Sunday, March 1, 2009

Facing Language Gaps and ‘Flying Trucks,’ U.S. Trains Afghan Pilots

Bismillah Zadran, left, the Afghan pilot, was trained by Maj. Tom Higgins in an MI-17 helicopter flying over the mountains outside of Kabul earlier this month.
Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Published: NYT, February 27, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan — Col. James A. Brandon flew Black Hawks when Moscow was considered a mortal foe of the United States and spent years in the Army studying enemy aircraft. So he now finds it a little bizarre to be piloting an old MI-17 Russian helicopter, a legacy of the Soviet invaders here, in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan. “If somebody had told me in the 1980s that I’d be flying an MI-17 20 years later,” Colonel Brandon said last week, “I’d have said they were crazy.”

But in a case of going to war with not just the military you have, but the military your enemy once had, Colonel Brandon is a leader of a bumpy American effort to build an Afghan Air Force from the wreckage up. To do that as quickly and (relatively) cheaply as possible, the United States is training American pilots to fly the helicopters of the former Soviet Union — Colonel Brandon calls them “flying trucks” — so the American pilots can in turn train, or retrain, Afghan pilots who once flew for the Russians, the Taliban or powerful warlords.

The program, which is projected to cost American taxpayers $5 billion into 2016, is aimed at giving Afghanistan the ability to defend itself from the skies and one day allowing the Americans to leave. But for now it reflects all the problems of getting Afghan forces to stand on their own.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Brig. Gen. Walter D. Givhan of the United States Air Force, the program’s commanding general, who oversees eight American instructor-pilots and the 33 not-always-operating aircraft of the Afghan Air Force.

One problem is that many of the 80 or so Afghan pilots being trained do not speak English, an issue when American instructor-pilots are barking out orders to them in helicopters careering above Kabul. There is no room in the cramped MI-17 cockpit for an interpreter, and in any case things usually happen too fast.

The full article is here

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