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An Afghan National Army Air Force Mi-17 helicopter rests on the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The Afghan National Army's Air Force recently completed its first unassisted helicopter-borne medical evacuation, flying a stabilized patient from Camp Shorabak in Helmand province to Kandahar Airfield.

Photo by Pfc. Sean Dennison

Afghan aviators soar toward self-reliance

25 Sep 2011 | Pfc. Sean Dennison

The Afghan National Army’s Air Force recently completed its first unassisted helicopter-borne medical evacuation, flying a stabilized patient from Camp Shorabak in Helmand province to Kandahar Airfield.

Currently, the Marines and sailors of 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), in partnership with other NATO coalition forces, provide almost all aviation support in southwestern Afghanistan.

Created in 2008, the Afghan Air Force currently numbers more than 4,000 personnel and nearly 60 aircraft, including the Mi-17 helicopters used in medevacs. By 2016, the air force is expected to be fully operationally capable with a force of 140 aircraft and more than 8,000 troops.

In preparation for the future, U.S. troops, along with NATO International Security Assistance Force coalition partners, have been training with Afghan forces to perform the types of missions necessary to promote stability in Afghanistan.

“They’re able to do everything from mission planning to launching missions, all on their own,” said U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Steven Guillen, a San Antonio native and flight medical advisor with the 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron based at Kandahar, Afghanistan.

A successful aerial medical evacuation requires well trained pilots, medical staff, and aircraft maintainers. So when the Afghans began training for aerial medical evacuations of their own troops, they were still receiving significant support from ISAF troops.

NATO mentors were responsible for preparing and checking the patients and flights,  explained U.K. Royal Air Force Sqdn. Ldr. Nicola Dyson who serves in medical operations at Camp Bastion with  Regional Command Southwest, and a native of Brackley, England.

But over the past several months, the troops of the Afghan Air Force have become more proficient.

“Now you’ve got Afghan pilot instructors,” said Guillen. “They train themselves, basically.”

Guillen’s squadron, the 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron,  trains and assists Afghan forces as they work toward operational, capable air power in Afghanistan.

Guillen said that units such as the 441st are spread throughout Afghanistan, with the collective goal to allow the Afghan Air Force to operate independently.

Today Afghan pilots command their aircraft across the country, and fly daily providing transportation for those in need of medical aid. Locations include Kabul, Kandahar Airfield, Camp Bastion and Camp Shorabak.

Afghan Air Force Maj. Abdulwodood, an instructor pilot, said he has seen continued growth in Afghanistan’s military evolution with support from NATO troops.

“The pilots weren’t even allowed to fly from Bastion to [Kandahar],” Abdulwodood said of Afghan forces before the partnered training began. “Now they can fly to other places they couldn’t have. People think we have a good air force, so it’s very effective.”

Abdulwodood said he sees the NATO troop drawdown as an opportunity for Afghan’s native forces.

“Everyone on the team wants a brighter future for our country,” he added. “That’s when our own forces can stand on its own.”But both Afghan and NATO troops agreed the Afghan forces are not yet fully independent. NATO forces currently and will continue to provide logistical oversight and general support for the Afghan Air Force, though they’ve successfully lessened their dependence on the coalition.

NATO medical staff still support patients who require immediate medical treatment that “would require different medical skills they might not have the experience to handle yet,” explained Guillen.

The NATO troops did say, however, that the Afghan medical staff seemed motivated by the opportunity, and eager to learn.

“We’re so fortunate to have Afghan medics and providers,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Charla Morgan, the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group flight surgeon, based at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, and a Fullerton, Calif., native. “We’re lucky to have individuals who demonstrate the professionalism we need them to have to function as medics.”

In addition to medical proficiency, the NATO and Afghan troops said there are other challenges the Afghan forces must overcome in their route to autonomy.

“Aircraft is kind of one of the limiting factors – aircraft availability and aircraft maintenance,” said Guillen. “They don’t yet have a whole lot of aircraft and not a whole lot of maintainers.”

Despite challenges, those directly involved with Afghan’s future are optimistic.

“It was a good feeling to see [the Afghans] do this alone,” said U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class James Briggs, a corpsman and mentor to the 215th Afghan Corps surgeons. “The Afghans being able to do their jobs is our ticket home.”

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