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Thunder Lab produces Afghan Air Force "Best of the Best"

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jamie Humphries
  • 438th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
For Afghan air force 2nd Lt. Yar Mohmmad, it's always been a dream to serve his country in the AAF. Coming from Laghman province in eastern Afghanistan, the 25-year-old Afghan lieutenant now has that chance thanks to a program here called "Thunder Lab."

Standing up in May 2010, Thunder Lab is an environment aimed at immersing select AAF lieutenants into English language training with a goal of improving their comprehension prior to pilot training; where they will eventually hope to graduate and become pilots in the Afghan Mi-17, Mi-35 or C-27 aircraft. Currently, 17 male students and eight female students live at the lab with U.S. and British mentors in an effort to supplement English skills they've learned at the Kabul English and Language Training Center.

Created by former 438th Air Expeditionary Wing Vice Commander Col. Creig Rice, Thunder Lab has three focus areas according to officials. The first area is to develop professionalism and officership which will ultimately prepare the officers for follow-on training; second is to instill a sense of teamwork and the understanding that as a group they can accomplish more than as one individual; and the third is to improve English comprehension levels.

Rice initiated the program after noticing AAF lieutenants scheduled to attend U.S. pilot training had months between the time they graduated from initial English language training until they departed the U.S. for follow-on training. During this interim period, the AAF lieutenants' English language skills atrophied. According to officials, they were not engaged in speaking English and reverted back to their native languages, hence losing a great deal of the skills they had developed.

By all indications, the curriculum seems to be working as Thunder Lab instructors have seen English comprehension scores jump by 20 percent. In addition, seven out of 22 former male Thunder Lab students met the language requirements for pilot training in approximately two months as compared to the previous average of 13 to 14 months.

In October 2010, the lab fully integrated the first four Afghan female officer candidate school graduates who have recently arrived in San Antonio, Texas, to start the Defense Language Institute Program. Once they obtain the minimum score necessary to advance from DLI, the students will continue to rotary-wing pilot training at Fort Rucker, Ala., with hopes of returning to Afghanistan to support the AAF in the Mi-17 helicopter.

"When students first arrive at Thunder Lab there is an initial reluctance of males and females to mix," said Flight Lt. Luke Meldon, British Royal Air Force. "However, with the full-time nature of Thunder Lab, and with various team building exercises, students very quickly begin to form new friendships, regardless of gender."

Selection Process

Male students first begin their military training at the Afghan National Military Academy and the females attend the Afghan National Officer Candidate School. During the final phases of those courses, AAF leadership selects a pre-determined amount of students to fill positions in the Afghan air force. Those students are then sent to the initial Air Operations Course at Pahantoon-e-Hawayee or "Afghan Air Force Air University." After finishing courses at PeH, some students begin English immersion training at KELTC. Those identified as pilot qualified and meeting a basic English competency level are then interviewed by Thunder Lab staff for possible entrance into the program.

If lieutenants volunteer and are found to meet the standards set by the Thunder Lab staff, they are brought into the program on a volunteer basis.

"The Thunder Lab is an intense leadership and language training environment," said Lt. Col. Daryl Sassaman, officer in charge of the Thunder Lab. "It is a must for each student to be a volunteer for the program; this gives the program the best chance of success. Those that are volunteers usually will put forth as much effort as required to achieve the end goals, which are professionalizing the AAF and increasing each student's English comprehension level to a score that qualifies them for pilot training."

Daily Routine

A typical day for Afghan lieutenants and mentors begins at 5 a.m. with formal physical fitness training. Students are broken down into two groups each performing a workout on alternating days. The groups conduct a regimented fitness program with class leaders aimed at improving their physical strength and cardiovascular fitness.

After their physical fitness session, the group forms up for breakfast providing students and staff the opportunity to discuss the upcoming day and address any areas of concerns including appointments, tests or language questions. Upon finishing breakfast, the students either attend classes at PeH or KELTC. Although the goal of KELTC is to improve English proficiency, students know they must at least achieve a score of 70 out of a possible 100 in order to continue on to more advanced language training and enter training on basic aviation math and science skills.

"As a member of the armed forces, it is essential that the lieutenants have a good level of fitness, this physical robustness is a necessity for all military leaders as they must be able to withstand the physical rigors of military life without losing their mental capacity, said British Royal Air Force Flight Lt. Carol Walker who is a full-time mentor at the lab. "Training with the mentors means we set an example to the lieutenants on what is expected from them physically, ensuring they have good form in all the physical fitness they partake in. We also eat breakfast with them and that interaction is a time for the students to talk with the mentors in a less formal setting and allows a closer relationship to be built up with them, whilst improving their English."

During the afternoon, students continue to attend training before returning to the lab for their afternoon professionalism and leadership lesson aimed at increasing their officership, cultural understanding and military knowledge. This class was developed based on feedback provided by graduated Thunder Lab Lieutenants, DLI instructors and AAF advisers. During this course, students learn new skills such as leadership, followership, time management, teamwork and communication.

