Staff Sgt. Todd Pouliot
10th Combat Aviation Brigade PAO NCOIC
KABUL, Afghanistan – The new Afghan Air Force, formed in June 2010, currently has some 60 Mi-17 transport helicopters and half a dozen Mi-35 attack helicopters. These crucial assets are spread throughout three AAF Wings located in Kabul, Kandahar and Shindand.
Afghan Lt. Col. Bakhtullah, commander of the 377th AAF Squad-ron, knows his resources are limited. Through a partnership with air-assault flight planning advisers from 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, his aviators are not only learning and developing methods that will maximize operational efficiency, they also are preparing to become instructors of effective planning themselves.
“We do many different missions: supply, passenger movement, (casualty evacuation), search and rescue,” said Bakhtulluh through a translator. “But we have a real need to be able to do air assaults.”
Two of Bakhtullah’s aircrews have already completed the course and flew an Afghan-led air assault mission May 15-18. The squadron commander, one of the most skilled helicopter pilots in the AAF, decided it was the right time for him to go through the course, along with his standardization pilot, Maj. Farid, so they can begin teaching the class to the rest of their aircrews.
“The goal is to have their instructors teach the course,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Bob Cuyler, an air-assault flight planning adviser from 10th CAB and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter instructor pilot. “In four months, the goal is to have 100 percent of the training done by Afghans.”
In addition to Afghan aviatiors conducting the training, Cuyler said there are two other objectives he would like to see by the end of his nine-month stint: harmonizing the intelligence section with flight tactics and standing up a flight planning cell where pilots who are not flying, plan the flights and then brief the pilots who will execute the mission.
“None of these pilots are flying for the first time, but there is a variety of skill and ability,” said Capt. Tom Jones, officer in charge of the air-assault adviser team, which also includes Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kyle Cheeseman, a UH-60 Black Hawk instructor pilot.
A number of the younger Afghan aviatiors received training at Fort Rucker, Ala., and the Afghan Flight School in Shindand, Afghanistan. Some of the older aviators learned from the Soviets decades ago and have not been able to fly much since.
To support the Afghans’ flight training, advisers from the U.S. Air Force and the Czech Republic, specially trained on the Mi-17 and the Mi-35 attack helicopter, respectively, provide mentorship in the cockpit.
Bakhtullah, Farid and their aircrews conducted a training air-assault mission May 29 from Kabul International Airport, which Cuyler said went very well. The day before, the aviators participated in a tactics talk in a classroom, planned the mission and rehearsed it in a simulator.
“Helicopters are a combat multiplier,” Jones said. “They are definitely learning how to manage those assets and how to most efficiently utilize their assets. At the crew level, they are solid. When they need to be somewhere on time, they are there.”
One of the most important things the Army advisers are teaching the Afghan aviators is how to integrate flight planning with entities outside the aircraft, such as the intelligence section and the ground unit’s needs.
“It’s important to take that information and adjust how you fly,” Jones said. “The entities are becoming autonomous; now it’s a matter of connecting (them).”
One suggestion the advisers had for integrating with the ground command and control elements was to send pilots to ground operations planning shuras, or meetings, and invite ground combat staff to flight planning briefs.
After the training air-assault mission May 29, which Farid had planned and briefed, an after-action review was conducted among the aviators. A discussion of what could be improved led to the agreement that, when possible, more time should be made for planning.
Cuyler, who has been an Army pilot for more than 20 years, shared how in the U.S. Army, pilots who are not flying the mission spend up to three days preparing an air-assault flight plan. They then brief it to the pilots who will actually execute the plan.
The after-action review concluded with discussing what areas went well and should be sustained.
“We were on time,” Bakhtullah said, smiling, bringing laughter from the other aviators. “We had very good crew coordination.”
“Good landings,” said another Afghan aviator.
Through their partnership with the air-assault planning advisers, Bakhtulluh and Farid will continue to strengthen the skills of their squadron’s aviators by implementing lessons learned and taking on the direct instruction of air mission planning.
“We have learned a lot from the mentors in a short time,” said Bakhtullah through an interpreter after the after action review. “We are learning standards, and we are flying safer. We are doing all we can to be prepared to be able to conduct missions after the U.S. leaves.”