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Face of Defense: Pilot Reflects on Training Afghan Air Force

By Jim Fisher 377th Air Base Wing

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KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M., December 31, 2014 — Air Force Maj. Mary Clark, a UH-1N Huey instructor pilot and the 58th Operations Support Squadron's assistant director of operations here, knows what it takes to make a good helicopter pilot.

Clark trained pilots at Shindand Air Base, Afghanistan.

She prepared 20 student pilots, including three female members of the Afghan air force and male rotary-wing pilots to fly the Russian-made Mi-17, and contributed to nonflying aspects of all pilot training.

Clark said she hopes the impact made by the mission she made for a year went beyond producing capable pilots for the Afghan air force.

"We exposed one culture to another and did our best to create an avenue for advancement in their society," she said. Students trained by the 58th Special Operations Wing are turned into combat-ready special operations and rescue crew members who can make an impact in operations around the world.

Cultural Restrictions

Due to cultural restrictions on interaction between men and women outside the family environment, it helped the Afghan women to have a female instructor, Clark said. The women were not invited to evening study sessions male students would hold, she added, and were somewhat on their own when coalition instructors were not holding a formal class.

Clark said she was able to provide an avenue for them to get questions answered and facilitate their self-study.

"If they had a question, they would come to me," she said. "They felt more comfortable having a woman present during training."

In addition to helping the women to adapt to the training environment, Clark acted as a role model.

"The women were all very motivated and competent. Despite facing significant threats to their safety, they did well in their training," she said. "These women were very brave to choose this career path. I was happy to be able to be an example of professionalism for them. I think it was important for them to see that a woman could become a pilot."

A Different Aircraft

In addition to adjusting to the culture, Clark said, she had to adjust to a different aircraft. To prepare for the mission, she had to learn how to fly the Mi-17, which she said is very different from the UH-1N. Because the Mi-17 rotor spins in the opposite direction, it has a different flight control arrangement, and it is much larger than the Huey she’s used to flying.

"I got 35 hours in the Mi-17 before I deployed, and the transition was smooth,” she said. “It was fun."

Once Clark had established herself as a well-trained and skilled pilot, she gained credibility with male and female students alike.

In addition to the typical dangers inherent to the deployed environment, Clark also had to contend with a heightened state of alert following a spate of Taliban attacks.

"It's terrorists targeting their own people," she said. "You had to be on guard, but you can't be paranoid. A year is just too long to be paranoid."

More traditional combat-related threats called Clark into action. She took part in a rescue mission after a helicopter was struck by an improvised explosive device during a training mission, and some of her Afghan comrades were killed in the line of duty. This included a safety officer she had advised throughout her year there, who was killed in a grenade attack a week before she left the country.

The female Afghan pilots Clark worked with also had to deal with constant dangers.

While on base, the women were protected, but they could not wear their uniforms in public without making themselves a target of the Taliban, Clark said.

A More Enlightened Society

A competent air force to defend gains Afghanistan has made toward a free society will also translate into a more enlightened society in the long term, Clark said.

"You have to change an entire generation," she added. "Our presence as advisers, airmen, and, in my case, as a woman, served to enlighten the younger generation of Afghan soldiers we interacted with. This willingness to embrace a global perspective, coupled with the establishment of national pride, is essential for the country to defeat terrorist threats to their government and way of life.

"I encountered many intelligent and motivated Afghans,” she continued. “With coalition support we saw many successes, such as Afghan officers becoming instructor pilots and leading real-world missions as well as taking command and leading their own people. … It will be incumbent on these leaders to continue these practices as they assume primary responsibility for defending their country and their freedom."