A gray C-130 Hercules flies low over the runway at Kabul airport. The four-engine cargo plane then climbs and banks to the left. Moments later, it lands and passes under the spray of two fire trucks before stopping in front of a crowd of officials.
This ceremony last month marked the official transfer of the first two C-130s from the U.S. to the Afghan air force.
In the ongoing war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rugged terrain and under-developed road network make military aircraft essential for everything from troop movement to supplying bases to evacuating casualties. But the fledgling Afghan air force is short on pilots, planes and spare parts. And NATO says it will take at least three more years to build up the force.
U.S. and other Western forces entered Afghanistan in 2001, yet the training of Afghan forces was slow to develop. And this effort focused initially on developing the Afghan army and police, since the immediate concern was fighting the Taliban, al-Qaida and other militants on the ground.
NATO's air training mission began in 2007, and the new Afghan Air Force was officially launched in June of 2010. Given the extensive technical and literacy skills required by pilots and technicians, NATO says the force will not be at full capacity until 2017.
Take the C-130s, for instance. The Afghan force currently has only two pilots certified to fly them, says U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John Michel, who oversees NATO's Afghan air force training mission. One of them was a co-pilot during last month's ceremony.
"They're trained by our standards, they are trained at Little Rock Air Force base, which is the same place I send our C-130 pilots," he says.
Michel says these two planes nearly double the cargo capacity of the Afghan air force. Until now, it has relied on small, single-engine Cessnas. The Afghans also have a small fleet of Russian-built Mi-17 and Mi-35 helicopters.
Next year, the force will receive two more C-130s, as well as propeller-engine attack aircraft. But it will still be a fraction of the air power NATO has deployed in Afghanistan.
NATO is currently making a big push to train Afghan flight crews as well as Afghan instructors who can run the training after the current NATO mission ends next year.
Afghans Taking Over Training Reins
In a cold, dark hangar on the Afghan base at Kabul airport, an Afghan crew is training in a helicopter flight simulator. There are two American Army mentors here, but the instructor is Afghan.
"Last week we started our training with the new crew, air assault training, alone without the mentor," says Maj. Farid, who, like many Afghans, goes by one name.
He says that day's scenario is to depart Kabul, fly to a base to pick up combat troops and deliver them to a commander on the battlefield at an exact time.
"So, we are looking for good crew coordination. They make a decision on what time we will take off, the heading, the fuel," he says.
U.S. Army Capt. Brandt Anderson, one of the program mentors running the simulator, says they are gradually increasing the difficulty of the training exercises.
"Today, we're going to reduce the visibility, start increasing the winds and seeing how they're able to respond once they take off and realize their time isn't exactly going according to plan," says Anderson.
I climb in the back of the simulator as the crew finishes entering the GPS coordinates. The screen in front shows the runway of Kabul airport. They begin to taxi, then lift of and bank to the left over the city.
Outside the simulator, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Kyle Cheeseman sits in front of a row of monitors and tinkers with wind settings. At one point, he accidentally enters a 100-knot headwind instead of 10 knots.
The crew is able to make the appropriate adjustments and completes the mission on time.
Ongoing NATO Support Needed
After the simulation exercise, Farid conducts the debrief as the Americans sit in the back of the room. Farid says the crew did a good job, but they need to vary their routes and stick to their flight paths.
"We still have a lot of challenges ahead of us," says Capt. Ahmad Fawad Haidary, one of the student pilots. He says the Afghan air force needs ongoing support from NATO.
"We have good pilots trying to build a country, trying to build the air force," he says. "But we need aircraft, we need spare parts, we need logistics."
The Afghan air force regularly has to cancel missions because aircraft are out of service. Even at full capacity, they can't meet the demands for troop movements, medevac and delivering supplies.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Ken Wilsbach is the commander of U.S. and NATO air forces in Afghanistan.
"Developing an air force takes time," he says. "Keep in mind that just over a year ago this air force was grounded for safety violations and not following the rules."
Wilsbach says the force has turned things around over the last year, and they are flying more and more independent missions, including 460 casualty evacuations last quarter.
But he warns that the progress will be in jeopardy if the U.S. and Afghan governments fail to reach an agreement that would allow U.S. trainers to remain in the country after 2014.