27 Afghan Aircrew are being trained in Wiltshire as part of a two year programme run by the UK Joint Helicopter Command (JHC), supported throughout by QinetiQ. Training of the Afghan Pilots and flight engineers began in February 2008 at Boscombe Down under PROJECT CURIUM.
The aircrew have been trained on fixed wing and rotary wing aircraft and are nearing the completion of their training in the UK in March 2010. They will fly the Mi-17 when they return to Afghanistan where their training will continue.
“I’m delighted with how all the Afghan students coped with the cultural, language and technical elements of their training,” stated Wg Cdr Al Smith, Officer Commanding the Special Duties Squadron (SDS).
“The students, who are officers in the Afghan National Security Force, took part in English classes before beginning their flight training with 10 hours on a Firefly aeroplane before each spending over 60 hours in the Gazelle helicopter. They then transferred to the Mi-17 helicopter, flying over 40-hours each including basics in tactical flying, formation keeping, confined area landings and some defensive manoeuvres. Their training will continue once they arrive in Afghanistan, preparing them for operating in the hot and high conditions there, enabling them to both build on and share what they have learnt.”
One of the pilot instructors is Royal Navy Lieutenant Bridget Compain who has carried out several tours of Afghanistan. She was keen to volunteer when she heard about the chance to fly the aircraft and train Afghan crews in their use.
Lieutenant Bridget Compain said: "When I heard about the project I was excited about flying the aircraft and the challenge of training the Afghans and it has proved thoroughly enjoyable. It is a unique experience to have the Mi-17 in the UK and especially on a military register.
"I love flying the aircraft and the students have been fantastic – studious, respectful and hard working. It has been very rewarding.
"The language barrier is the biggest challenge. But as an instructor you just need to be sure you word any instructions in a clear way.
"But their English has come on a long way and by the end of the course I can speak to them as I would any UK student and they understand all the aviation aspects.
"I'll be sad to see them go. But we are sending them back as professional and competent aviators. It makes me happy to know they have had the best training and will be contributing to Afghan security."
Two of Lt Compain's Afghan students, Karim and Sayeed (preferring not to give their full names for security reasons) said they were looking forward to using their skills for real in Afghanistan.
2nd Lieutenant Karim, who had never flown previously and was selected for the course from the Afghan Security Forces, said his first time flying a helicopter in the UK was "big fun".
He praised the instruction he had received from the British staff but said he was keen to return to his home country and put his skills into action:
"I now want to help my country and serve my people," Karim said. Sayeed, another Afghan trainee helicopter pilot said:
“I want to work for our people. I want stability in my country, and I want peace in my country, because we are anti-terrorist. We are against those people who are against our country. So if those people are against us, so I am against them, this is for sure. That’s why I am training.”
This is a small-scale project with a high return. Time and effort invested in training the Afghan crews enables an eventual withdrawal of UK forces and the programme has already yielded tangible results. A number of crews have completed their training and returned to Afghanistan where initial reports suggest they are a well-respected, competent and motivated cadre of professionals. The crews trained here in UK are the seed corn of an indigenous Afghan National Security Force helicopter capability.
-- The two aircraft, currently owned by the MoD, will be gifted to the Afghan government and shortly transported to the country to join an expanding fleet of Mi-17s serving with Afghan national authorities.
-- The pilot training programme lasts typically 12 months, consisting of two flying periods interspersed with ground school. Basic flying training begins on the Gazelle and is followed by advanced flying training on the Mi-17. The flight engineer syllabus is slightly shorter. Both syllabi are modelled on the helicopter training given to UK students at the Defence Helicopter Flying School (DHFS) at Shawbury, albeit conducted on different aircraft types.
The key to developing an indigenous capability as quickly as possible is to train the Afghan aircrew on the type of helicopter they will fly on return to Afghanistan, the Mi-17. Training Afghan students on the Mi-17 here has the added benefit of not denying valuable slots for UK helicopter aircrew students at DHFS.
-- JHC provides a total of 12 permanent SDS staff, many of whom have recent operational flying experience on other rotary types in Afghanistan. Of that 12, three are Mi-17 instructors, two are Gazelle instructors, three staff train the flight engineers and the remainder make up a headquarters element.
-- QinetiQ initially provided Release to Service recommendations for the two Curium Mi-17 aircraft, enabling them to be placed on the UK military register, with follow on recommendations to increase capability. It has subsequently provided a comprehensive range of managed services including airworthiness capability and the full range of engineering support needed to maintain the aircraft. The QinetiQ team of over 25 has also been fully supported in engineering activities by its sub-contractor Helisota, a Lithuanian maintenance and repair company with extensive Mi-17 aircraft experience.
Helisota has provided several engineers with specific Mi-17 experience to assist in the maintenance of the aircraft as well as providing Post Design Services capability.
“This was a unique project, we faced a huge challenges and we were working to very strict timescales,” explained Jeff Gardner, QinetiQ’s Technical Manager of Project Curium.
“You have to be pragmatic when faced with these challenges, but we were able to rise to the challenge and approached countries with appropriate experience and experts who had used the aircraft for additional support. The aircraft arrived in the UK with some issues which had to be solved before they could be used for training. The cockpit instruments had to be anglicised from the aircraft's native Cyrillic, although some instruments still bear elements of the Russian alphabet. QinetiQ was also tasked with producing a new maintenance timetable that reflected existing UK operating standards and the experience we have gained puts us in good stead should we be asked to develop civil or military support programmes for other ‘unusual’ aircraft types in the future.”