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From a mentor's view: Execution of Pamir Airways Flight 112 crash recovery

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Gregory A. Roberts
  • 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron commander
The execution of the recovery plan began at 5:00 a.m. on Ramp 9, which is the parking apron which services the Afghan National Army Air Corps of the Afghan Ministry of Defense, and some Afghan Ministry of Interior police aircraft. It is on the north side of the Kabul International Airport. Brig. Gen. Barat, the ANAAC Wing commander at Kabul summoned the 15 ANAAC helicopter pilots, crew chiefs and flight engineers for the four planned ANAAC Mi-17 helicopters as he walked onto the ramp and greeted the commander of the MOI police helicopter squadron. The MoI police squadron had two aircraft prepared and flight crews eagerly looking over their equipment.

The night prior representatives from MoI, MoD, the Ministry of Transportation and Civil Aviation, and the Pamir airlines worked directly with these two leaders. The group spent many hours planning and discussing the upcoming recovery mission. Even though the Pamir Airways AN-26 crashed only 22 miles away, it was located 13,500 feet above the snow line of the treacherous Hindu Kush mountains that overlook Kabul. The crowd all understood the crash killed all 44 passengers and crew, but knew that the mission would demonstrate the Afghan government's resurgent capabilities to assert its national sovereignty.

As the supporting Kabul Capital Division police, Afghan special operations commandos and Afghan medics began to arrive, General Barat methodically reviewed the major elements of the plan with the MoI squadron commander - Col. Fahim Ramin as well with ANAAC squadron commander - the 377th Rotary Wing Squadron - Lt. Col. Baktullah. A lifelong intrepid Mi-17 helicopter pilot, General Barat would be flying and leading the mission with Baktullah, his one-time student.

The commandos arrived with the requested gear prepared for the grim task of climbing a difficult mountain to recover the bodies of the six crew and 38 passengers. Besides the necessary gear to deal with the elements such as cold weather coats, climbing equipment, picks, shovels, and oxygen equipment, each commando, policeman and medic was prepared with a weapon. The Taliban are a constant threat in Afghanistan, even above 10,000 feet. The nearby village of Ghowr Band, at the base of the mountain only six miles away had repelled a minor Taliban push six days earlier. Fortunately, the Taliban prefer to establish their presence in towns and villages and not desolate mountainside crash sites.

The formation started engines and took off as planned at 5:30 a.m.

The Mi-17 is extremely reliable, functional and easily ready for any mission within minutes. The four 377th RWS squadron helicopters led the two police helicopters on a straight line path in a constant climb from the Kabul airport. As the helicopters climbed through about 12,000 feet, the aircraft performance began to degrade as the air thinned. Helicopter performance, especially hover performance is highly dependent on altitude. The Mi-17 deals better than most. At mid-weight, the Mi-17 can usually hover high above the ground up to over 14,000 feet and can hover within a few feet of the ground up to almost 15,000 feet.

The air was cool, crisp and clear, although the formation aircrew members had planned and were prepared for an anticipated thunderstorm to begin around lunchtime. The 150 commandos anticipated six hours on the mountainside, although they came prepared with tents and food for 48 hours in the event the storm precluded their recovery.

The formation overflew the crash site at 14,000 feet and viewed the scene. It was the first opportunity for most of the aircrew and the ground forces to view the wreck. The only remaining intact section of the aircraft was the vertical tail fin. There was some twisted fuselage section further up the mountain and many remnants evidently slid down the snow after the crash. The other parts were either buried in the shallow, late spring snow or completely obliterated by the 250 mph impact. Upon viewing the site, the recovery team immediately turned their attention to the difficult, high altitude helicopter approaches and landings at the un-surveyed, mountainside landing zones chosen through map preparation and overhead imagery and photographs.

The morning winds were calm and the temperature at the site was a comfortable 10 degrees Celsius/50 degrees Fahrenheit. Although heavily burdened with recovery teams and equipment, the helicopter aircrews had been careful to calculate fuel to minimize overburdening the helicopters at the high altitude landing zone. The aircrews also carefully completed their power computations and site "Takeoff and Landing Data" in order to ensure success. Their attention to detail paid off. First one and soon all four aircraft landed at the site without incident. The commandoes, police security, and medics disembarked and set upon their solemn duties.

After the helicopter landing, the commandos immediately began to ascend the mountain.

