Editor's note: Capt. Kyle Petkovsek is a Marine fighter jet pilot and a Lady's Island resident. In early April, he returned home from a six-month deployment to Afghanistan. He and Air Force Capt. Pat Killingsworth, with whom he worked closely, have agreed to share with readers of The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet portions of the journals they kept there. They have been edited slightly in some instances for clarity, but an effort was made to retain most of their original words. This is the fourth in a series of fiveinstallments, which will appear weekly in Duty & Honor. To read previous entries, go to beaufortgazette.com/marinejournal.
Just a few days into my team's mission to help train Afghan airmen, it was abundantly clear that many lack even the most basic regard for safety, protocol and logistics.
After we landed in Kandahar in a Russian-built transport plane with ill-functioning landing gear, the Afghan crew that flew it tried to leave it untended and loaded with .50-caliber ordnance while they ate lunch. Then, they tried to steer it across the runway at one of the world's busiest airfields without telling the control tower first. Then, they tried to steal the medical supplies onboard.
And here's the thing -- our real mission was to advise four helicopter crews, not the Afghans who were ostensibly taking us to them.
"Ostensibly," because we'd heard tales of their reckless flying, but we had yet to set our eyes on them. Where were those four helicopters?
Unable to link up with those crews, the first priority in Kandahar then became to find the joint operations center. There, we could tell of the Afghans' intentions to use their untamable helicopters in close air support in the battle space near Kandahar. As expected, the commanders were completely shocked by the details we provided. Their blood pressure rising with each detail, it became clear they had no intention to allow these guys to operate in their airspace.
The good news is that we had control of the Mi-35s' ammunition that had been aboard the transport plane, and we ensured it was locked down in the U.S.-controlled depot at Kandahar.
We traveled to Camp Hero to meet with Gen. Abdul Raziq Sharzai, the Kandahar air wing commander of the Afghan Air Corps, to discuss these issues, as well as plans of the detachment of the four helicopters. The general was scheduled to return from a troop visit the following day, so we settled for a visit with Col. Azimi instead.
Frankly, we would have been satisfied if he could just tell us where the heck the four choppers flew when they departed Kandahar. As expected, he knew no details of the aircraft, but he did seem receptive of our visit and thanked us for leaving our country and families behind to help his country and build his army.
This trip was my first exposure in dealing with high-level Afghan leadership, and our interpreter had another opportunity to shine and do great work. We also experienced three rocket attacks in the short time we were at Kandahar.
We eventually received word that the four Afghan helicopters we had been chasing around southern Afghanistan had put on another spectacular show of airmanship at Camp Bastion, another busy airfield. Except this time, they affected the man himself, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was traveling on a battlefield circulation in a C-12 when one of the Mi-35 helicopters again landed without clearance after circling overhead for a few minutes and jamming all air traffic. (Editor's note: McChrystal resigned from duty June 23.)
The first Mi-35 landed in the worst possible place on the airfield -- right in the middle of four parked helicopters. The skill it took to land there is impressive, however, the fact that the pilot had less than 10 feet of rotor clearance shows a complete lack of judgment.
As the Mi-35 taxied around the airfield, the other pilot maneuvered his helicopter directly into the path of Gen. McChrystal's C-12, causing its pilot to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision.
You can't make this stuff up.
At least we were back on track, now knowing the whereabouts of the Afghan helicopters.
After hearing this disturbing news, my team gathered our gear and jumped on the next flight to Camp Bastion to put a choke hold on those aircrews and regroup. We arrived in Bastion late in the evening.
The next morning, we met with the leadership to develop a plan to safely operate the Afghan aircraft among the coalition aircraft in the Bastion airspace. This plan consisted of developing a set of basic course rules that gave the Afghans an exclusive avenue of approach to the airfield.
While dealing with the airspace controllers, they continued to enlighten us to the spectacular air show of the Afghans on their arrival the day before. Just three miles to the west of the runway at Camp Bastion, there are live fire ranges for the dedicated use of artillery and surface rocket systems. This range is active from the surface to 18,000 feet above sea level, and poses a major risk to any aircraft flying through while firing is in progress.
Well, our Afghan aircrews didn't disappoint -- they flew directly through the hot ranges on their approach to Camp Bastion. Without establishing communications with the air traffic controllers and without modern GPS systems, the Afghans had no way of knowing the danger in which they were flying.
Next on the team's schedule was to go to Shorabak, an Afghan National Army base northwest of Camp Bastion. We hoped there to counsel the aircrews, the forward observer and the Air Corps leadership on the havoc they caused the past week and teach them procedures to avoid repeats. I'll never forget driving our vehicle through the gate at Shorabak and seeing the beautiful sight of the four helos we had been searching for during the past five days.
We could now embed ourselves with the aircrews and pass along as much knowledge as we could.
We all slept better that night.