Afghan Air Corps takes off, slowly
The US is helping rebuild an air force that is badly needed in the vast country.
(Page 2 of 2)
That war is an insurgency spread out across a country the size of Texas, with militants moving across remote deserts and hiding amid the jumble of 20,000-foot peaks.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"It's a large country with forbidding terrain, and the roads are not too good," adds Brig. Gen. Walter Givhan, commanding officer of the Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan, which runs the training program. "How do you get around? Afghanistan begs for air support."
Already, the Air Corps is flying 90 percent of the Afghan National Army's air-support missions. For the most part, these are not combat missions, but the figures demonstrate increasing capability. Nine months ago, NATO was doing 90 percent of the ANA's air support.
The trainers here don't doubt the Afghans' abilities to carry the load. Despite the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1992 – eliminating millions of dollars in support and training – Afghan pilots and mechanics managed to keep their helicopters flying, sometimes only with bottle caps and scavenged parts.
"Their ability to take anything and make it work is phenomenal," says Colonel Harris, who is training mechanics here. "We're trying to take that natural ability and make it safer and more methodical."
In a bare classroom of fading yellow walls, Colonel Lancaster, a pilot, is trying to do just that. He is one of the 160 active and retired American officers training the Air Corps in Kabul.
He holds a book that includes a list of phone numbers, facilities, and procedures at every airfield in Afghanistan. His hope is that the next time these pilots head to Kandahar, they will read it, too.
An American pilot will not take off without a preflight routine taking no less than 90 minutes – including checking weather forecasts, intelligence reports, and briefing his crew. Afghans, however, are usually off the ground in 30 minutes, says Lancaster.
"On the simplest missions, they can get by with that," says Lancaster. "But they don't have much of a safety net."
Many students are grateful for the lesson. "I appreciate that [the Americans] don't just take off," says Maj. Bakhtullah Bakhtuiar.
Yet there is pride in accomplishing so much with so little. "With bad equipment and little assistance, we have been doing precise missions – flying to mountainsides and other areas of the country," says Azizi.
The admiration is mutual for General Givhan. He speaks in impressed tones when he describes how a helicopter he was in – piloted by an Afghan – came under attack recently. "He had good avoidance techniques," he says, describing the pilot's ability to evade a rocket-propelled grenade fired at the aircraft. "He was completely comfortable."
In this, at least, nothing has changed since the days of the mujahideen: Afghanistan is still at war, and its pilots are in the thick of it. Says Major Bakhtuiar: "This is our profession. We are flying for anyone."
[Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the Air Corps in the headline.]