That's been true for some Afghan Air Force pilot candidates in a NATO program run by Raytheon.
“We’ve had trainees who have never driven a car…some who have never even ridden a bike before,” said Eric Morgan, Raytheon’s program manager for the Afghan Air Force pilot program. “We’ve had to teach them both, since learning how to ride a bike and drive a car teaches you how to steer.”
U.S. military and NATO allies train, advise and assist Afghan National Defense and Security Forces through Operation Resolute Support. Part of that mission is a pilot training program for Afghan officers that Raytheon manages for the U.S. Army's Warfighter Field Operations Customer Support program.
Since 2010, Raytheon has been training Afghan AF pilots at two schoolhouses — one in Central Europe and another on the Arabian Peninsula — teaching the aviators both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft flight. And with the Afghan Air Force receiving 159 refurbished UH-60 Blackhawks from the United States this year, Raytheon is planning to open a third flight school to teach pilots to fly the U.S. Army’s primary, medium-lift, utility helicopter.
“We teach them more than just flying; we teach them life skills — things we take for granted, like getting a cab or deciphering a train schedule,” Morgan said. “We integrate the students into the community and immerse them in the culture, assigning them mentors who guide them outside of the classroom. They call us ‘big brothers.’”
So far, more than 100 Afghan pilots have earned their wings through the program, with over 175 students now in various phases of training at both locations. The course begins with students improving their English with a focus on flight terminology, since that's the international language of aviation.
Students in the rotary-wing track then train on a Bell civilian helicopter and the MD-500 to prepare for military missions, where they'll fly MD-530 Cayuse Warrior attack helicopters. The fixed-wing pilots train on Cessna civilian aircraft to prepare for the military version of that aircraft, or transition to the A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft and C-130 Hercules transport. About 90 percent of students graduate and continue on to advanced training in the United States and Afghanistan.
“Most find the instrument flight training phase the hardest,” Morgan said. “In bad weather, you are unable to look out the aircraft and get your bearings. You’ve got to rely on your instruments, which requires a lot of problem-solving and math skills. Their mentors help them if they’re having trouble during any phase of the training, though.”
The program prepares pilots for the Afghan Air Force, teaching them to operate independently, defend their country and fight against one of the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world.
“Not only are we rebuilding a country’s Air Force, but we’re making a difference in these young people’s lives,” said Morgan, a former U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilot. “I know what it’s like to get your wings and go back to serve their country. It gives you a great sense of accomplishment and pride.”