Kadena airmen help train Afghan helicopter maintenance workers

By NATASHA LEE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 30, 2009

They were abandoned 20 years ago, when Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan.

Now, the Russian-made MI-17 helicopters are crucial in the war on terrorism, U.S. Air Force officials said.

Airmen from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa are helping Afghan military mechanics learn how to fix and maintain the fleet of helicopters used by the Afghan National Army Air Corps to airlift troops and equipment.

The collaboration is part of the plan to have the Afghan military stand on its own eventually.

U.S. Air Force officials said the helicopters are critical in reducing Afghan and American troops’ exposure to improvised explosive devices.

While language and cultural barriers between the troops present the usual challenges, the helicopter maintainers face another obstacle: Russian-made helicopters mean Russian-labeled parts and equipment.

"It can get interesting," said Tech Sgt. Dennis Flanagan, who advises a group of Afghan maintainers.

Flanagan, assigned to the 718th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, attended a 30-day course at a Ukraine university to familiarize himself with the Russian aircraft before deploying on a six-month tour to Kandahar.

Transitioning was fairly easy, Flanagan said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes.

It helps that most of the Afghan maintainers have more than 20 years’ experience in mechanics, and many were trained by Soviet troops, Flanagan said.

"They know their airframe," he said.

There have been a few challenges, Flanagan said.

For example, he said, the Afghan troops were initially hesitant about working on Friday, which is observed as Juma’ah, a holy day. He also pointed to some difficulties in tracking flight schedules and managing hourly inspections.

"The crews are getting better," he said. "They are starting to understand that sometimes the missions must come first."

Flanagan said he’s working with the maintainers to stage flights and improve the swapping out of aircraft for the hourly inspections.

"I know they are thinking ahead more. Things like safety and tomorrow’s missions now play into their thought process," Flanagan said.

The U.S. military has been advising the Afghans since 2004, said Lt. Col. Percy Dunagin of the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group.

The progress has been slow, but consistent, Dunagin said in an e-mail to Stripes.

The Afghan forces have the basic capabilities to move cargo and personnel around the country to support the counter-insurgency effort, he said.

"This capability, while a small step, is nonetheless a significant accomplishment in their long-term fight for Afghanistan," Dunagin said.

The long haul lies in fielding, equipping, developing and employing a stronger force, Dunagin said.

Building trust has been crucial to strengthening the partnership, said Tech Sgt. Brian Roberts, a hydraulics specialist with the 718th.

Roberts has been advising Afghan troops in Kabul and at Bagram Air Base on how to conduct inspections on MI-17 multi-role helicopters and MI-35 helicopter gunships since October. He said it’s his first time working on helicopters.

"It is not like we can say, ‘OK, this is how we are going to do this inspection.’ We really have to work on the personal relationships," Roberts said in an e-mail. "Just like in the States, if you tell someone that has been doing it one way for 20 years, it is not easy to convince them that this is another way that could be better."

Tech Sgt. Dennis Flanagan, left, advises an Afghan National Army Air Corps maintainer on the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter. Flanagan, a crew chief with the 18th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, is helping the Afghans through daily mentoring.

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