AOPA Pilot Magazine
February 2005 Volume 48 / Number 2
GA in Afghanistan
A Cessna 210 provides aid to a war-torn country
For the first time in several weeks I'm in a familiar place, sitting behind the panel of a Cessna. But unlike the myriad Cessnas I'm used to, this one is unique.
"Kabul Ground, good morning, Papa-Tango-Zero-Three."
"Papa-Tango-Zero-Three, good morning, go ahead."
The accented voice over the radio quickly reminds me of where I am and why this airplane is special.
"Kabul Ground, Papa-Tango-Zero-Three, startup for Faizabad."
Hmmm, this is the first time I've ever heard a pilot ask for permission to start the engine, but many things are different here in Afghanistan. It's 8:45 a.m. and Jim Keech, the airplane's pilot (and mechanic), is given permission to start and cranks the Continental TSIO-520CE to life.
As he calls ground for permission to taxi, I look around at a melting pot of aircraft in a country that for centuries has been a melting pot of humanity.
Behind us is a Boeing 727 from Nigeria that hasn't moved for a long time. To our right is a lineup that includes an old Airbus A300 donated to Afghanistan's national airline, Ariana, which is being repaired on the tarmac, a pair of all-white Antonov An-72s from Estonia with tall UN (United Nations) letters on its side, along with a mix of An-24s, -28s, and -32s from Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, again belonging to Ariana. To our left sits a Learjet 60 from United Arab Emirates along with a lineup of King Airs from South Africa, some with UN markings, and one, a Beech 1900, with the Afghan Wireless logo on its tail. I'm told it's the corporate airplane for the country's biggest mobile-phone company.
Amidst this interesting collection of kerosene burners sits the only piston-powered airplane known in all of Afghanistan, the Cessna T210R that has just been cleared to taxi. As we begin to roll, Keech explains he's been given a 15-minute window for his departure, which was planned days ago with the U.S. military (it has oversight of Afghanistan's air traffic) headquarters in Qatar. If he's late, he has to reschedule another slot with Qatar. Today's mission is to deliver medicine and doctors to a remote village with a rugged mountain strip as well as pick up some passengers near the border of Tajikistan.
Keech is sort of from Pennsylvania, although he and his family most recently lived in Nigeria, where he flew a 206 for more than a decade. He flies for a nonprofit California-based organization called Pactec. He's a humanitarian pilot. Pactec, along with its partner in Afghanistan, Virginia-based AirServ, provides transportation for aid organizations and other NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) helping to rebuild this war-torn nation.
As we roll down the taxiway for Runway 29 the melting pot continues. A pair of Apache helicopters belonging to the International Security Assistance Force sits behind barricades near some Turkish Blackhawks. A big Ilyushin IL-76 flying for Uzbekistan Airways is unloading passengers at the terminal and Lockheed C-130s belonging to the Swedish and U.S. militaries await their next cargo duties. Ignoring all the aircraft are several men dressed in long, blue, blast-proof aprons still clearing sections of the airport of the ubiquitous land mines and live ordnance that litter much of the country.
"Papa-Tango-Zero-Three, line up and wait Runway Two Niner."
Once lined up, Keech goes over his rigorous takeoff checklist including several emergency scenarios (engine out, de-mining worker walking across runway...).
"Papa-Tango-Zero-Three, wind is 330 degrees at three knots, cleared for takeoff, Runway Two Niner." Moments later Keech and I are airborne with the medicine destined for Yawan, a village several-days drive away, but only an hour or so by air. Immediately the hulks of wrecked aircraft can be seen around the airport as well as bomb craters from the years of shelling that Kabul International Airport withstood. We contact the U.S. base at Baghram, just north of Kabul, letting ATC know our plan.
The radio chatter, mainly UN aircraft, catches my ear, especially the call "United flight..." and an aircraft identifying itself as "Hooter...." These are contractors said to be working for a certain Virginia-based government agency — Langley — not the restaurant chain. A slight Southern drawl comes over the radio. "Papa-Tango-Zero-Three, Baghram Approach, frequency change approved, good day." We've been cleared to Faizabad, where we'll pick up the doctors who will deliver the medicine. "We're basically on our own now," Keech says as the turbocharged engine pulls us into thinning air.