"One of the main mission areas of the 438th AEW is to help professionalize the AAF," said Sassaman. "What a great opportunity to help shape the future of the AAF by instilling in its young leaders the sense of leadership and professionalism. Yes, our curriculum focuses on enhancing their English language and introduction to aviation is important, but if the lieutenants can't grasp the concepts of leadership and professionalism, we (as mentors) fall short on our mission of setting the conditions for a professional, fully independent and operationally-capable AAF."

After leadership class, students form up for dinner with all members of the team and staff to share a meal and discuss their day. Staff members indicate this is an important time used to work on the students' conversational English in a non-classroom environment.

"Dinner is not just about learning to speak better English, but building relationships that will last a lifetime," said Maj. Anthony Graham, 438th AEW and part-time mentor. "The interaction we have with each other will help effect the future of the AAF. Learning English is secondary to building relationships. Our goal is to help build a better Afghanistan."

After dinner, students and staff meet at the lab to continue to improve their English listening comprehension skills. The students drink tea with the staff and converse in English as well as play games and watch English-speaking movies in order to hone their skills.

For many students, the time spent in the evening with the mentors is the most valuable.

"Evening activities are good," explained AAF 2nd Lt. Khan Afha Ghaznavi. "We work on our English language skills and help each other improve."

Thunder Lab Cadre

Currently, the lab employs three full-time mentors including two British Royal Air Force officers and a U.S. Air Force officer-in-charge. In addition, there are five part-time mentors at the lab that have regular jobs throughout the Kabul International Airport compound but live at the lab and help with activities in the morning and evening. The mentor's ranks range from senior airman to lieutenant colonel and represent the U.S. Air Force, Navy and RAF. Officials say the staff brings a wide variety of experience to the lab having served in such positions as pilots, personnel experts, navigators, squadron leadership positions and public affairs.

The staff also includes two members from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Afghanistan Pakistan Hand program who live and teach at the Thunder Lab. The mission of Afghan Hands is to build long-lasting, positive partnerships with Afghan entities and civilians, in order to demonstrate the long-term commitment of the International Security Assistance Force in an effort to build capacity and capability within Afghanistan and deny support among the Afghan people to insurgents. These mentors are experts who speak the local language, are culturally attuned and are focused on Afghanistan for an extended period. Officials indicate these qualities have a dramatic impact in the bonding efforts between staff and students.

"The mission of the Thunder Lab and the mission of Afghan Hands, in my opinion, are synonymous. Although Thunder Lab is focused on improving the English ability of its lieutenants, no one can learn a foreign language without speaking their own," said Sassaman, who in addition to being officer-in-charge of Thunder Lab, is also an AFPAK Hand graduate. "Having AFPAK Hands graduates as mentors in the Thunder Lab is a necessity as it helps us build the bonds of trust and understanding with the students.

Each student can see the level of commitment of the coalition mentors, as they demonstrate an understanding of the Dari language and the culture of Afghanistan."

He went on to explain that because each Afghan Hands has come directly from a similar program at DLI which teaches them Dari or Pashto; they understand the difficulty that the students are experiencing. This provides insight that others may not have, and helps the mentors shape and design curriculum to train and professionalize the future leaders.

The lab also brings in senior-leader guest instructors in an effort to provide a different prospective on AAF efforts. This effort aims to demonstrate to the students the commitment shared between the U.S., Great Britain and AAF.

Thunder Lab Future

On July 7, four Afghan female pilot candidates made history becoming the first to graduate from Thunder Lab. After graduating, they traveled outside Afghan borders for the first time in their lives to San Antonio, Texas with a goal of finishing DLI and pilot training. This stop is another step in their journey to become pilots in the AAF. In an interview with the Associated Press after arriving stateside the one of the pioneers explained what they hope to achieve for women across Afghanistan.

"We're going to open the door for ladies in Afghanistan," 2nd Lt. Sourya Saleh said. "It's a big deal for us to open this door for the others. That these other ladies who have the dream and think they can't do it, we want to show them."

According to Thunder Lab staff, the future of the lab is bright and will soon integrate into the AAF's hub for pilot development located in Shindand, Afghanistan, with a goal of making the base the "crown jewel" of the AAF. The mission and focus of the lab won't change, but the number of students that it trains will increase. Officials maintain the desired goal of the lab is for it to become a prerequisite for all students identified as candidates for pilot training with most of its graduates attending follow-on pilot training within Afghan borders. Students identified as top performers will have a limited opportunity to train in the U.S.

Although the lab is young, students and staff see a bright future for young Afghans working towards a peaceful nation.

"In Afghanistan, I think (it's been) 32 or 33 years of war. The women of Afghanistan couldn't do anything on that time," said 2nd Lt. Mary Sharifzada, also among the four women training to become pilots. "Now we should show that we are strong and we can serve our country."