Their main task was to climb to the crash site and carefully collect human remains. Medics climbed with them and provided on-site assistance in keeping remains together as much as possible. The commandos trekked back down the rock face and snow to bring the remains to the field-casualty collection point that other medics had prepared. Each of the commandos kept climbing the mountain, asking for assistance from the mountainside medics and carrying remains down the mountain in specially-prepared body bags and containers for more than four hours.

The medics had a two-pronged job. Their first job was to provide on-the-spot medical assistance to the effort of carefully moving the scattered human remains from the mountainside into body bags. Their other job, completed by a second set of medics near the helicopter landing zones was to receive the human remains as they came down the mountain with the individual or small teams of medics and begin to gather the bodies in the field mortuary.

The Capital Division provided site security.

Although the high mountain valley was impassable from most azimuths, there was a significant security concern stemming from the potential for insurgents or criminals coming up the mountain valley from the West. These security personnel also established the landing zones, chose the sites for any on-scene triage and the field mortuaries. They also chose sites for tents in the event the whole group had to remain there overnight.

After the first landing and insertion of the recovery commandos, the helicopters flew to the town of Charikar, where an intermediate forward staging mortuary and helicopter refueling point was established in the Pawar stadium soccer field. Charikar town is about six miles due West of Bagram airfield. The soccer field was big enough to land six of the large Mi-17 aircraft. The local soccer coach took charge of the operation and set up areas for the previously coordinated fuel trucks, ambulances, security, and police forces. He also made sure food and water was always ready for the recovery, mortuary, and helicopter personnel. The second trip to the crash site by the helicopters brought the second wave of commandos, medics, and security personnel.

One of the aircraft brought the Pamir airways representative, representatives of the families of the deceased passengers and a representative of Global Security, a British Defense contractor who had personnel onboard the doomed flight. Although somewhat controversial, the night prior in planning it was decided to allow the grieving families and companies the opportunity to see the incredibly difficult terrain and the utter destruction associated with the Pamir aircraft crash. Being at or near the crash site provided closure to the families and companies involved, as well as relief to the Afghan government from aggressive people wanting to know what the Afghan government was going to do about this civil affair.

Four of the original six helicopters continued shuttling personnel and equipment back and forth from the crash site and Charikar or Kabul International for the next several hours. The two remaining helicopters were tasked with an alternative mission, given that four helicopters were now sufficient for the recovery operation. Although the day grew warm at Charikar, the temperature on the mountain remained below 14 degrees Celsius/57 degrees Fahrenheit. An impending thunderstorm began to develop after 3:30p.m. west of the crash site in the Hindu Kush range. The storm slowly drifted toward the crash site and Kabul.

The intermediate mortuary personnel at the crash site reported via cellular telephone that they had enough gathered human remains to dedicate whole sorties to their movement. Beginning at about 2:30 p.m., the three remaining MoD helicopters from the 377th RWS and the one remaining MoI police helicopter began the grisly task of carefully moving the remains from the on-site temporary mortuary to the intermediate staging field at Charikar. From there, they were moved to an established local morgue for further identification and disposition. This mission continued for about two hours. At about 4:00 p.m. local time, the helicopters transitioned back to the personnel movement stage as they began to move the commandos, medics and police from the crash site back to Charikar and Kabul. All bodies and body parts that were recovered thus far were at the morgue in Charikar. The recovery operation began to shut down as quickly as it developed.

The last of the police and commandos landed at Charikar just as the first bolts of lightning struck the Hindu Kush near Charikar and the rumble of thunder grew louder in the ears of the gathered crowd at the Pawar soccer stadium. With all the helicopters serviced with enough fuel to get back to Kabul, the Mi-17s, their crew members and the last remaining Kabul Division personnel departed Charikar on the last flight of the day.

The overall mission was a complete Afghan success. The Afghans organized, planned, executed and adjusted the operation throughout the day. Although not glorious because no lives were saved; the mission was a complete success because it demonstrated the fact that Afghanistan is recovering. Afghanistan is beginning to emerge from so many years of difficulty and strife to a point at which it can begin to manage its own sovereign affairs. While the country and government still have a long way to go, the success of this mission is testament to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's newfound resilience, adaptability, and raw capability. The Afghan government, through the ANAAC and MoI demonstrated that, with regards to Afghanistan, there are more great things to come.