U.S. trainers try to get Afghan air force off the ground
December 14, 2009
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Rocket-propelled grenades began whizzing by the rickety, Soviet-era Mi-17 chopper. Flying 50 feet above a canyon floor in Kandahar province, the Afghan pilot suddenly began to climb, lurching dangerously close to another Mi-17. Sitting in the co-pilot seat, U.S. Air Force Capt. Tyler Rennell abruptly seized control of the chopper and narrowly averted a midair collision.
Then the Afghan pilot started pouting, Rennell recalled.
"He gets so upset about me taking the controls that he takes his helmet off," Rennell said. "If you [quit midmission like this] in the U.S., you’re done."
Close calls and culture clashes in the skies over Afghanistan have become a regular occurrence for U.S. helicopter pilots training the Afghan National Army Air Corps at Kandahar Airfield.
"There’s a very large inherent risk we accept," Rennell said. "I’m on my second hand of [counting] times I’ve almost died."
Crashes aren’t the only peril facing U.S. airmen training the Afghan air corps.
There are helicopters with questionable maintenance histories; older pilots who feel young American jocks have nothing to teach them; a shortage of dependable spare parts; and, perhaps most frightening, illiterate maintenance mechanics who can’t read a checklist or manual.
The chopper Rennell took control of in that canyon sustained some shrapnel damage in the attack. The damage was fixed — to Afghan standards.
"They took a Fanta can and fixed the main rotor blade and that was fine," Rennell said. "We said, ‘OK.’"
The members of the air corps are "the cream of the cream of the crop" when it comes to the Afghan army, Rennell said. Still, an "inshallah" (God willing) mindset dominates the ranks, a cultural view that clashes with the strict protocols required for operating highly technical aircraft.
Lt. Col. Percy Dunagin commands the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, the main body of airmen tasked with bringing the Kandahar Air Wing up to snuff.
"You have a pool of people who are not good at reading or writing," Dunagin said of the maintenance workers. "They go by pictures, they do it from memory or other notes they have."
Most pilots are older and hadn’t flown for a decade before joining the air corps, reconstituted in 2005, Rennell said.
The "old heads" flew for the Taliban, the Northern Alliance or various warlords before the 2001 U.S. invasion. Dunagin said many were taught how to fly the Mi-17 by the Soviets.
Any American servicemember working with Afghans can tell you that concepts get lost in translation.
Shouting over the din of the helicopter cockpit, such misunderstandings take on even greater consequence, Rennell said.
Of the 15 American maintenance instructors at Kandahar, just one is a helicopter mechanic by trade, according to Maj. Darren Brumfield, the 738th’s maintenance team leader.
About half of the U.S. maintainers attend a monthlong Mi-17 course before deploying, he said, and in many ways, the Americans are learning about the Mi-17 alongside their Afghan counterparts.
Even though they are mainly jet guys, the maintenance troops at Kandahar have been doing maintenance for a long time, Brumfield said, and that helps them keep an eye out for when the Afghans are committing glaring maintenance mistakes.
"There are safety lines they don’t need to cross and we’ll stop them," he said.
As Rennell walked around the new and largely empty Afghan air corps hangar this week, he said the air corps needs a few years to develop. But there’s also a war on.
"What we’re doing with them is trying to build the airplane while flying it — not an easy task," Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Boera, commander of the Combined Airpower Transition Force, said in an e-mail. With a $450 million annual budget, the command has overseen Afghan air training since 2007.
The Afghan air corps has 45 aircraft and 2,800 personnel between wings in Kabul and Kandahar and detachments at Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, with plans to grow the force to about 150 aircraft and 8,000 airmen, according to Boera.
The force recently received its first modern western aircraft with the delivery of a C-27A Spartan for airlift and ground forces support, Boera said.
Despite the array of other issues facing Afghanistan and its armed forces, Dunagin said Afghan air power must be built now because helicopter support is needed for Afghan ground troops, and the basic understanding Afghan pilots have will only erode without practice, possibly requiring U.S. trainers to someday start training pilots from scratch.
"The longer we wait," he said, "the worse things get."