the pilot trainers here. "We have to figure out how to change old habits."

They are old habits. The average age of pilots in the Afghan Air Corps is 44.7 years. More than pilots, they are survivors. As different regimes have cycled through Afghanistan, they have remained with their aircraft. In the 1980s they escaped missiles fired by US-sponsored mujahideen. In the early 1990s they outlasted the warlords who brutally fought one another for power. Later they obeyed the often foolhardy commands of the Taliban.

One pilot, Capt. Nazar Mohammad Azizi, was shot down by the mujahideen and held prisoner for two years. Another recounts how the Taliban demanded that a fellow pilot take off with 50 people on board, packed tight as though on a public bus. Too heavy, the helicopter crashed at liftoff.

Still, they flew. "The only reason we are alive is we are pilots – they needed us," says Captain Azizi. "Otherwise we would have been beheaded" for having repeatedly changed sides along with the aircraft they flew.

Now, the goal is to get the Air Corps back to its Soviet-era strength, both in professionalism and capacity. This includes sending some Afghan pilots to the US for training. Azizi smiles when he thinks of the tools American pilots have at their disposal. "I flew 30 hours with night-vision goggles in El Paso, Texas," he says.

Some of those tools will come to the Afghan Air Corps, too. So will scores more aircraft. Today it has 29 – 21 helicopters and eight transport planes. By 2016, that number should be 120 – 60 helicopters and 60 planes, nearing the 200 it had in Soviet times. Likewise, the number of Air Corps personnel is expected to grow from 2,300 to 7,250.

"With the kind of war we have in Afghanistan, it is vital to have air support," says Gen. Abdul Zahir Azimi, an Army spokesman.

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