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ANG air advisors building Afghanistan Air Force one flyer at a time

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. John E. Hillier
  • Air National Guard Readiness Center Public Affairs
It's a simple meal of stewed beef and onions, naan bread, and rice. Or maybe it's sharing a pot of tea and talking about family. Moments like these are not often what comes to mind when looking for milestones to celebrate, but for the U.S. Air National Guard C-130H Hercules aircraft instructors and their Afghanistan Air Force students, they represent the backbone of the partnership between the two nations, and the progress made in developing the Afghan air force's airlift capability.

These ANG Airmen, along with operator instructors from the Air Force Reserve Command and coalition partners, make up the Train, Advise, Assist Command - Air's (TAAC-Air) 538th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron. Over the next five years, the Air National Guard is expected to send several dozen C-130H instructors to TAAC-Air to train Afghanistan Air Force pilots and aircrew.  Additionally, Guard Airmen will help the Afghans develop policies and procedures to establish functioning aviation squadrons.

"The advisor mission is less about flying ability, although that did come into play, but more about building relationships with a foreign partner," said Maj. Chase Bodenhausen, a Missouri ANG C-130H instructor pilot. "I think the biggest challenge was learning a new mission unlike anything that I ever imagined I would do.  We sat down almost daily with our Afghan partners and had tea, talked about our families and work and such. Our mission was two-fold.  We assisted the Afghans on missions for a common goal and we trained Afghans in every crew position to be able to conduct these missions without our assistance.  It is difficult to conduct these types of missions with a fully-qualified U.S. Air Force crew, and we were conducting the same missions while training the Afghans."

This requirement came to the ANG and AFRC as the regular Air Force began transitioning from C-130H squadrons to C-130J squadrons, explained Maj. Jeffrey Cretz, ANG C-130 functional area manager.

"When the shift happened, we had to come up with a plan for how we were going to keep training Afghan air force C-130H aircrew members," said Cretz. "Even though the H model and J model are both C-130s, they are fundamentally two different airplanes with different training programs and crew compositions. Because a majority of U.S. C-130Hs reside in the Air Reserve Component, the ANG and AFRC stepped up and began filling the requirement."

"Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, our ANG director at the time, indicated that it was important for the ANG to remain relevant, accessible, and on equal footing with the Active Component," said Cretz. "The ANG and the Reserves are best suited to do this mission, because we have the H-model aircraft and the instructors to provide the training. Additionally, when our Guard or Reserve instructors show up in theater, they have been through the same training and have completed the same pre-deployment requirements as any of the advisors before them."

TAAC-Air is based in Kabul and faces many challenges inherent to working in a joint deployed environment, but the ANG Airmen say that it just makes the rewards greater when they overcome these obstacles.

"As an Instructor, this was my opportunity to get back to the basics of our 'airland' mission, meaning we deal with transporting equipment and passengers," said Master Sgt. Christopher Coarse, a Delaware ANG C-130H Instructor Loadmaster. "Generally, when we instruct at home we're doing indoctrination training for a fresh Airman right after technical training, something airdrop related, or a requalification for someone who is non-current. Here, the students fly the airland mission right from the start. This means the instructors and the students have to be on our toes all of the time."

Coarse says that in this mission, he has seen a number of situations that ANG aircrews don't typically encounter. Instructors have to "professionally deal with all of the Afghan-specific cultural and logistical issues and our students get an eye full."

Other challenges faced by ANG Airmen require ingenuity and flexibility when their equipment or situations turn out to be different than what was expected. Bodenhausen recalls when his team realized their training aircraft required an additional operator.

"For these airplanes to be all-weather day and night airplanes, someone has to sit at the navigator seat to run the radar," said Bodenhausen. "It normally takes over a year to get a U.S. navigator through the training pipeline. We had two choices: we could designate the airplane as a fair-weather, day-only airplane, or we could develop a training syllabus and train pilots on how to operate the radar to ensure that the C-130s could be all-weather, day and night airplanes. The 'Third Pilot' training we accomplished mirrored U.S. training syllabi and we train the Afghans to U.S. standards. The highly intelligent instructor navigators from the ANG and AFRC designed the syllabus and qualified every single pilot in that seat to accomplish this requirement."

The TAAC-Air mission requires a much longer deployment cycle than what is typical for conventional ANG deployments, and with that come higher demands on families and loved ones. Members can be away from home for up to 10 months when all pre-deployment training is factored in. The payoff for the ANG advisors is when their mentorship and instruction helps their Afghan students become a robust air force by gaining capabilities and developing a self-sustaining training program.

"I think this mission will broaden the careers of those members who participate, because it is so different from our normal operational sphere," said Capt. Dave McNally, a Nevada ANG Instructor Pilot. "We are building an air force from scratch here; every day our input is being directly felt by the organization. Individual Airmen have the opportunity to really grow as instructors and leaders in this environment."

"The Afghans had an issue one day where they were unable to deliver cargo because they went into an airfield that had no forklift to offload pallets and were unable to offload the cargo by hand," said Coarse. "When they got back, it was discussed in the squadron on how to solve this problem. The solution was to teach the Afghans a technique called 'combat offload' which uses a sudden acceleration from the aircraft to cause the pallet to quickly roll out the back of the airplane and slam onto the ground. A training plan and a rough timeline were generated, and everything quickly fell into place with the help of several multi-national partners."

"This mission is a series of building blocks," Coarse explained. "My experience was different than my predecessor and will be much different than my replacement, but we're constantly being reminded that we're building the Afghanistan Air Force. We helped the Afghans gain a new capability. Once the Afghan instructors are trained, they will train other Afghans in this capability."

Bodenhausen praised the students he instructed at TAAC-Air and the success of the upgrade programs in all crew positions developed by ANG and AFRC instructors.

"The Afghan pilots and crewmembers that I flew with over there are very intelligent and highly motivated," he said. "We didn't upgrade them because we had to; they were ready to assume those roles and we trusted them to make the correct decisions.  That stuff wasn't taken lightly, especially in that flying environment. But, the faster that Afghan operators were qualified, the faster more Americans could return home.  We pushed every day to get the Afghans qualified and self-sustainable so that they could take over more of the flying operations."