Facing Language Gaps and ‘Flying Trucks,’ U.S. Trains Afghan Pilots

March 1st, 2009  

Topic: Facing Language Gaps and ‘Flying Trucks,’ U.S. Trains Afghan Pilots

February 28, 2009
Facing Language Gaps and ‘Flying Trucks,’ U.S. Trains Afghan Pilots

KABUL, Afghanistan — Col. James A. Brandon flew Black Hawks when Moscow was considered a mortal foe of the United States and spent years in the Army studying enemy aircraft. So he now finds it a little bizarre to be piloting an old MI-17 Russian helicopter, a legacy of the Soviet invaders here, in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan.
“If somebody had told me in the 1980s that I’d be flying an MI-17 20 years later,” Colonel Brandon said last week, “I’d have said they were crazy.”
But in a case of going to war with not just the military you have, but the military your enemy once had, Colonel Brandon is a leader of a bumpy American effort to build an Afghan Air Force from the wreckage up. To do that as quickly and (relatively) cheaply as possible, the United States is training American pilots to fly the helicopters of the former Soviet Union — Colonel Brandon calls them “flying trucks” — so the American pilots can in turn train, or retrain, Afghan pilots who once flew for the Russians, the Taliban or powerful warlords.
The program, which is projected to cost American taxpayers $5 billion into 2016, is aimed at giving Afghanistan the ability to defend itself from the skies and one day allowing the Americans to leave. But for now it reflects all the problems of getting Afghan forces to stand on their own.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Brig. Gen. Walter D. Givhan of the United States Air Force, the program’s commanding general, who oversees eight American instructor-pilots and the 33 not-always-operating aircraft of the Afghan Air Force.
One problem is that many of the 80 or so Afghan pilots being trained do not speak English, an issue when American instructor-pilots are barking out orders to them in helicopters careering above Kabul. There is no room in the cramped MI-17 cockpit for an interpreter, and in any case things usually happen too fast.
“We don’t have time to ask a translator to say, ‘Don’t hit the mountain,’ ” said Lt. Col. Todd Lancaster, the commander of the helicopter squadron of the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, the American unit that is building up what is officially called the Afghan National Army Air Corps.
A training flight last week to practice helicopter “gun runs” in the cold, brilliantly clear skies just outside of Kabul was a case in point. Lt. Col. Joshua Jones, a pilot from Fort Rucker, Ala., was instructing Bakhtyar Bakhtullah, a colonel in the Afghan air corps, in stomach-churning swoops so aerial gunners could practice blasting machine guns out the helicopter’s doors. The target was an abandoned armored vehicle lying in the valley below.
But when Colonel Bakhtullah, one of the best Afghan pilots, banked sharply left, his turn was jarring — mildly terrifying might be another way to put it — which was the result, Colonel Jones said later, of relying too much on the foot-operated tail rotor pedal and not enough on the helicopter’s control stick.
Colonel Jones, who had mostly used hand signals in the cockpit to communicate with Colonel Bakhtullah, decided he would try to explain the procedure later with an interpreter on the ground. “That I couldn’t fix today,” Colonel Jones said. “It was too technical.”
Americans have in the past been taught to fly MI-17s, mostly for military exercises to teach them how to counter enemy aircraft. (The MI-17 is used all over the world, including by Iran and North Korea.) The Afghan program is modeled after an earlier American effort to build up the Iraqi Air Force, which also includes some MI-17s. But the Russian helicopters, which make up the bulk of the Afghan fleet, have an ironic resonance in a country where in the 1980s the United States supplied guerrillas with Stinger missiles to shoot Soviet helicopters down.
These days, the American pilots encounter some resentment from the Afghans who have been flying the Russian helicopters for decades — Colonel Bakhtullah has been a pilot since 1981 — and wonder why they must take instruction from Americans who just learned to fly the helicopters in a four-week course at Fort Bliss, Tex. The Americans say that the Afghans have not had a real air force since the Russians left two decades ago, and that they were often improperly trained in the first place.
But Colonel Jones said he understood the Afghan point of view and tried to make suggestions rather than demands. “We’re really trying not to come across as conquering heroes,” he said.
The Afghan pilots also complain about their salaries, some $200 to $300 a month, which are paid by the Afghan air corps. “No one cares for us,” said Ehsan Ehsanullah, one of the best Afghan pilots, after a training flight last week. He said he made more money in the 1990s, when he was flying for the Taliban.
The bigger problem is that the demands of the war cut into what the Americans consider vital training hours. Sometimes, they say, they will arrive for a scheduled training session to find that the helicopter is needed to transport troops or cargo to Kandahar. Last month one such flight ended in disaster when an MI-17 piloted by two Afghans crashed in the province of Herat, killing all 13 Afghans aboard.
(Military regulations require that United States pilots fly MI-17s if there are Americans aboard, and the American pilots can fly only those MI-17s that have certified parts and that Americans maintain. Colonel Jones’s training helicopter was a secondhand MI-17 that the United States bought for Afghanistan from the Czech Republic.)
One bright spot is the new $183 million headquarters of the Afghan air corps, paid for by the Americans. It includes two hangars, barracks, a medical unit and classes in English. In a nearby compound there are classes in helicopter maintenance.
On a morning last week, an American civilian contractor from Fort Bliss, Robert Luna, was instructing a class of Afghans about the MI-17’s power control panel. He said he had been teaching the MI-17 to Americans at Fort Bliss since 1999. “It was kind of, ‘Know your enemy,’ back then,” Mr. Luna said. “Now it’s, ‘Teach your allies.’ “
General Givhan remains optimistic about the program, which late last year trained the Afghans to transport their president, Hamid Karzai, on special MI-17s. Before that, the Americans flew Mr. Karzai everywhere. The program, General Givhan said, is “our ticket out of here.”