Building Afghan Air Corps Expensive Task
Building Afghan Air Corps Expensive Task

In Afghanistan, planes and helicopters are essential for moving  troops and supplies, providing air support for ground forces and keeping an eye on insurgents.  

The war in Afghanistan makes Kandahar air field one of the busiest single runway airports in the world. It is located in the country's south, and jets and helicopters take off and land every few minutes all day and all night long.

In one corner of the vast airfield, Afghan technicians bring in a (Soviet-era) helicopter for repair. The technicians are part of the Afghan Air Corps  -- a force NATO hopes someday will take over this airfield and others around the country.

Colonel Abdul Halim heads maintenance here. He says under the Taliban, the Air Corps was essentially held prisoner and forced to fly and to maintain the aircraft. Now he says, the Afghans are basically starting from nothing.

Captain Chris Tooman says these helicopters may be more than 30 years old, but they can take off and land at high altitudes in relatively small spaces, and  are mechanically robust. "Extremely reliable, we have very few issues with them. They're perfect for this type of environment," he said.

At this weekly meeting, the Afghan Air Corps officers discuss their concerns with NATO officers.

The Afghans say they can not get the supplies or the support they need from their fellow Afghans and NATO. Colonel Bernard Mater, the chief NATO mentor, understands the problem. "There aren't enough resources to be able to do all of the missions and all of the support that's necessary to help the government of Afghanistan to improve their capacity to support the people of Afghanistan," he stated.

The Air Corps' main task now is moving Afghan troops and officials around the country. In Kandahar, the Corps has only four helicopters and one is out of commission because of a damaged rotor. Overall the force has about 50 helicopters and aircraft. NATO wants to triple that and more than double the number of personnel -- from 3,300 today to 8,000.

Building Afghanistan's Air Corps will take some time. It takes years to train a pilot, and Afghans have to learn not only how to fly the plane, but also how to speak English, the language of international aviation.

The average age of an Afghan pilot is 45, and so far only one new Afghan pilot has completed training. And because of their age, most pilots will need to be replaced in the next decade. During the civil wars and Taliban rule of the 1990s, Afghans did not develop aviation skills. NATO officials say it will be years before Afghans can control their own air space and patrol their own skies. Even so the Afghan president wants  the corps to be known as an air force.

There was a recent sign of progress though, when a commercial aircraft crashed in a remote area of Afghanistan in May, the Afghan Air Corps led the search and recovery effort.