Afghan pilots ready for flight
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- When the Afghan Air Force UH-60 Black Hawk crews conducted their first operational mission in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in May 2018, it marked the beginning of a new age for the Afghan Air Force.

The mission, which was in support of the Afghan provincial elections, took place just one day after the first 31 Afghan Air Force members graduated from mission qualification training, making them the first fully qualified UH-60 Black Hawk Afghan air crews.

To achieve this accomplishment, the 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group partnered with the Security Assistance Training Management Organization to successfully train the first cohort of Afghanistan Air Force pilots. The training resulted in AAF capabilities to not only fly and maintain but also conduct combat operations using the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Training the Afghan pilots is part of the Security Assistance Command foreign military sales case to deliver the UH-60 helicopters to Afghanistan.

SATMO facilitates deployment of training teams throughout the world to provide training tailored to a country for equipment purchased through foreign military sales as part of the total package approach. SATMO provides training, financial and FMS case management services and oversight in foreign military sales, Foreign Military Financing and Build Partner Capacity programs of the Department of Defense and Department of State.

"It means a lot to be one of the first people to graduate," the air mission commander for the first Afghan operational mission said. "We feel ready and are so excited, happy and proud to be part of this."

According to Brig. Gen. Phillip Stewart, Train, Advise, Assist Command-Air commander, the introduction of the Black Hawks and the graduates themselves represent a shift to a new generation of leaders, selected based on merit and professionalism, and entrusted to help create a modern and sustainable Afghan force.

"The introduction of the UH-60 marks the dawning of a new age for the Afghan Air Force," Stewart said. "All of those who graduated mission qualification school have shown tremendous hard work and dedication. Not only are these Black Hawks and students the physical embodiment of progress, but they also represent a generational shift from the older Soviet-trained forces to the younger and more progressive Western-trained and educated fleet."

The UH-60 will enhance the AAF helicopter fleet and eventually replace the capabilities currently provided by the Mi-17, which is no longer a sustainable platform. Its implementation is expected to ease the burden on the aging Mi-17 fleet and transition the Afghan Air Force into a modern and sustainable platform for the future.

According to Maj. Gen. Mohammad Shoaib, Afghan Air Force commander, the Black Hawks are ideal for Afghanistan because they are suitable for the terrain and weather and they are more modern technology.

The first UH-60 Black Hawks arrived in Afghanistan seven months ago, allowing the program to begin 18 months ahead of the initial schedule. The Afghan Air Force has 27 of these aircraft in their fleet.

Future UH-60 training will take place at Fort Rucker, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates, and Kandahar Airfield. It is expected that more than 30 crews will be qualified by fighting season 2019.

Over the next five years, the Afghan Air Force plans to add over 100 more UH-60 variants to their inventory, allowing for increased aerial fires and lift capabilities thus building a stronger, more capable force.

"Afghan Air Force modernization is essential for increasing competence, instruction and education with merit-based advancement of its best leaders," Air Force Col. Christopher Goodyear, 738th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group commander, said. "The Afghan Air Force has come a very long way in a very short time; this mission is further proof of the air crew's hard work and dedication."

Editor's note: Debra Valine, Security Assistance Command Public Affairs, contributed to this story.