By Judith Snyderman
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
July 19, 2010 - The global air community relies on English as the standard language in the cockpit, which poses a big challenge for getting the Afghan air force off the ground quickly.
A live-in English language lab in Kabul, which started as a stop-gap measure for new pilot recruits, has proven to be a tremendous success, Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael R. Boera, commander of NATO Training Mission Afghanistan's Combined Air Power Transition Force, said during a July 16 "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable.
"Probably the single greatest thing we have done for the advancement of English language skills, motivation and building a professional air force for tomorrow, is the stand-up of an aviation English language immersion lab," Boera explained.
The training program, called Thunder Lab, pairs recruits with NATO air advisors. It began two months ago while waiting for slots to open up in overseas pilot schools. Based on early test results that Boera called "phenomenal," the program is likely to be expanded from its current 36 students and it could trim a year from the overall time it takes to train pilots.
Boera pointed out that it takes far longer to turn out a qualified pilot than it does a foot soldier. Depending on individual learning styles, acquiring language proficiency and technical flying skills can take up to five years, he said.
That's a long time, considering the goal of the Combined Air Power Transition Force. "Our mission is to set the conditions for a professional fully independent and operationally capable Afghan air force ready to meet the needs of Afghanistan today and tomorrow," Boera said.
NTM-A stood up in November 2009. Boera reports that great strides have been made. He said the size of the Afghan air fleet already has grown from 40 to 50 aircraft and that number is projected to exceed 70 aircraft by next July. The manpower also has increased from 2,800 to more than 3,400, and is expected to reach 5,700 airmen next year.
However, those airmen are not all pilots, Boera said. "We teach it all," he explained, including disciplines related to aircraft operations, maintenance, mission support and medical skills related to medical evacuations.
Boera said he has witnessed the growth of capabilities among Afghan airmen in the field and cited an example from a recent MEDEVAC mission.
"I was on a mission about a month ago and we went up to Mazar-e Sharif and I was immensely impressed with a 'med tech' who had a take-charge attitude on that aircraft; [he was] handling the IVs [and] sucking chest wounds," Boera recalled. "There were three patients on board and he was bouncing back and forth between the three."
Boera also cited challenges to meeting the overall mission. For example, he said, the Combined Air Power Transition Force team includes some 450 soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, civilians and contractors -- but they are mostly from the United States and Afghanistan. NATO partners from Canada, the U.K., and from the Czech Republic and Hungary currently comprise only about 20 members of the team.
"I'd like to have about 203 [of them] right now," Boera said, adding that, "We just have not had enough of NATO ponying up forces to help with the training mission."
Yet, Boera said he is optimistic that more help is on the way.
In addition to looking for more trainers, Boera is engaged in recruiting more Afghan air force officers. He said current plans extend to 2016, when projections call for the Afghan air force to include some 8,000 members.