In a country torn apart by more than 20 years of war, in a place where very few even get a chance to see its beauty from an airline window, Keech and I are now flying on our own, in a single-engine Cessna, VFR, largely able to choose our own path weaving through the towering peaks and deep valleys. Keech easily has the greatest flying freedom of any pilot in the country. Of course we can be assured that while they might not be talking to us, there are eyes following our blip on a radar screen somewhere.
As we climb to 15,000 feet to cross the Salang Pass west of Kabul, the massive expanse of the city spreads throughout the valley. Homes and other buildings built of mud bricks blend into their tan desert surroundings. The haze of dust and pollution that enshrouds the capital slowly dissipates and gives way to a brightening blue sky and mountains in every direction, whose clarity sharpens with every foot we gain. We're going to be crossing the Hindu Kush, a range at the western end of the Himalayas that rises to well over 20,000 feet. "The short ones here are 16,000," Keech explains. "One thing about flying a single-engine aircraft over the Hindu Kush is your emergency training; you're always thinking about where you're going if your engine quits." Looking down to the heavily eroded mountainsides below, no such sites jump out at me.
As we pass over Baghram, the famed Panjshir Valley extends off the right wing. This is the one valley where the Mujahadeen managed to keep out both Soviet and Taliban invasions during the past 20-plus years. They eventually became the Northern Alliance that aided the United States in the fight against the Taliban. Crossing Salang Pass we descend down to 13,000 feet, flying past snow-covered peaks and small plateaus, dotted with footprints and paths showing signs of people living in this harsh alpine environment. As we turn north, maintaining our altitude, the terrain rises and falls below. One moment we're buzzing over fields and ridges less than 1,000 feet below; seconds later the ground plummets to the valley floor where a small village sits at the mouth of a canyon. As I strain my eyes to make out the houses, up rises the terrain as quickly as it disappeared and we buzz over the head of a man herding goats across a steep, barren hillside.
Our first stop, Faizabad, is a small town in the northern part of Afghanistan. It's the provincial capital and has one of the few nondirt strips in the country. As we touch down, loud buzzing and vibrations announce a Soviet-built, steel-grate runway that feels like we're landing on the rumble strips on the side of a highway.
We're met by the doctors who will be flying the next leg to Yawan with us. One appears a bit timid to fly and has a question for Keech. "Of all the airports in Afghanistan, which is the most difficult?"
"Well...." Keech says, sensing some trepidation. After a pause he tactfully dances around the question with the skill of a politician. "Yawan is the most fun." The doctor seems to realize that the most fun for a pilot isn't necessarily the most fun for the passenger. Then we get the news on the satellite phone; the recent rains have softened the field. Keech asks the caller to drive the truck down the runway to see how much the wheels sink in. Yawan will be the most fun indeed.
Pactec has been operating in Afghanistan since 1998, during the Taliban regime. Eventually flights were restricted, but since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, Pactec and AirServ have been operating a heavy schedule throughout the country and the region. They currently operate three King Air 200s. And, of course, there's the 210. In fact, the 210 is responsible for giving the whole operation a home at the airport.
Once, during Taliban times, a truck backed into the airplane while it was parked on the ground. John Woodberry, the current country director for Pactec, was the pilot back then and he drove out to the airplane to inspect the damage, which was limited to a crumpled wing tip. The Taliban insurgent asked if he wanted them to execute the person who hit the airplane. Woodberry made sure no harm was done to the man, insisting it must have been an accident. Years later, after the Taliban was gone, he was busy trying to negotiate for some ramp space at the airport. Knowing how challenging it can be to deal with the many tiers of government, he wasn't optimistic. But once the airport official in charge of ramp space found out Pactec was looking for space, he gave them a prime location. "We got the best real estate on the ramp," Woodberry says. "Four spots and space for the hangar. And we pay no rental or landing fees." Turns out the official was the guy who had backed into the 210 years earlier — and whom Woodberry had saved from harm.
