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A Pair of Wings, A Handshake, A Coalition Formed

  • Published
  • By William K. (Ken) Fiedler
  • NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan
As a past-deployed USAF Air Advisor I had a unique opportunity to see the fruits of my labor on 11 March 2011 when I pinned the silver wings of an Army Aviator to Abdul Hadi Paigeman, Lieutenant, Afghan Air Force. Lt Hadi along with graduates from Pakistan and Germany received the coveted wings in a ceremony hosted at Ft Rucker's International Military Student Office.

In a way my relationship with Lt Hadi has come full circle, starting with the first Instrument Flight Rules class I taught him on 7 October 2007 shortly after I deployed as an air advisor to the Afghan Air Corps fixed wing squadron at Kabul airport. At the time Lt Hadi was a navigator on legacy Afghan An-26 and 32 aircraft, flying daily missions in support of the Afghan Army. Over the next six months I logged many hours of "quality time" with him and his fellow aviators, discussing all matters of aviation with a safety bent, while listening during break time to their wild stories of life before and after 9/11. Neither Lt Hadi nor the Soviet-trained pilots knew the mechanics of flying an instrument approach. I and other advisors before and after me worked that issue while encouraging more esoteric skills such as leading from the front, empowering the Non Commissioned Officer, and maybe, once in a while, thinking outside the box. Skills we take for granted were once too rare in the Afghan culture, but that is slowly changing.

It has been a long road for Lt Hadi, beginning with his graduation in the last class from the Kabul Air University before civil war ceased its operation and plunged the nation into chaos. Most of his classmates were sent home but Lt Hadi and a few of the top graduates were allowed to serve. With the dissolution of the Soviet-backed government Lt Hadi endured like many of his fellow aviators, by flying for various warlords or the Taliban. While serving as a navigator on an An-26 medium transport, Lt Hadi survived an engine failure shortly after takeoff in 1998 which put him in the hospital but did not stop his passion for flying. Or learning. Once the Afghan Air Corps was reconstituted in 2002 he returned to flying as the Air Corps rebuilt first under the guidance of the US Army and then with the assistance of the Combined Air Power Transition Force (CAPTF), a joint/combined organization that has partnered with the Afghan Ministry of Defense to pursue the strategic goal of bringing positive, timely air support to Afghan and Coalition ground forces and the central government. Airlift and air power is an essential element of the Afghan counterinsurgency. Combined helicopter gunship and light fixed attack capability allow Afghan security forces to launch largely independent operations. Just the ability to quickly repatriate soldiers' remains means a great deal in the Afghan culture. Airlift of government leaders into remote provinces gives sorely needed credibility while giving the population a chance to have their voices heard.

Lt Hadi's passion for knowledge and learning impressed consecutive Air Advisors including myself. His working knowledge of English allowed direct instruction without the need for a translator. Despite being slightly older than the average pilot trainee, CAPTF Air Advisors lobbied for Lt Hadi to attend US-sponsored pilot training. Following English Language Training at the Defense Language Institute at Lackland AFB, he completed Primary, Instrument, night vision goggle and tactical training at the US Army's Aviation Center of Excellence at Ft Rucker, Alabama. Lt Hadi and his classmate Lt Abdul Majid Alamyar will return to Kabul to attend training in the Mi-17 helicopter, again with the assistance of NATO and Coalition partners. The plan is for both pilots to become flight instructors as the renamed Afghan Air Force builds up its helicopter fleet to meet an incessant demand for vertical lift support. In one recent example two Afghan Mi-17's showed their ability to independently deploy and execute humanitarian relief operations after severe flooding in Pakistan. The good these aviators generated cannot be measured.

After the graduation ceremony, as congratulations and handshakes were exchanged, I could not help but notice the greetings and smiles exchanged between the Afghan and Pakistani graduates. As they stood side by side, proudly displaying their hard-earned silver wings, I realized a new coalition was being formed, here among young officers of neighboring countries with a troubled past but essentially linked future. After playing the role of teacher, it was I who learned the most important lesson this day. My duty is done. As for Lt Hadi , Lt Alamyer and their new Pakistani friends, their duty has just begun.