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First A-29 Afghan pilots graduate, ready for combat

MOODY AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFNS) -- A new era for the Afghan air force began Dec. 18, when the 81st Fighter Squadron graduated the first class of A-29 Super Tucano combat-ready attack pilots at Moody Air Force Base.

"The extraordinary dedication of these pilots and the sacrifices these graduates have made will help establish a secure, stable and unified country," said Col. John Nichols, the 14th Flying Training Wing commander. "They are enabling the future of Afghanistan, a future that will be decided by the Afghans themselves."

Even though the 81st FS was reactivated in January 2015, the students began their classroom training in February and launched on their first A-29 training sorties in March.

"I stood on this stage 11 months ago to reactivate this perilous squadron," Nichols said. "We had three planes, a handful of motivated Airmen and no students. Now less than a year later, we are graduating our first class."

According to Nichols, this graduation is the first step in fulfilling the requirement from the International Security Assistance Force to conduct training outside of Afghanistan. These pilots are the first of 30 who will be trained by the 81st FS over the next three years.

"We are here this morning to graduate eight Afghan patriots who will execute a vitally important mission," Nichols added. "That mission, simply stated, is to help build the future of Afghanistan. This graduation marks the first step in this monumental undertaking."

After about 337 training days, the pilots are ready just in time as the Afghan air force's current light air support aircraft, the Mi-35 attack helicopter, reaches the end of its service life in January 2016.

"I'm just so proud of the Afghan pilots and even prouder of the instructors who were able to make them fighter pilots in less than a year," said Maj. Gen. James Hecker, the 19th Air Force commander. "(Pilot training takes) two to three years depending on which aircraft they are going to but they had to push it up because they need to get over there and get in the fight.

"When they get back there, we know that there is an ongoing fight that is mainly U.S. led, as far as in the air," Hecker added. "Now they are going to be up in the air with us helping their Afghan soldiers who are on the ground."

Although the graduation marks the end of the Afghan students' training journey, the mission will continue through advisory support in Afghanistan.

"Today does not mark the end, but the beginning of our continued friendship between the 81st Fighter Squadron and the 355th Fighter Squadron," said Lt. Col. Jeffrey Hogan, the 81st FS commander. "Please know that we are shoulder to shoulder with you and we look forward to many years of working together. Soon we will be flying together over the skies of your homeland. Shortly thereafter, you will be in combat defending your nation but most importantly, you will defend that soldier or commando on the ground."

As the ceremony came to a close, Nichols left the graduates with a few parting words.

"To those charged with securing the skies over Afghanistan, I congratulate you," Nichols said. "You have honored your country through your selfless actions, you have honored your families through your perseverance and the future of both will be better because of your dedication.

"You will now have a powerful vote in the governance of your country through the air arm of Afghanistan's defense forces," Nichols added. "We all want to improve the world for our family, our children, and our grandchildren ... it is clear to me that you are no different."