A short drive from the airport (assuming no traffic), Pactec and AirServ's main building serves as office, ticket counter, radio center, and pilot planning area. On a bookshelf in one room sits Jeppesen charts for the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and Eurasia. Maps on the walls include a simple National Geographic map of the region, a detailed map of Kabul, and a map with grease-pencil lines showing routes and other important information such as the mortar firing area northwest of the city. Green dots on another map show airports; blue dots are Cessna-only airports; red dots are the big fields with fuel (only Kabul in the east and Herat in the west); and white dots indicate in-flight reporting stations. On the notam board near the ticket counter are simple notes for a few airports. For Qala-I-Naw in the western part of the country: "No straight-in approaches! Security forces don't like it!" A similar reminder for Bamiyan, home to the massive stone Buddha statues carved into the cliffs and destroyed by the Taliban: "No direct-base or straight-in approaches, the Kiwis can't hear us." A reminder of the New Zealand military's area of security and the fact that nobody likes to be surprised in this still-delicately secured country.
The director of flight operations is Ian Callaghan. He runs around the office with an unstoppable energy. One moment he's double-checking space availability on a flight to Zaranj, near the Iranian border, the next he's looking at the date to replace one of the airplane's fuel tanks at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when business is expected to be slow. Much of the rush is because his days aren't long enough, especially when he has to make several trips to the airport: "Easily 20 percent of my day is spent going through security." But don't imagine a line like those at American airports. Here in Kabul the line is a chaotic jam of cars waiting to get the wave through from several AK-47-toting guards. "Some days I can't even get to the airport because they'll have the road closed," Callaghan laments.
As I look around at the maps, suddenly he darts for the small deck outside. "I need to check the weather to see if we can get an aircraft in." He opens the door and looks skyward. It's an overcast day with a bit of drizzle, one of the rare days that isn't ceiling and visibility unlimited. There's no IFR flying in Afghanistan for civilian aircraft so the weather could pose a problem. "I'd say that's about 1,000 feet above the hills, huh?" A quick cell phone call gets another report, 1,000 feet above the TV Mountains (named for the antennas) indeed.
With their small fleet of aircraft, Pactec and AirServ provide a vital service in the redevelopment of Afghanistan. They have several regularly scheduled flights to cities and towns around the country and to Pakistan as well as on-demand charter services. The only catch is that they only fly for nonprofit, humanitarian organizations. Their agreement with the government only allows them to fly people or cargo from one of the NGOs on the registered list. They won't fly people from political arms of the UN or embassies, Afghan government officials, or tourists. And as the sticker next to the door on the 210 shows, absolutely no guns are allowed on board (this means something in a country where there are men with AK-47s on just about every corner).
"We fly more than 2,000 passengers and 30 tons of cargo a month out to roughly 25 airstrips," Callaghan says in between phone calls and listening to a radio call from the King Air inbound from Islamabad. Prices for a seat range from $25 for a short hop between towns to more than $150 for a cross-country leg. Of course charter rates are much higher. For many in the NGO community the ticket is worth every penny. Some aid workers simply have to visit many locations in a limited time frame and averaging 10 mph for days at a time isn't unusual when traveling by road.
Safety also plays a role. While security is improving, bandits still rob vehicles, which are often the only thing on the road for dozens of miles in every direction. Only one bullet has ever struck a Pactec/AirServ aircraft in Afghanistan, and the exit hole was on the bottom of the wing. "We figure it must have been celebratory gunshot falling back to Earth," says Woodberry.
And like the Western world, speed-sensitive cargo is another common reason people choose Pactec/AirServ. It's less likely to be an important document and more likely to be vaccines that can't overheat in the desert sun or nearly a thousand pounds of rose seedlings destined for a crop conversion program for farmers who currently grow opium.
After a final quick radio check with N48A, the King Air, we dart out the door, hop in the car, and wildly weave our way through traffic to the airport. Just after we arrive, N48A returns from Islamabad and touches down under a worsening sky. It will be the last flight of the day.
