HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan --
Three pilots from the Afghan National Air Force completed a first in history for the Afghan provincial elections here Sept. 14.
Three Mi-17 “Hip” helicopters delivered voting ballots and election personnel for the upcoming Afghan elections to the city of Musa Quelah with the aid of two Mk9(A) Lynx helicopters with the United Kingdom’s 659 Squadron, Army Air Corps.
The Lynx were there for support and to serve as overwatch while the Hips picked up and delivered the ballots and election personnel from Lashkar Gah to Musa Quelah, explained British Warrant Officer II Jon Earp, a Lynx pilot with the Lynx Detachment of 659 Squadron, which is part of the Joint Aviation Group, currently serving under the U.S. Marine Corps’ 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward).
“[This mission] signifies a massive step forward; I was here three years ago when we were delivering their election materials; there was no Afghan involvement what so ever,” Earp said.
“However, three years later, the Afghans are flying their own election papers to their own people. That, as far as I’m concerned, is a step forward and a step in the right direction.”
Completing this mission was more than just a step forward for the Afghan pilots; it was also a successful learning experience.
“These types of missions allow us to teach them to be self-sufficient,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Prejean, the commanding officer of 441st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron and a mentor to the Afghan pilots. “Elections are an important process in this country. It allows the people to do something they don’t have a history of doing. They get a say in their own country and government. Doing this teaches [the Afghan pilots] that when we leave they have the ability to accomplish missions required by their government on their own.”
Prejean has been working as a mentor for the Afghan pilots for approximately nine months and has seen vast improvements in their flight capabilities.
“They have improved leaps and bounds,” said Prejean, a native of Baton Rouge, La.
The Hips can now carry rocket pods, which add to their flight capabilities, and they are learning how to do external cargo lifts, Prejean explained.
Training is not always easy for the coalition mentors and Afghan pilots, but they work together through an interpreter to accomplish their missions.
“The mentors are seasoned and experienced instructors,” Prejean said. “What we have right now is an American mentor in the left seat [of the helicopter] and an Afghan pilot in the right seat. Instruction is going on at all times, even during real world missions.”
“There is a flight engineer sitting in between the two pilots,” he said. “His job is to make sure the helicopter is running smoothly. In the back, there is a crew chief whose job is to ensure that the cargo doesn’t shift and people are seated safely. Then we have an interpreter.”
Even with the language barrier, the crews managed to pull off the election support mission with no trouble at all, Prejean explained.
“It can be challenging with the language barrier, but [the Afghan pilots] performed admirably,” Earp said. “I think they did a valiant job, all things considered, in what was indeed a challenging environment.”
Partnering with other coalition forces to complete missions like this, delivering the ballots, is showing Afghan military personnel they are learning the professional way of completing tasks, explained Prejean.
The provincial elections are scheduled for Sept. 18 at various locations throughout the region, but ANAF pilots continue to support other missions and gain the experience they need to support their country. Each day, Afghan forces take another step toward taking responsibility and keeping the peace in their homelands.