Maj. John Harlan and Afghan pilot Lt. Tanin stand in front of a C-208. (Air Force)
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With most — if not all — NATO troops slated to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, air advisers are helping to build a small cadre of Afghan pilots to take on the mission of moving wounded security forces.
The Afghans currently have five crews for the C-208, a propeller-driven plane used as a flying ambulance, and they are expected to have 18 crews and 26 aircraft by the end of 2014, said Capt. Anastasia Wasem, a spokeswoman for NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan. In addition to the C-208, the Afghans use Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to transport casualties.
Over the next couple of months, the Afghans will receive 12 more Mi-17 helicopters, bumping their total inventory of the aircraft to 58, Wasem said. The Afghans should have 46 crews for the aircraft by the end of next year.
C-208s have a crew of two pilots, while Mi-17s have two pilots, one flight engineer and two gunners, Wasem said. The training Afghan aircrews receive varies depending on which positions the Afghans fill on planes or helicopters.
Maj. John Harlan is one of the air advisers helping Afghan pilots hone their skills flying the C-208 to move wounded troops from the battlefield to the hospital. He was recently evaluating a pilot when they were called to evacuate an actual casualty.
“They came up in an Afghan ambulance,” said Harlan, who is based in Kabul with the 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron. “They had an Afghan flight medic that was there taking care of him. There really was no need for me to even be there. So they’ve come a long way.”
One issue facing the Afghans is the C-208 is not pressurized, unlike aircraft the U.S. military uses, he said.
“You have to triage those casualties before you bring them on the airplane so that you’re not causing more trauma to them by taking them to altitude and back down,” Harlan said. “So far, we haven’t had any problems with any of the casualties they’ve brought on there.”
At Kandahar, air advisers are working to make sure that both the Afghans and U.S. service members use the same aviation terminology in English to avoid confusion, said Capt. Tyler West, who is training Afghan C-208 co-pilots.
“We always emphasize — and this is not just something that we’re doing in Afghanistan but even back home — the importance of: If there’s something I’m saying or I’m teaching or I’m instructing that they don’t understand, they need to speak up and say, ‘Hey sir, can you please repeat yourself?’ ” West said. “That’s important not only on the ground but in the air as well.”
The Afghans are motivated and eager to learn, making the air advisers’ job easier, said West, of the 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron.
“Not every mission goes as planned,” West said. “There’s some areas that, of course, need some improvement. We discuss them during debriefs so that when we go up there the next time, we’re not making the same kind of mistakes and that we improve.”
Tech. Sgt. Will Stimpson is a gunner who helps train Afghan Mi-17 crews. Based out of Kabul, he has trained with partner forces for seven years. One skill he has learned that serves him well working with the Afghans: patience.
“Things don’t happen here as fast as we would expect them to because they are building this from scratch, so we know our mission is going to be here a lot longer than a lot of the combat forces and that it’s just going to take time to build up a core of instructors and the line pilots and the line aircrew members and then bringing them into being the maintenance test pilots,” said Stimpson, of the 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron.
Capt. Jared Hann, an Mi-17 pilot based out of Kandahar, said the learning can be two-way when he teaches senior Afghan pilots.
“Kind of how I approach things is, ‘Hey, I want to learn stuff from you just as much as I want to teach you some things,’ ” he said. “So they’re able to teach me some maneuvers on the helicopter that they’re familiar with, and I’m able to teach them some different things as well.”
The Afghans have proven they can fly combat missions on their own, said Hann, of the 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron.
“We’ve sent them out on their own before without adviser assist and they come back just fine,” Hann said. “They do a very good job.”■