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Air advisors reduce mid-air risks

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (AFNS) -- Many Afghan helicopter pilots have years of flying experience, so when 19 hazardous traffic reports were recorded in January and February at Jalalabad; Train, Assist, Advise Command (TAAC) air advisors were not only surprised but concerned, and knew the issue had to be addressed immediately.

“(The situation) presented a major collision hazard to the U.S. and NATO helicopters and fixed-wing traffic that flows in and out each day,” said Capt. Benjamin Sherman, TAAC-Air flight safety advisor. “So we went there with the knowledge that there was an issue, but we were unsure as to the root cause.”

Upon arrival, the mobile advising team discovered the problem was not a lack of flying skills, but rather a communication obstacle.

“The Afghan pilots at Jalalabad are very skilled aviators; however, they lacked English comprehension, and specifically, aviation English,” Sherman said. “Critical instructions such as ‘hold short’ or runway directions were not understood by the Afghan aviators. It was clear that the Afghans were not disregarding instructions intentionally; they just didn’t comprehend what was being asked of them.”

Though English is the international standard for air traffic control communications, many legacy pilots learned to fly when this standard was not enforced. They therefore, didn’t understand many aviation terms used today. This was potentially disastrous because of Jalalabad’s very busy airspace, which is shared by both coalition and Afghan aircraft.

“At any given time there could be 15 or more aircraft on frequency requesting various different instructions from the air traffic controller such as routine departures and arrivals, urgent MEDEVAC’s, immediate departure for troops in contact, training pilots practicing approaches, or simply requesting taxi instructions down the runway to refueling points or parking,” said Timothy Vanderhorst, a Jalalabad airfield manager and air traffic controller. “When everyone understands the plan the controller has and follows the instructions, the traffic flows in and out of the airfield smoothly and efficiently. But the second you add an aircraft that cannot understand the plan or even communicate to the controller where he is and what he wants to do, the situation gets chaotic.”

To improve the situation, TAAC-Air advisors partnered with the controllers to develop a week-long aviation English class. The course covered common phrases and situations the Afghan pilots might encounter.

“With the recent arrival of the mobile advisory team, there have been some noticeable changes in the communications and adherence to instructions from the AAF helicopter pilots. The pilots seem to better understand the controllers, and if they do not, they make the effort to ask the controller to clarify the instructions, which is great,” Vanderhorst said. This is not a process that will happen overnight of course, but it is a step in the right direction. The AAF (Afghan Air Force) pilots are great aviators, and it is a pleasure working with them day-to-day and supporting them in the advancement of their aviation knowledge and abilities.”

Though the TAAC-Air advisors had to leave after the week-long class, American aviators, now knowing the challenge, have continued weekly classes to help their Afghan partners. In addition, TAAC-Air advisors intend to conduct follow-up ground classes and flying training to solidify what the Afghan pilots have already learned.

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