Afghan Air Corps Mentor Ends Tour
By Petty Officer 1st Class David Votroubek, USN
American Forces Press Service
KABUL, Afghanistan, Jun. 14, 2007 When U.S. Army Col. John Hansen began his work with the Afghan National Army Air Corps in October 2005, he found only a remnant of the former Afghan air force. A force that once had 500 aircraft was reduced to only a few flyable craft.
Afghan National Army Air Corps jets pass in review during a parade commemorating the 15th anniversary of the Mujahidin victory. This occasion marks the capture of Kabul from the communist regime. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class David M. Votroubek, USN
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
However, he also was amazed to find a small but dedicated group of pilots and maintenance people who’d managed to keep a few of those aircraft flying. He decided to build on that human capital.
“I’ll never forget my first trip to the airport,” he said. “I was driving around the ruins of the airport thinking about how daunting the task was.”
Starting in a single small office with only three people, Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan’s air corps mission has grown to include more than 60 personnel. Forty-four former Afghan air force officers also have been hired recently as contractors to mentor the renewed air corps.
The Afghans have been so eager to learn that the program has had to expand to catch up with them. For the last 18 months they’ve worked to upgrade their computer skills, logistics, maintenance, and safety practices to modernize their force. Slowly, the minimum standards have risen.
“It hasn’t always been pretty. Imagine a 25-year evolution compressed into two years,” Hansen said.
Not only did the Afghans learn by instruction, they also learned by watching their mentors. Hansen said most of the mentoring credit goes to his noncommissioned officers. The payoff came on May 16, when the Afghan National Army Air Corps finally met its goal of flying President Hamid Karzai in an Afghan aircraft with an Afghan crew. Previously he’d always flown in coalition aircraft.
Another goal was to be able to support Afghan National Army ground combat operations from Kabul. The air corps had flown logistics, transport and rescue flights all along, but has only recently contributed combat support to its forces. During Operation Mountain Lion in the spring of 2006, two Air Corps helicopters flew in support of Task Force Falcon. Hansen said he remembers the astonished looks when the Afghan troops realized that they’d be flown into combat aboard their own helicopters and the look of pride on the faces of the Afghan aircrews.
Hansen said he is convinced that Afghan citizens have greater confidence in their government when they see their air corps aircraft in flight. This was demonstrated recently with fly-bys during a Victory Day parade in May. Aircraft didn’t fly during the Taliban era, explained Maj. Jeffrey Wilmoth, Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan’s air corps executive officer.
“Back in ’05,” Hansen said, “the coalition could only provide the air corps with fuel, encouragement and promises.”
Those promises of new equipment now are being delivered upon. Last years’ $3.5 million budget is projected to expand to $450 million to begin purchasing aircraft. By 2011, the air corps will have more than 200 aircraft of different types in their inventory and will have the capability to operate anywhere in the country.
Hansen was so dedicated to the rebirth of the air corps that he voluntarily extended in Afghanistan to serve two years and was promoted to his current rank during the tour. The career helicopter pilot’s next assignment will be a staff position in Hawaii. His replacement, Air Force Brig. Gen. Frank Padilla, awarded him the Bronze Star for his work.
Wilmoth summarized Hansen’s importance to the renewed air corps. “No matter where you go in this country, everyone knows him,” he said. “He is Afghan air corps. When he leaves, it will be the end of an era.”
(Navy Petty Officer 1st Class David Votroubek is assigned to Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan.)