As training jobs go, United States Colonel Bernard Mater’s task of mentoring the fledgling Afghan air force is among the more daunting ones.
Literate recruits are hard to find, rickety Soviet-era choppers make up the fleet and aircraft instruction manuals are either missing or in Russian.
Once a sizeable air force essential for moving across the country’s rugged terrain of craggy mountains and deserts, the Afghan National Army Air Corps is slowly picking up the pieces after falling into disuse during years of war and Taliban rule.
Hoping to eventually support the Afghan army without help from foreign troops, the air force is ambitiously expanding, with plans to triple the size of its fleet to 150 aircraft and boost personnel to 8 000 by 2016 from about 3 000 now.
In Kandahar alone, about $100-million is being spent on building barracks, ramps and facilities as the 250-strong wing trained by Mater’s men seeks to expand to as many as 1 200 people — from pilots to maintenance crew — next year.
The Afghan airmen are skilled pilots and quick learners, says Mater. But like many things in Afghanistan, rebuilding the force can often mean starting from scratch. Mater recounts once getting 17 additional vehicles for the Afghan airmen, only to find they were left with more vehicles than men with driving licences. “Then we realised we had to teach people to drive.” Another time, an Afghan pilot dutifully obeyed orders to fly the helicopter to a certain altitude bearing north, but years of following instructions to a word meant he flew over towns and roads, inadvertently becoming a target for insurgents, he said.
“We’re trying to teach them that there is room for tactical flexibility while following the rules,” said Mater. “None of these guys have felt empowered before. It’s the whole Soviet-style command system.”
For now, none of the Afghan helicopters in Kandahar take off without US pilot trainers inside — not least because air traffic control commands are still given in English at the busy Nato-controlled Kandahar air strip.
“Right now, we’re still at the baby steps stage,” said Clell Knight, a US pilot advisee. “They still have a long way to go.”
Tractors of the sky
And then there are the aircraft themselves. In Kandahar, four large helicopters sit outside with their Soviet heritage on full display: Russian words are painted inside and Cyrillic lettering is printed above the controls.
Sturdy, rudimentary and built without sophisticated electronics, the tan and green helicopters feature frayed seats and paint peeling off inside, but are reliable carriers of troops. With a good safety record, they have even been used for medical evacuations.
“We call them the John Deeres of the sky because it’s built to be a utility vehicle,” said Captain Chris Tooman, who heads the maintenance training section in Kandahar, referring to an American tractor company. “It’s very simplistic and it works.”
But some of the up to 46 aircraft in the air force fleet cannot fly because they are too old or parts cannot be replaced, says Mater. And instruction manuals are missing or are in Russian, prompting the US military to start translating them into Dari and Pashto, he said.
The biggest challenge is finding qualified candidates for the growing air force, given low literacy levels and an entire generation that had no experience flying planes or learning to do so under Taliban rule. “Part of the challenge is that the average age of the Afghan pilot is 45 years,” said Mater.
At its peak during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and up until 1992, Afghanistan’s air force boasted as many as 500 aircraft — including 200 helicopters, 100 fighter jets and as many as 7 000 personnel.
It fell into disrepair when the Taliban came to power and much of the equipment that had not already fallen into the hands of warlords was destroyed when US-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001.
Rumours about the fate of the aircraft during Taliban rule abound — Mater says one Afghan airman claimed to have flown a helicopter into a cave and disassembled it, reassembling it later after the Taliban was overthrown.
Mater says he remains optimistic despite all the challenges, recounting how Afghan helicopters once swooped in to rescue nomads stranded after flooding, leaving the rescued children excited about helicopters even if they were initially afraid.
“It was harder getting them off the helicopter than getting them on it,” he said. “I hope that 20 years from now one of those kids will take me around this base and show me what it’s like.” — Reuters