(Editors note: Due to security concerns, names have been changed to ensure the safety of involved service members and their families.)
Less than three years ago, Afghan army Sgt. Mahdi Ahmad took leave, driving home to be with his wife, Novi, for the birth of their first daughter, Abiba.
A few short days after welcoming his first child into the world, Mahdi had to return to his brigade and reluctantly left his young wife and baby girl behind. Somewhere between home and his unit, Mahdi vanished. His family has not seen or heard from him since.
They presume Taliban insurgents have captured or killed him.
Every morning when Afghan air force Maj. Sahar Ahmad opens his dark brown eyes, his thoughts drift to his younger brother, Mahdi.
Ahmad pulls out a handkerchief, hand stitched with the words “I love you.” His fiancée, Pakiza, gave it to him days before he left for the U.S.
“We’ve lost many people,” Ahmad said, using the handkerchief to wipe away the tears that rolled down his cheeks. “We have to do something.”
Ahmad, who started his career as a special operations officer, is among the first class of eight Afghan airmen who started training in the A-29 Super Tucano in January. These eight aviators are Afghanistan’s first fighter pilots since their country fell to the Taliban.
Based out of Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, the 81st Fighter Squadron stood up about half a year ago and assumed the mission to train future Afghan fighter pilots and A-29 maintainers.
“This is a big part of what happens in the future of Afghanistan,” Ahmad said hopefully. “There are going to be a lot of changes in Afghanistan because of this program.”
However, Ahmad said his family and fellow countrymen know change doesn’t come without sacrifice.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans lost more than 3,000 loved ones. Since that day, nearly 7,000 U.S. service members have given their lives during Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Afghans, on the other hand, have seen entire villages annihilated by ruthless Taliban raids.
“I love freedom. I believe in freedom. I can’t live without freedom,” Ahmad said. “That’s why I wanted to be here, so I can beat my enemy.
“There will be freedom in Afghanistan,” he continued. “We will know peace one day.”
Ahmad said he struggles to remember life without the Taliban. Even one of his proudest days is marred by his enemy’s presence. He recalls the day when his older brother, Faiz, graduated from the prestigious Afghanistan Air Force Academy. But the academy has since fallen to the Taliban.
Full of motivation, Ahmad quietly puts on his flight suit and heads to class.
A squadron stands up
In the hallways, nearly every frame is empty. The flight operations board displays a full schedule of training missions, but moving boxes still rest in the corner, some piled floor to ceiling. Still, training is in full swing at the 81st FS.
Currently, the squadron has 12 fully trained instructors, with three in training and two more on the way.
“Not only are we standing up a new squadron, we’re fielding a new aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Hogan, the 81st FS commander. “From the time the decision was made that we needed to conduct this training here in the U.S. to the time our first aircraft arrived here at Moody, was less than six months.”
The first students, including Ahmad, arrived four months later, giving Hogan enough time before their arrival to train his cadre of instructor pilots and maintainers on the unfamiliar aircraft. To do this, staff from the aircraft’s manufacturer trained the teaching crews, informing them on the nuances of the A-29.
The hustle to get training started isn’t unwarranted.
As the U.S. slowly withdraws forces from Afghanistan, the need for a fully qualified Afghan air force increases, Hogan said.
With this crucial mission, the Air Force aggressively moved to identify and hire the best instructors, from pilots to weapons troops and maintainers.
“The whole squadron is chock-full of rock stars because it was all volunteers,” Hogan said. “Everyone in this organization put their hand up and said, ‘I’ll go do this.’”
One of those instructors is Capt. Mark Smith.
“I joined the Air Force right after September 11th,” said Smith, who flew close air support missions in Afghanistan – a requirement for all of the A-29 pilot instructors. “All of us here have deployed to Afghanistan and fought for not just our country, but also for theirs. If we do our job and get these Afghan pilots and maintainers properly, effectively trained, then we can be part of history. Every bit better we do our job may mean one more day that we no longer have to be fighting. And that may mean less lives lost.”
