The New Afghanistan Air Force
How the U.S. military is training Afghans to fly.
- By Stewart Nusbaumer
- Air & Space magazine, January 2011
USAF/SSGT Angelita Lawrence
(Page 4 of 4)
Ibrahim, dressed in a conservative dark suit, takes a different view. “This is very important for our country,” he says, “and very important for my family. We can’t fail.” One day the NATO forces will pull out. If the Afghan air force fails, the government it is fighting to defend could fail as well.
And the air force has a big problem: Its pilots are getting old. Ataullah, my Mi-17 pilot, is 48—and only three years older than the average Afghan air force pilot (by comparison, the average U.S. Air Force pilot is 33). The service desperately needs young pilots.
The men make their way across the glossy floor toward the departure lounge. As the line inches forward, their faces show their jumbled emotions—joy, distress, determination, gloom, excitement, trepidation. Kuldeep Kappor, an Afghan-American instructor at the Kabul Air Force Training School, offers quiet words of fatherly encouragement. U.S. Major Beth Kettle, the executive officer of the 438th (since redeployed), boisterously proclaims her faith in the men and thrusts her hand out for pumping handshakes. Handshakes? At the Air Force Training School several days earlier, I had asked a dozen students headed for pilot training: “What is your greatest fear when in the United States? Conquering the English language? Passing the rigors of pilot training? Missing your wives and families for two years?” These Muslim men said their greatest fear was shaking a woman’s hand.
Once at Lackland, the students will endure the rigors of intensive English language lessons for nearly a year. Then the rotary students will head to Fort Rucker, Alabama, for flight training by Army instructors, and the fixed-wing students will be instructed at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi.
LAST JUNE, the United States’ efforts to help build Afghanistan’s military got some bad publicity: FoxNews.com reported that a total of 46 Afghans who had come to the United States since 2002 for training in a variety of military skills had gone missing from Lackland over the years. David Smith, Lackland’s chief of public affairs operations, says that all Afghan students who had left the base without authorization had been reported to the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to the Toronto newspaper the National Post, 22 of the 46 were later found to be in Canada (some were found on Facebook). Others were found in the United States and either deported or given conditional U.S. residence status. An undetermined number have still not been found. Smith says that Lackland is still training Afghan military personnel. Since the AWOL alert was issued, he adds, “the Afghans have added a resident liaison officer to help students work though their issues.”
As of October 2010, a total of 109 Afghan students have come to the United States for English instruction and training in flying. Of them:
- 17 completed instrument flight school,
- 2 completed helicopter training,
- 1 completed fixed-wing training, and
- 3 have competed all of their U.S. training and are back in Afghanistan.
Stewart Nusbaumer has reported on more than a dozen wars over three decades and has spent nearly a year in Afghanistan covering the war as a freelance writer.