Earning their wings

Female Afghan military pilots soaring into history in the US

August 4, 2011 

  • Top of their class

    The four Afghan women were the only females in their graduating class of 35, and they began training last May in Afghanistan. They got the hang of the lessons quickly. The women scored the highest marks for the first couple months before the men, by then getting competitive, started catching up, according to British Royal Air Force Group Capt. Adrian Hill, deputy commander of the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan.

    Challenges

    Piloting a helicopter might present some unique challenges to Afghan women. Hill said many of the nation's women are short and have short arms, which prevents them from reaching the switches in the cockpit. Hill said pilots must have arms of a certain length, eliminating "quite a few" of the females.

For women in Afghanistan, said Masooma Hussaini, it's not like "it was in Taliban times." Her sisters are in school, women work in offices and, by next year, Hussani and three other young women could be among their country's first females piloting military helicopters.

Their training in the U.S. is significant. The Afghan military has a small but growing female rank, yet the skies are almost an exclusive province for men, except for one Afghan woman trained in the Soviet era.

Afghanistan remains a male-dominated culture -- Afghan President Harmid Karzai spoke out as recently as last fall about women in his country still being oppressed. Hussaini, a second lieutenant, acknowledges that some Afghan men think "it's not good" that women are breaking new ground in the military, but she and her colleagues said Wednesday that they weren't joining the Afghan Air Force for themselves.

"We're going to open the door for ladies in Afghanistan," said second Lt. Sourya Saleh. "It's a big deal for us to open this door for the others. That these other ladies who have the dream and think they can't do it, we want to show them."

The four women, all in their 20s, arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio last week to continue their training. They'll stay in Texas until they master English -- the international language for aviation -- and are scheduled to transfer to Alabama early next year for actual hands-on piloting.

By September 2011, the women could have their wings.

"We are just at the beginning right now in terms of what's happening in Afghanistan, in terms of gender integration. But this is a huge step," said Col. Eric Axelbank, commander of the 37th Training Wing at Lackland. "Having female officers who will become pilots, a traditionally male-dominated field in the Middle East, is groundbreaking."

The U.S. is among 14 nations advising the Afghan Air Force, which has about 4,700 members and more than 50 aircraft. The plan is for the Afghan Air Force to be self-operational by 2016, according to British Royal Air Force Group Capt. Adrian Hill, deputy commander of the NATO Air Training Command-Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is set to nearly triple its aircraft by 2016. The women are being trained on Mi-17 helicopters, which represent the bulk of the country's current stable of aircraft. The Afghan Air Force also has 11 two-engine cargo planes and nine Mi-35 attack helicopters.

According to Saleh, the opportunity for her and the other women came when ads in Afghanistan newspapers encouraged women to enlist in the military and join the Afghan Air Force.

"They are very brave. Their families are all for it," Hill said. "Their families are strongly behind them. In a society like (theirs), if they didn't have the sponsorship of their families, they wouldn't be here."

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