The Afghan pilots trained here aren’t new to aviation, nor are they new to life in the U.S. – seven of the eight pilots graduated from undergraduate pilot training in Texas years earlier, and thousands of international members train in the U.S. every day.
“Most of the pilots have 500 to 1,000 flying hours, most being instructor pilots on the Cessna 208,” Hogan said.
Ahmad has flown more than 1,000 medical and transportation missions in Afghanistan since becoming a pilot in 2011.
The commander, previously an instructor pilot himself, said the Afghan pilots remind him of some U.S. students he’s trained, who ask seemingly endless questions.
Over the past few months of training, squadron members worked to show the Afghans more than how to become a good pilot. They’ve also shown the Afghan airmen how to run a fighter squadron.
Shortly after arriving, the squadron threw a “First Friday” party, typical of most fighter squadrons. Ahmad joked how he enjoyed all the heart-shaped candy when families also threw the men a Valentine’s Day party.
“We’ve taken a holistic approach here. Our wives and spouses prepared Halal food for them,” Hogan said. “They stayed for hours and met our families. They’re part of our lives and our squadron.”
Some Air Force traditions may have stuck with the Afghan pilots better than others.
“I’ve heard of this mustache in March thing that you do. I’ll be the best at that,” Ahmad joked, showing a picture of himself with a mustache that might have made even Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, the legendary Air Force pilot, jealous.
Though members of the 81st FS are showing them a way of life, the Afghans are mindful they’re not trying to copy and paste what works for the U.S.
Sustainability starts in the pilot’s office: the A-29
“Everything that we do is sustainable and repeatable for the Afghan air force,” Hogan said. “We’re not trying to build mini clones of the U.S. Air Force; we’re building a sustainable Afghan air force that will last.”
“The way I describe the Super Tucano to people is that it’s a World War II fighter with a modern cockpit,” Hogan said of the A-29, which is employed by 10 other air forces around the world, mostly in Africa and Southern and Central America.
The A-29, an aircraft manufactured in Brazil and built specifically for the counterinsurgency fight, is also cost-effective.
Hogan noted that the aircraft’s characteristics include fuel efficiency, affordability, reliability and durability — all combined with its ability to loiter in the air for extensive periods of time, allowing it to support troops on the ground longer by using its two .50-caliber machine guns and variety of bombs or missiles.
History to be made
After more than 35 years of war, Hogan said he feels this is a pivotal moment in time for Afghanistan’s people.
“We’re making history, and everybody is watching,” he said. “This is the last piece of the puzzle. If we get this right … if the Afghans are able to provide close air support for the (troops) on the ground, and survive another day, they can beat the insurgency. They can enable long-term peace. Our mission here mayhave a direct impact on whether nor not we can look back on Afghanistan as a success or a failure.”
Though the Afghan pilots say they are happy to receive the training, it doesn’t come without cost.
“They’re so significantly invested in this,” Hogan said. “They’re here at great personal risk, not just for them, but for their families. They all want to get back so they can fight the insurgency and bring peace to their country.
“These are the first folks who would be hunted down by the enemy,” he said.
Ahmad knows firsthand the risks he and his fellow warriors are taking. So did his little brother, whose wife and daughter are being looked after by the major and his family. The danger didn’t stop either of them from fighting for their country, nor their two other brothers who serve in the Afghan police force and army.
“I know it’s a risky job. I’m going to be a target by my enemy,” said Ahmad, who has dreams of one day owning his own business in a peaceful Afghanistan.
He also understands to achieve that dream, he’ll first have to stand up to his enemies. Armed with the flying training from his American counterparts, he’s better equipped to do that.
“I want to go home and do something,” he said, his brown eyes filled with passion. Ahmad’s mission is simple to him: “seeing the enemy and saying, ‘I’m going to kill the enemy. Every last one of them.’”