The pilot’s eyes squint as he tries to locate his landing zone located in the terrain covered by a rolling and twisting blanket of dust.
The trip to the Kunar Valley in northern Afghanistan is treacherous with numerous towering mountains as tall as 12,000 feet providing an obstacle course of a flight path. Navigating his Mi-17 helicopter, which is fully loaded with vital ammunition and supplies, is a challenging chore.
As the mission continues, various voices can be heard on his headset. Proper communication is vital during the mission as the aircraft need to maintain proper spacing and speed. As they approach the landing zone, timing is key. Two helicopters land to offload their supplies as another one circles the area to provide overwatch security.
Their time on the ground to unload supplies is brief and can be as short as two minutes. Once they are done, the now empty helicopters begin their ascent and start their journey back.
Air Force Capt. Mark Morales, an instructor pilot with 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron, has flown this mission multiple times. The supply run is the only way to stock Forward Operating Base Barge Metal.
“Barge Metal is definitely one of the most challenging landing zones,” said Morales. “We are taking ammo and supplies out to those troops that can get it by no other means. It is not accessible by road and they are totally dependent on us to stock them.”
The San Antonio native said the base is a vital outpost in the fight against insurgents in Afghanistan and there would be dire strategic consequences if it got overrun.
Afghan air force Lt. Col. Rohullah, an Mi-17 pilot, said participating in the mission has increased his confidence in the Afghan militaries fighting capabilities.
“It is an important job,” he said. “Our intel says there are a lot of bad guys there. This outpost keeps the gate closed on the bad guys and keeps them from moving freely into the south where they really want to get to.”
Now, the supply run is being used as a training mission as well. The advisers have been transitioning this mission to the Afghans. It is a tense way to accomplish training, but due to limited resources, it is a necessary evil, Morales said.
“We don’t have a lot of aircraft here so we don’t get a chance to have flights that are primarily slated for training,” he said. “A lot of our training and advising is done on real missions.”
Lt. Col. John Conmy, 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron commander, said he has seen vast improvement by the Afghan air force pilots in the ten months he has been in Afghanistan.
“When I first arrived, I was alarmed at the lack of flight discipline, it was a real safety issue,” he said. “Fast forward to today though and we now have all Afghan resupply crews flying disciplined and safe formations into a very challenging landing zone into difficult environmental conditions.”
In fact, their success in the Barge Metal missions have opened up other opportunities for the Afghan helicopter pilots, said Conmy.
“Through hard work and discipline, they were recently able to gain the confidence of the Afghan commandos and were invited to participate in air assault mission that ended up being a complete success,” he said. “I look forward to seeing the progress we will make this spring as we train Afghan crews to provide aerial escorts.”
When the captain first arrived in Afghanistan six months ago, he said there would be one coalition member and one Afghan in the flight decks of the helicopter during the mission. Now he said the cargo aircraft crews are being filled with Afghans. Currently, the crews of the armed overwatch helicopter are manned by coalition personnel. The next step, the captain said, is to have the overwatch aircraft have an Afghan crew as well.
He said advisers are still heavily involved in mission planning and providing critiques after the supply run is completed.
It has taken a total team effort to complete the mission, Conmy said.
“This mission is one of our most demanding and requires the participation of Croatian, Czech Republic, and U.S. Mi-17 advisors and Czech and Hungarian Mi-35 advisors working with Afghans to plan, coordinate, and execute.”
This mission also requires the Afghan air force to work closely with U.S. Army, Afghan national army, Afghan commandos, Afghan border police, and Afghan national police to coordinate cargo and passenger movements along with security and logistic support.
Rohullah said the support by the coalition partners is much appreciated.
“We are a family and they help us a great deal,” he said. “Planning, intel, weather, and escort operations are all things that the mentors are experts on and they constantly help us to learn these things. I feel much safer thanks to their efforts.”
Morales said it makes him feel good to see the progress that has been made in his time with the Afghan pilots.
“It’s really nice to see the vast improvement that has been made while I have been here, he said. “It’s not perfect yet but we have made a lot of movement in the right direction.”