Getting The Afghan Air Corps To Straighten Up And Fly Right

Getting The Afghan Air Corps To Straighten Up And Fly Right
September 9th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Getting The Afghan Air Corps To Straighten Up And Fly Right

Getting The Afghan Air Corps To Straighten Up And Fly Right
Wall Street Journal
September 9, 2008
Pg. 1

By Michael M. Phillips
KABUL, Afghanistan -- In the spring, Afghan air force helicopter door-gunners went on strike over pay and rank. The flight engineers, who sit in the cockpit with pilots, refused to take their place, sniffing that they were officers and shouldn't have to shoot. They went on strike, too.
In the end, the Afghans compromised: If there's no gunner on duty, the helicopters would fly unarmed.
Such are the birthing pains of the new Afghan National Army Air Corps.
The U.S. has spent more than $7 billion training the Afghan National Army, Afghan Border Police and Afghan National Police to beat back the resurgent Taliban and its militant allies. The newcomer is the Air Corps, a vital weapon in a country of soaring mountains and featureless deserts. It has a new fleet of refurbished Soviet bloc aircraft, an $800 million U.S. aid budget for two years and 100 coalition advisers.
With U.S. help, the Afghans have turned a shambles of a Soviet-trained air force into an Air Corps that, on a good day, can transport Afghan troops to the battlefield, haul the supplies they need to fight and evacuate the fallen.
But the effort has been plagued by red tape, uneven competence and the wide cultural gap between by-the-book American mentors and damn-the-checklist Afghan flight crews.
One Afghan pilot flew his Mi-17, an East bloc transport helicopter, to 15,000 feet, unaware that the reduced oxygen at that altitude could cause the crew to lose consciousness.
The Air Corps doctor, an Afghan obstetrician, insists on taking the Afghan and American pilots' blood pressure and pulse before every mission. He's worried that the crews, like the Soviets before them, might be drunk.
The U.S. flight surgeon advising Afghan medevac crews rarely takes off unless he has arranged for a kebab lunch at their destination. One of the first questions the Afghans ask him when assigned a new mission: Will there be lunch?
"They're really good stick-and-rudder pilots -- it's not like they don't know anything," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Robinson, one of the American advisers. The main problems, he said, are "cultural differences." The Afghans have a casual attitude toward flying, while "we fall back on the way we're used to doing things," he said.
The American mentors share the cockpit only with what they call the "A team," the 10 or 15 best Afghan helicopter pilots. "You get down to the B team and you're getting into people who taxi into fences," said Lt. Col. Todd Burt Lancaster, one of the three coalition helicopter instructors.
Stool in the Cockpit
Unlike the Afghan National Army, which relies on veterans of the 1980s guerrilla campaign to oust the Soviets, the Air Corps is led by men who fought on the Soviet side.
The Air Corps chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Mohammed Barat, flew Mi-17s for the Soviet-backed regime and later for the Taliban. "I got orders, and I executed the mission," the 56-year-old explained.
During the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, he flew an Mi-17 to his home province of Wardak, landed in a valley and covered the plane with a tarp to conceal it from U.S. bombers. After the Taliban fell, he discovered someone had stolen the pilot's seat. He put a stool in the cockpit and flew back to Kabul to report for duty.
One day recently, he got a call from an army commander telling him that nomads and Hazara farmers were fighting over land west of Kabul. The army needed the Air Corps to ferry 50 soldiers to the spot. "We're ready to do any kind of operation," Gen. Barat said. "It's a point of national pride. It's like the rebirth of the Air Corps."
At the moment, the Air Corps has six Antonov transport planes, 17 Mi-17 transport helicopters and four Mi-35 Hind attack helicopters, fearsome-looking craft that in Soviet hands terrorized Afghan villagers. The Afghan Hind pilots are allowed to fire their weapons only in self-defense.
"We are not employing them in offensive operations," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jay Lindell, commander of the coalition entity charged with rebuilding the Air Corps. The Afghans and their supporters don't want to risk an accidental strike on civilians or friendly troops.
That worry highlights the central paradox of the new Air Corps: Should the Afghans conduct combat missions immediately? Or should they stick to training until they can operate to U.S. standards?
"We hope we can build them capability in six to 12 months for a variety of operations," including medevac, air assaults, night flights, and landing under fire, said Lt. Col. Lancaster, who went to Ukraine to learn to fly Soviet helicopters. "But there's pressure to do something that feels like a success now."
Minor Mishaps
The Afghan pilots have suffered minor mishaps. One Mi-17 crashed into the side of a mountain, but there were no fatalities. Mechanics repaired the aircraft where it went down. It crashed again on the way back to base.
One pilot swiped a fence with his spinning tail rotor. When the pilot flew his Mi-17 at an unsafe altitude, U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Al Davis, who mentors Afghan flight engineers, was on board and urged the commander to descend.
At times, coalition advisers find the rank-conscious Afghans frustratingly slow. A three-star Afghan general has to approve every major helicopter movement in writing, except medevac missions. One day in July, the general was at a funeral, so a long-awaited mission to Jalalabad was scrubbed.
At other times, the advisers try to subdue Afghan spontaneity. The Americans spend about three hours planning for every hour in the air; the Afghans reverse the ratio, according to the advisers. Traditionally, Afghan pilots gather at the front of the aircraft, look at a map, hop in and go.
"If we don't get them in the habit, they won't do it when we cut them free," Master Sgt. Davis said at a coalition staff meeting.
Lt. Col. Robinson warned the others that the Afghans might rebel against such rigorous procedures. "We'll lose their buy-in," he warned the other advisers.
In the end, the advisers agreed to try to enforce a strict routine.
The Air Corps has 66 fixed-wing pilots and 139 helicopter pilots, of a total force of 2,000. Next year, the U.S. will begin sending Afghan pilots to the U.S. for English-language and flight classes. By 2016, the Americans hope the Air Corps will number 7,000 men. The U.S. is building a major Air Corps base in Kabul, on a cleared minefield, complete with new hangars, housing, community center, stores, mess halls and a mosque.
Despite the stumbles, the Air Corps is beginning to chalk up a record of successful missions. When fighting broke out north of Kandahar in June, Air Corps planes transported 200 commandos and other soldiers to the front in a single day.
"For the first time, with minimal [coalition] support, they've taken the fight to the enemy," said Gen. Lindell.
October 1st, 2008  

Topic: change

Was there as a contractor pilot and maintenance manager in 2007, doesn't soulund like much has changed....