By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 31, 2007 - Highly experienced Afghan pilots soon will take to the skies in newly acquired aircraft as part of a concerted effort to accelerate progress of Afghanistan's nascent air corps, a coalition commander said today. "When you look at the country of Afghanistan, with the limited road structure -- there is no rail capacity -- just the ability to move logistics by air will be a tremendous enabler capability to the army," Air Force Brig. Gen. Jay Lindell told online journalists and "bloggers" during a conference call from the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Lindell commands the Combined Air Power Transition Force, which is the aviation component of Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan overseen by U.S. Central Command. He and 130 American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are helping build capability in the Afghan National Army Air Corps.
"Most of what the Afghan air corps needs are resources: aircraft, spare parts and maintenance support equipment," Lindell said. "The Afghan air corps has ability and desire; they need resources to give them capability. And that's what we are doing; we are boosting their capability rapidly."
For instance, the coalition transition force has arranged to add 16 MI-17 transport helicopters, six MI-35 attack choppers and four Antonov 32 transport turboprop planes to the Afghan flightline over the next six months, the general explained. Additional Western medium-lift aircraft are expected to arrive in 2009, he said.
"As we give them these aircraft, they'll be able to train themselves with their own instructors and quickly generate capability," Lindell said.
The average age of Afghanistan's 165 existing pilots is 43, the general explained, and each has an average 2,500 hours of flying time, plus superb instructors and training curriculum.
"We're counting on these pilots that we have now to at least jump-start the Afghan air corps," Lindell said, noting that existing experienced pilots are expected to fly five to eight more years. "We've got to grow youth into the Afghan air corps, and we are currently working on a plan to do that."
To that end, the new Afghan National Military Academy expects to graduate its first class of 90 cadets in 2009. Ten percent of those graduates are slated to join the Afghan air corps, and the hope is that all of those will screen to enter pilot training, Lindell explained. Air corps members also will have a brand new headquarters, opening later this year at Kabul International Airport, from which to operate.
"When they get their new aircraft, or their refurbished aircraft here, then move into their new facilities, they're just going to launch off the ground and take off the capability," Lindell said.
"The Afghans have the desire and motivation to learn, grow and develop, and they want to rid their country of the Taliban," he said. "They want a better life and a better life for their children. With our continued support, the Afghan air corps will develop into a fully capable, self-sustaining and independent air corps capable of meeting the security needs of Afghanistan."
(David Mays works in New Media at American Forces Information Service.)