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Afghan Air Force runs on maintenance

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jeff M. Nagan
  • 438th Air Expeditionary Wing
When most people think about an air force, thoughts of aircraft and pilots are what enter most people’s minds. Few people think about the near countless hours spent behind the scenes to make those aircraft fly. For the maintainers turning wrenches, elbow deep in grease and hydraulic fluid, the pride comes in seeing their aircraft take off and land safely. The same holds true for the maintainers of the Afghan Air Force.

When the Afghan Air Force stood up seven years ago, much of the national focus remained on the ground fight, said Afghan Air Force Col. Abdul Shafi, Kabul Air Wing maintenance commander. However, today, more and more Afghan military and civilian leaders witness the importance of airpower every day.

As coalition forces continue to draw down in Afghanistan, more responsibility rests on the Afghan National Defense Security Forces. The Afghan Air Force has taken the lead on not only combat operations but also much of the maintenance behind the Mi-35 and Mi-17 helicopters, the two cornerstones of their arsenal.

“Last year we qualified our own Mi-17 and Mi-35 maintenance trainers,” said Shafi. “Maintenance training for both helicopters is close to complete. We will soon run the maintenance completely by ourselves.”

With minimal oversight, the Mi-35 attack helicopter is almost entirely maintained by Afghan airmen. Likewise, Mi-17 maintenance crews are becoming more self-sufficient. Kandahar Air Wing recently completed their first 100 flying-hour inspection, while Kabul Air Wing completed both 100 and 200 flying-hour inspections. In the coming weeks, Kabul airmen will perform a 300 flying-hour inspection, signifying a major milestone toward complete maintenance autonomy of that airframe.

“We are moving toward the 300 hour inspection, our last big inspection,” said Shafi. “That shows the results of our training.”

Regardless of airframe, all maintenance requires the oversight of experienced quality assurance controllers, said Shafi. Passed on by coalition advisors, the concept of quality assurance is new to the Afghan Air Force, but it has proven itself a worthwhile program.

The purpose of quality assurance controllers is to ensure airmen perform maintenance correctly and note discrepancies properly.

“Before the aircraft flies, quality assurance should stamp the orders and give the decision to fly,” said Shafi. “It’s a good program.”

Maintenance is important for all airframes, which include the C-208, added Shafi. The Afghan maintainers completed their first solo C-208 maintenance training, but there is still more to do. One measure to ensure sustainable maintenance of the C-208, and other airframes, is the institution of dedicated crew chiefs.

“Dedicated crew chiefs are important to the maintenance of the aircraft – they own the aircraft,” said Shafi. “They are responsible for everything about that aircraft. They know the technical status, what needs to be done and who needs to do it.”

With new Afghan Air Force aircraft arriving this year, maintenance training is in various phases. Since the Afghan Air Force was previously familiar with the Soviet Mi-35 and Mi-17, their maintenance teams are more mature. The C-208 maintenance program is reaching adolescence, but maintenance for new aircraft such as the MD-530 Cayuse Warrior and C-130 Hercules is still young.

Although coalition and contract advisors assist with MD-530 maintenance training in Kabul, C-130 maintenance requires advanced training, which is currently occurring abroad. To facilitate preparation for US training, 24 students have started C-130 lead-in training in Kabul while they await formal instruction.

Other maintenance training is also occurring in the US. The Afghan Air Force will add the A-29 Super Tucano to its inventory later this year. Like the C-130, Afghan maintainers are attending training in the US on the newest AAF aircraft.

“The goal is to have students who can use that knowledge to train future generations of maintainers,” said Shafi. “We take maintenance training seriously. We want them to learn everything they can and put it to work on the mission.”

Despite the drawdown of coalition forces, most Afghan Air Force leaders understand the importance of having advisors in Afghanistan today, in hopes of not needing them in the near future, said Shafi.

“Coalition forces and contractors have been helping us since the beginning,” said Shafi. “They help us find solutions. We work shoulder to shoulder with our maintenance advisors. We feel like one family.”

With the Afghan maintainers taking the lead in many areas, advisors are able to step back and simply observe, added Shafi. As the momentum continues, reliance solely on Afghans to maintain their Air Force is becoming a reality.