HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The blazing sun beat down on two rows of Afghan National Army soldiers in green and red berets, standing at attention as they faced each other on a bleak desert landing zone.
At one end of the lines stood a Humvee ambulance emblazoned with a large red crescent. At the other end sat a squat, Soviet-designed Mil Mi-17 helicopter in the tan-and-green camouflage of the Afghan air force. From the truck to the aircraft, a half-dozen flag-draped caskets passed between the silent rows of soldiers — fallen fighters carried in the arms of their comrades.
A few feet away, a string of walking wounded limped into the back of another Mi-17, while those unable to walk were carried on the backs and in the arms of other soldiers. Minutes later, the helicopters ascended in clouds of dust, their cargo holds full of the casualties from the still-deadly front lines of the war in Afghanistan. As NATO troops increasingly draw back from active combat ahead of their withdrawal in 2014 and the toll rises for Afghan forces, this scene is becoming all too common for the Afghan air crews. For nearly eight hours that day, Afghan air force crews and their international advisers ferried soldiers — alive and dead — from base to base in southern Afghanistan.
Scuttling over the barren sand dunes dotted with camel herds, the helicopters often flew at what would be tree-top level — if there were any trees.
The day’s flights provided not only deadly serious on-the-job training, but a feeling of honor and pride for the inexperienced young Afghan pilots and their crews who can now, in their own small way, help save lives and return fallen soldiers.
“Especially when we are carrying [wounded soldiers] I feel like I am saving someone’s life. It is very important … to get them as soon as possible to the hospital,” said 1st Lt. Ziaullah Nasrat, a dentist-turned-Mi-17 pilot.
He gushes about how much he loves his new job. “I enjoy flying, in Afghanistan especially.”
A small force
The nascent air force is struggling to get off the ground just as Afghan security forces have officially taken responsibility for security across the country. At the same time, NATO air units have backed off providing evacuations and other support considered routine in the past. That has left some Afghan army and police units feeling abandoned as casualties have soared.
At least 30 more Mi-17 helicopters — the workhorse of the air force — are on their way to Afghanistan in coming months under a contract between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Russian defense firm Rosoboronexport. They will supplement the 40 or so Mi-17 transport and Mi-35 attack helicopters in service. The Russian helicopters are preferred to Western types for their ease of maintenance and good hot-and-high performance.
The air force’s fixed-wing Cessna C-208 turboprop aircraft have just received new equipment, allowing them to carry four stretchers rather than two. Although Afghan helicopters have been flying into “hot” landing zones, they aren’t equipped to provide in-flight medical care.
But finding and training enough flight crews and support personnel for specialized missions like medical evacuations isn’t as easy as buying new equipment. Rampant illiteracy and a need to teach English often complicates efforts to train new members of the Afghan air force.
Their numbers are small compared to the swarms of NATO aircraft that have swooped in to rescue injured soldiers for more than a decade. The 6,000 members of the Afghan Air Force are a small element within the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces. The air force is years away from being fully operational — likely no sooner than 2016, with advisers on board until 2017, by which time it should also be providing close air support to ground units.
International air crews and pilots from a range of NATO countries fly nearly daily missions with the Afghans. On one casualty evacuation mission in Helmand province, for example, American advisers caught the Afghan crew chiefs calculating how many soldiers they could carry without fully going through the safety checklists that account for things like altitude, temperature and fuel load.
But advisers were recently banned from flying on missions to pick up wounded soldiers at landing zones that are expected to come under fire. And for several security and safety reasons, American airmen aren’t allowed to fly with the Afghans without an American pilot in the cockpit.
Nonetheless, Afghans are flying a majority of their missions — mainly involving supply and casualty evacuations — on their own, advisers say. The force of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft is on track to fly more than double the 329 casualty evacuations it undertook in 2012, having flown more than 500 missions by the end of June.
“Admittedly, Afghan Air Force capacity is still very limited, and it’ll need continued assistance from NATO to increase their capabilities to conduct missions like air surveillance, air support, and mobility operations and the like,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. H.D. Polumbo Jr., who helps oversee air operations in Afghanistan. “But the early signs are, indeed, encouraging, and continued Afghan air force development will bolster the confidence of the rest of the Afghan security forces.”
That confidence and pride is growing for the Afghan crews making daily runs over the battlefield.
“It is our biggest obligation … to support the soldiers,” said Mi-17 crew member Sgt. Mohammed Shafi. “It is our biggest honor that we are serving our country, which needs our help.”