Wednesday, October 14, 2009
On a Russian-built helicopter above the fertile Helmand valley in southern Afghanistan, a US Air Force adviser tests the knowledge of an Afghan pilot.
"Do you remember how to change to manual frequency?" asked Captain Tyler Rennell. An interpreter translated the conversation taking place in the cockpit of the Mi-17 taking a dozen Afghan soldiers between Kandahar and Helmand.
In any other context, the scene would be enough to make even the best flier nervous.
But these are special circumstances. The United States is training the Afghan Army National Air Corps (AANAC) to help it fight the increasingly bloody Islamist Taliban insurgency that is spreading across the country.
With difficult terrain, air support is vital.
"He wants to land, sir," said the interpreter.
"OK, you will be fine," Rennell assured the pilot. "I just might make an input."
After about an hour's flight alternating low-flying over the dunes and high altitude above areas suspected of harbouring insurgents, the khaki-coloured aircraft landed without incident.
The Afghan pilots have an average age of 45 and are experienced.
"Some of these guys have been flying longer than I've been alive," said Rennell, but added: "We need to refresh them."
The Taliban's rise to power in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s then the invasion by a US-led military coalition at the end of 2001 saw the last vestiges of Afghan military aviation created by the Soviets.
In its heyday, the force numbered 350 aircraft. Today, there are about 40.
The pilot, Azizullah Rahimzay, 40, has been licensed to fly since 1988. But he hasn't flown for eight years.
"When the Taliban were in power it was too tough," said Rahimzay. "We emigrated to Pakistan. I returned in 2001. I am happy to fly again. I like to learn new techniques here."
Rahimzay is one of 15 pilots in the new Afghan detachment set up in October at the NATO base in Kandahar, in the heart of a region gripped by intense fighting with the Taliban.
The base is home to 200 Afghans and about 30 US mentors. On the tarmac, the meagre fleet of three Mi-17s is expected to double to six next year.
Described by the US air advisers as "rugged and easy to operate", most of the helicopters are donated by countries like Poland or the Czech Republic.
Three Mi-35 attack helicopters and Italian C-27 transport planes are also expected.
For the moment, the Afghan force's sorties are restricted to the transport of troops, equipment and detainees, medical evacuations and the repatriation of human remains.
"As we continue to train, we can start expanding our mission set," including close air support in combat, Rennell said, adding: "That's going to take years."
"There is a lot of resistance to training," he went on.
"They want to be part of the fight and they feel like they already know what they need to know.
"We try to get them to use checklists. Here everything is from memory."
Training includes how to speak to air traffic control because "a lot of their airspace was uncontrolled before 2001", said Rennell.
Pilots are also accustomed to navigating by sight, so teaching has to include the use of maps and global positioning systems.
"Most (pilots) don't have conversational English. English is the language of aviation," said Rennell. "We don't have English teachers in Kandahar."
But the success of the mission is vital. Getting the Afghan military on its feet and capable of being solely responsible for the security of the country is a condition for the departure of international forces.
"The quicker they're ready, the quicker we are going to finish the mission," said US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Percy Dunagin, another mentor. "That's going to get us out of here.
"We are a couple of years behind the ANA (Afghan National Army) training but the Air Corps is inherently more challenging and technologically more advanced."