In Afghanistan, soldiers still pull the trigger. Civilian contractors do almost everything else. While the U.S. and its allies may be preparing for a troop draw-down there next year, for the contractors flying an assortment of 50 helicopters in country, things have never been busier or better.
This eclectic fleet, everything from well worn Russian Mi-8s to almost brand-new Sikorsky S-92s, hauls troops, support personnel, supplies, ammunition and the mail from seven main bases to the forward operating bases and areas in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. Pilots fly nine to ten hours a day, six days a week, in mostly un-air-conditioned, older helicopters such as the 50-year-old Sikorsky S-61, in an environment where the ubiquitous fine dust clogs engines and other moving parts, in mountainous terrain with highly changeable weather and extreme temperatures–from below freezing with horizontal snow to 120 degrees F. Occasionally, they get shot at. Once in a while they crash. Rarely, they die.
The helicopters are generally kept out in the open and that is where the maintenance is done no matter the weather. The helicopters fly hard, from 100 to 270 hours a month. The avionics–for the most part are VFR basic: upgraded radios and GPS. The pilots, crew and staff live on the same bases as the troops and eat the same food, housed in everything from furnished barracks to bare-bones tents and no indoor plumbing. They rotate in for 28- to 60-day shifts, then 28 to 30 days’ leave. Some have flown there before–in uniform, often with multiple tours of duty, but for significantly less pay.
The individual pay and contractor company revenues are lucrative, substantially above the civil rate in the U.S., reflecting operational costs and risks. Last year six civil helicopter companies–AAR Airlift, Canadian Helicopters, Columbia Helicopters, Construction Helicopters, Evergreen Helicopters and Vertical De Aviacion–received $417.9 million for their work in Afghanistan. This year that amount is expected to grow to $783.2 million, according to the Pentagon. A combination of new construction projects and the draw-down are keeping the rotors spinning. The new facilities are being custom built for forces anticipated to remain after next year, and they are likely to require civilian airlift support for years, if not decades, to come.
For a select group of helicopter operators, Afghanistan is the big casino.
“There is still going to be some residual force and it is still going to need the sort of logistics support we provide,” said Randy Martinez, CEO of AAR Airlift, the dominant service provider in country, with 24 helicopters (two Sikorsky S-92s, 20 S-61s and two Bell 214s). The other companies provide the balance of civil helicopters in country with one Boeing 234 Chinook, four Boeing Vertol BV-107s, seven Bell 212s, two Bell 214s, 10 Mi-8/17s and two S-61s. They arrive in country in the belly of chartered Antonovs.
Erickson Air Crane pointed to Evergreen’s work in Afghanistan as part of the rationale for its $250 million purchase of that company on May 2, even though Evergreen was widely seen as a financial and operational mess: late last year, the credit agency Standard & Poor’s put Evergreen on its “CreditWatch” list and less than half of its fleet of 22 owned and 42 leased aircraft were flying before the acquisition. No matter, Erickson CEO Udo Rieder said the combined companies would produce an estimated $430 million in annual revenue; 43 percent of that is projected to come from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), and a big share of that from operations in Afghanistan. Rieder’s case sold well on Wall Street, where Erickson’s $400 million note offering to finance the deal and other things received an enthusiastic response.
AAR is due to collect $305 million for its helicopter work in Afghanistan this year. The company also operates 15 turboprops in country: Dash-8s, Casa C-212s and Metroliners. AAR Airlift has doubled in size over the last three years, largely because of its work in Afghanistan.
Columbia Helicopters began operating in Afghanistan in 2011 and currently flies from three bases with a fleet of five tandem-rotor aircraft–one Boeing 234 Chinook and four BV-107 Vertols, flying an average of 200 hours per month. One of its helicopters logged 270 hours in April. This year the Pentagon projects the company will receive $97 million for its work in Afghanistan.
Qualifying to fly DoD missions is not easy, according to AAR’s Martinez. “To fly DoD passengers you must be CARB [civilian aircraft review board] certified, and that is a fairly rigorous process and a high barrier to entry.” FAA Part 121 or 135 certification is required for initial consideration, and then the DoD applies additional standards and requirements. “It takes quite a bit of time to get their blessing,” said Martinez, a retired U.S. Air Force veteran and former Part 121 airline executive. After the blessing, the U.S. Transportation Command monitors contractor performance daily through an in-country staff at Bagram Air Force Base and nine field officers.
Nor is the job for the average pilot. Minimum rotary-wing experience is 3,000 hours; most pilots AAR hires have around 8,000, Martinez said. While many are veterans with in-theater experience, some are not. Columbia’s pilots come mainly from the civilian world and largely have been working for the company for many years before their deployment to Afghanistan, said Steve Bandy, the company’s vice president for operations.
However, all pilot hires must be able to hold a Secret security clearance. Every morning pilots and their crews get an intelligence briefing from “the customer,” meaning the Army or the Marines. The brief covers where you will be flying and what surprises could be waiting for you there.
A spokesman for the U.S Transportation Command told AIN that contractors “are allowed to fly only into specific areas where there has been no recent enemy threat to aircraft.”
Armed with the briefing information, AAR pilots then fill out a company “threat assessment” that covers the route of flight, the weather, the load and everything else. That assessment is then scored on a scale; beyond a certain score, AAR headquarters must approve the mission. Additionally, any crewmember can opt out. “Anyone who is flying that day, pilots or mechanics, can say they are not comfortable with flying and we will not question that,” Martinez said. “It is a war environment.”
