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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Green Shoot Success: U.S. Army Qualifies First Afghan Pilots In-Country

U.S. Army’s choice of MD530Fs pays off as initial batch of Afghan Air Force pilots pass flight training and progress to careers flying Mi-17s

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

The MD530F was selected for its hot and high performance. Shindand Air Base sits at 3,400 feet.

Back on March 16, 2011, the Department of the Army announced that it had awarded MD Helicopters a $186-million contract to provide six MD530Fs (including critical spares) to be the Rotary Wing Primary Training Aircraft (RWPTA) in Afghanistan. The six aircraft procured for the Afghan Air Force are models s/n 0179FF through to s/n 0184FF. Included in the deal were two flight training device (FTD) simulators from Merlin Simulation based in Michigan. 

Two flight training device simulators from Merlin Simulation were part of the package.
Contracting officer, William Epps wrote of the decision: “MD Helicopters’ proposal was determined to present the offer that represented the lowest price and technically acceptable proposal to the Government and thus was selected for award.” 

The deal was brokered through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program with options for another 48 MD530Fs out to 2015. The U.S. government will continue to own and operate the six aircraft (as well as any options taken up) although a handover to the Afghan military will eventually happen.

MD530F during a morning flight.
By Dec. 13, 2011, the U.S. Army flight instructors at the Shindand Air Base had run through their acceptance checks on the six MD530F helicopters. This involved air and systems checks including onboard radios, GPS, navigation systems, rotor tracking and airworthiness. As part of the contract, MD Helicopters built the hangar facilities. Work began on September 1st and was completed in three months. The whole process of fielding the aircraft from production in Arizona to delivery in Afghanistan took less than 10 months.

The MD530Fs are being used to train ab initio Afghan Air Force pilots at the Shindand Air Base located in the western Afghanistan in Herat province, seven miles northeast of the city of Sabzwar. This is the first time Afghan helicopter pilots have been trained for 30 years and the program should lead to the Afghan Air Corps being able to train, maintain and sustain its capability without foreign military assistance. 

U.S. Army instructors Chief Warrant Officer 3 Randall Jaynes (left) and Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bouma (right) from the Army Security Assistance Training Management Organization, stand beside the first Afghan Air Force pilot candidates training on the MD530 at the Rotary Wing Flight Training program in Shindand.
Classes began in January 2012 for the first batch of potential Afghan Air Force pilots, as the aircraft became operational a couple of weeks ahead of schedule. Actual flight training began on February 21st. The initial eight-week flight screening process was conducted with the Cessna 182. This included basic aerodynamics, physiology and an introduction to flight maneuvers. Following this, the five-month Undergraduate Helicopter Pilot training course involved a mix of classroom instruction, simulator sessions and flight training in the MD530Fs.

Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bouma hails from the Army Security Assistance and Training Management Organization (USASATMO) and is the director of operations regarding the training of Afghan pilots. At Shindand his command forms part of the 444th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group (AEAG). Bouma takes up the story:

“Here’s a very basic overview of the program: Afghan officers are identified to attend flight training—generally while they are in their National Military Academy. The officers must score an 80 on their English Competency Level (ECL) exam—if not they receive additional/intensive English language tuition. Officers that achieve an 80 on their ECL come to Shindand Air Base and begin initial flight screening (IFS), which is an entry level program to identify their flight aptitude.”

After that, the course involves “seven weeks of academics and 33 hours of flight training in a Cessna 182. Once they have completed IFS they have the option to select either the rotary wing track or continue in the fixed wing track,” continues Bouma. “Our rotary wing track is built off the IERW model used at Fort Rucker, where students receive approximately 180 hours instruction in the MD530 then move to the Mi-17 for their advanced aircraft instruction before joining a line unit.”

Bouma considers the MD530F to be “a very agile and forgiving helicopter and the perfect platform for initial rotor wing flight training in Afghanistan.” With Shindand air base located at 3,400 feet above sea level, a helicopter with good “hot and high” performance was one of the central requirements. In the cockpit, the instrument panel has been minimized to include only the essential instrumentation and navigation systems—a configuration that better suits the trainee Afghan pilots.

While the training could not be compared to the intensity at which U.S. Army aircrew are trained at Fort Rucker, Ala., Bouma considers that the Afghan pilots would require around 15-20 hours on the MD530F to show real progress. “With our assistance we can help the Afghans build a program that they can take sole ownership of in just a few years,” he said.

The helicopter is powered by a 650 shp Allison 250-C30 engine and its high altitude capability is largely due to the fact that its main-rotor blades are six inches longer than those on the MD500E. The tailboom is extended eight inches and the tail rotor blades are longer to contribute more thrust and directional control at altitude. This performance is likely to be a factor in MD Helicopters’ other FMS sales of the MD530F to the Saudi National Guard and the Jordanian armed forces who have placed orders for 12 and six helicopters, respectively.

Matt Swisher, director of military programs for MD, said that hot and high performance was what clinched the deal with the U.S. Army. U.S. Special Forces already operates a similar type of aircraft. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) currently use the AH-6 Little Bird, which was based on the MD500 series. The newest version of this, the MH-6M, is based on the MD530F.

By September 2012 the objective is to at least double the number of trainees to between 8-16 students per class. A course for Afghan maintainers will begin in January 2013 with MD contracted to train up to 15 nations per year.

MD Helicopters has 13 of its own people on the ground with the USASATMO team. Other than daily maintenance checks, there are also 100 and 300-hour checks on each aircraft. MD manages the maintenance and supply chain itself, outside of the U.S. Army supply chain. “We recently shipped an engine home for warranty repair,” Swisher said, adding that the initial spares package was robust and the system is running well. Every two weeks a bulk shipment of parts is sent out through civilian-operated DHL or FedEx services to Khandahar. Once there, it is loaded onto trucks and sent to Shindand. Swisher pointed out that this had been a manageable system, although it could be susceptible to a variety of influencing factors en route.

The annual operational availability rate for the MD530F fleet has been in excess of 90 percent and in early August the six aircraft had logged more than 1,300 flight hours between them. “They are flying around 30 hours per airframe per month,” said Swisher, although he added the contract was designed to support the aircraft for up to 55 hours per month, allowing for the expansion of the training program.

“This contract has firmly re-established MD Helicopter with the U.S. government and Army as a training aircraft of choice—there is not another in its class,” said Swisher.

“This has been an incredibly rewarding experience,” Bouma said following the graduation of four of the pilots at the end of June. They will now progress to a six-week Mi-17 conversion and advanced training course before becoming operational with the Afghan Air Force.

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