From his seat in the Cessna, Keech starts his slow descent over a broad plateau that ends with a set of peaks staring us straight in the face. Back in Faizabad, the person at the other end of the satellite phone said the truck tires only sank in about two inches, and only in a few places. As we approach Yawan, the plateau disappears into a deep valley. On the other side, nestled on the side of the mountains that stare at us, is Yawan. "There it is," Keech says, pointing to the brown and tan buildings arranged on the side of the brown and tan mountains. I still don't see the runway. Keech continues to descend. "I'm going to circle and look for the muddy spots." We make one lap around the strip, which has finally come into my view. At one end is a mountain; at the other end is a ridge. It's a one-way strip, 1,650 feet long at a 10-percent grade uphill to the mountain end. Keech starts to recite his landing checklist. "At the ridge I'll go around if I'm not at 70 knots, descending at 500 fpm, or if I don't like the way anything looks." As we turn to final, we clear the ridge with the numbers where Keech wants them. Between the rapid descent on the other side of the ridge and the relatively steep grade of the strip, I'm realizing that the little rule about the apparent shape of the runway not changing when you're on proper glide doesn't apply in Yawan; the strip and mountainside is changing shape in a hurry.
After the quick descent, we touch down and now we're looking uphill at the mountain in front of us. As we slow down, Keech begins to apply power to make it up the hill. It's amazing what a little slope will do to your landing roll. As we near the uphill end, the airplane slows down even further. Keech applies more power. Soon we're nearing full throttle and coming to a stop at the same time. The mud is a bit deeper than two inches. We're stuck.
It takes several attempts at pushing, digging, and employing about a dozen kids to collect rocks to fill in the ruts before the airplane is finally turned around and facing downhill again. Keech leaves us to make another leg of the flight and we spend the time repairing the runway.
An hour later, Keech returns and manages to make the turn around with no problem this time. We load up, and although the doctors weren't able to make all their rounds, the medicine has been delivered. With a speedy downhill departure we're heading west for the Tajikistan border, where we have a couple of passengers to load up, and then back to Kabul before darkness falls.
Most of the flights Pactec and AirServ provide involve less shovel work, but still provide plenty of challenges. Riding along in the King Air that flew in from Islamabad, pilots Paul Stover and Peter Bastke explain that much of their day is spent at 24,000 feet, flying airways and turning the heading bug. But looking over Bastke's shoulder at his approach and airport plates, it's apparent that as usual much of the action is near the ground. We're flying to Zaranj, a city on the border with Iran.
As the endless stunning views of desert scenery below are slowly becoming obscured, Bastke explains that they can only land here about half of the time because of blowing sand. "We've got very low visibility down below," he says as the ground disappears. His approach plate shows the procedure. Descend to 500 feet (there are no obstructions) on the correct heading and hold for two miles looking for the runway. All I see out the side window is a yellowish-orange haze and lots of sand and dust. Suddenly Stover, who's sitting in the left seat, sees the building to the left of the runway and then the runway itself. He makes a small course correction to line up the airplane, and moments later we touch down. The entire final approach from sighting the building to touchdown is about 10 seconds. We turn around and, looking back, it appears visibility is about 400 to 500 yards. We pull up to the concrete ramp near yet another old hulk of an airplane and pick up our passengers, who are waiting patiently in the sandstorm. After explaining to a local official that he can't ride in the airplane, we depart the sandstorm for clear skies and the rest of the day's route, which compared to Zaranj is a walk in the park.
Returning from Yawan
Back in the 210, we're cresting back over Salang Pass and the hazy air of Kabul is in sight. The day's blue sky has been a welcome break from the smog of the city. But as Keech contacts Baghram Approach, and the radio traffic picks up, our little escape into the world of flying a small airplane through the mountains of northern Afghanistan is coming to an end.
"Papa-Tango-Zero-Three, Baghram Approach. Maintain altitude, you can continue your descent once you're southeast of Baghram." We're no longer able to pick our route, pick which mountain we want to see.
"Papa-Tango-Zero-Three, Baghram Approach, frequency change approved."
We contact the tower at Kabul and they tell us to expect a left base into Runway 11. As we turn to final over the city, I get my last few looks of Afghanistan from the familiar place in the Cessna. As we touch down, more ingredients of the aircraft melting pot go by. But despite the exotic registrations and unfamiliar models, none of them seems quite as cool and distinct as this 210, one simple Cessna doing an incredible job.
Jason Paur is a freelance journalist who won an AOPA Max Karant honorable mention for aviation journalism in 2003.