The danger for contractors in Afghanistan is real and large. Since 2001 through last year, 3,302 contractors were killed and 91,121 were injured there; that compares to 3,305 U.S. and coalition forces deaths and 18,188 U.S. troops wounded or injured over the same period, according to the Defense Department. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the infamous folk-art road bombs, continue to be the main culprits, but the occasional crazy firing his AK-47 into the air can also create problems.
The helicopters are equipped with ballistic armor and do occasionally get hit, mainly with small-arms fire, Martinez said. Flights are day VFR only per AAR’s contract with the DoD. All helicopters are equipped with Blue Sky satellite trackers that are monitored in real time at AAR’s 24/7 operations center in Melbourne, Fla., and by the operations coordinators in country. If anything goes awry, a site-specific, joint-service emergency response plan is activated within a minute or two. “It is very quick,” said Jayson Wilson, AAR Airlift’s vice president of operations. AAR lost a Bell 214 and its crew in Afghanistan last year.
The operations center in Melbourne also tracks all maintenance, logistics, operational readiness, statistics and scheduling in real time on a series of five large video displays and is typically manned by a staff of 28. Back in Afghanistan, AAR’s total headcount runs around 300, including 200 pilots.
Making It Work in a Challenging Environment
The weather, the mountains and the dust present the biggest problems, according to Scott Tripp, AAR’s flight standards manager, who has been flying for the company in Afghanistan since 2010, mainly in the S-92. Before that he was a U.S. Army aviator in country. He viewed joining AAR as a way to continue serving his country. “The weather patterns come on you quickly. In the southern part of the country it heats up fast. In August and September you can see temperatures of 110 degrees F or 115 degrees F by the middle of the day. If you are in the Eastern portion of the country in the summer, every day you will have thunderstorms from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. On the Western side, you are going to have clouds that stagnate in the mountains and close that area off. Flying in the mountains in summer, you have to deal with the loss of aircraft performance. We’re operating with heavily loaded aircraft all the time and you really need to be on your toes.”
This is when experience counts. “Ninety percent of the veterans who have flown in Afghanistan have done so for more than one tour,” said AAR’s Wilson. Seventy-five percent of all AAR’s helicopter pilots in Afghanistan were there before in uniform. “They understand the geography and the weather patterns,” he said.
Hustle also matters, according to Columbia’s Bandy. “The reason our guys operate at such a high tempo is because they care about the effort and the customer that they are serving.” Columbia’s crews, mechanics and support personnel, generally numbering 50 people in country at any given time, work 14-hour duty days on a 28-days-on, 28-days-off schedule.
AAR’s S-92s have a full weather package; on the S-61s, some have weather radar, some do not. All of the company’s helicopters receive regular weather updates from their operations controllers. The S-61s are equipped with Carson Helicopter composite blades for extra performance. Many of AAR’s S-61s were formerly owned by Carson before it exited the Part 135 charter business.
Inside the cockpits, it’s hot. Tripp says a three-man flight crew–two pilots and the mechanic–can easily drain three 12-packs of 32-ounce bottled water in the course of a shift. Bathroom breaks? Not a problem. You sweat it out before it reaches the kidneys.
And then there’s the dust. Not sand. It’s much finer and a much bigger problem. “It gets into everything, particularly in the summer,” said Tripp. Engines have to be pulled off and shipped out for maintenance generally 70 percent below the standard TBO interval. “It clogs the cooling holes, the turbine blades and the wheels. We’re not having issues with mechanical reliability; it is just that the performance numbers get to the point where we have to pull the engine off the aircraft and send it back to the manufacturer for a professional cleaning,” Tripp said. All of AAR’s helicopter engines in Afghanistan are on an engine maintenance program.
The company has had limited success with regular engine washing, but that adds only about 200 to 300 hours of engine life.
Columbia dedicates 30 minutes of maintenance per flight hour, but hits helicopters with multi-man crews during night maintenance to speed things along. Most all maintenance work is done outdoors, but the company does have one maintenance hangar available at a forward operating base where two Vertols are based. Columbia maintains a healthy parts inventory in Afghanistan, holds the type certificates for all of the helicopters it flies there and is supported by the company’s maintenance shops back in the U.S. “That allows us to fly those hours,” said Bandy.
AAR’s two S-92s are the ride of choice, said Tripp, not just because they have cockpit air conditioning and advanced avionics, but because they are so versatile. AAR uses them for all-cargo, all-passenger, combi and sling-load missions, often on the same day. “We’ve gone through our own schedule of growing pains to get that helicopter up, operating and reliable in that environment. But now it’s the Ferrari of our fleet. We have had really good success with sling loads at altitudes up to 7,000 feet plus. That is bang for the buck. That helicopter really does a lot.”
CEO Martinez is particularly proud of AAR’s maintenance staff in country. AAR’s contract requires 80 percent operational readiness, but the company says it routinely posts 91 to 92 percent. “This is one of the harshest environments in the world and we don’t have hangars to operate out of. A couple of locations we operate out of are above 6,000 feet; one is above 7,000, but our people [perform] minor miracles every day to keep, in many cases, pretty old aircraft operational. You can imagine the challenges of the supply chain and the logistics base; [we are] almost 8,000 miles from the U.S., seven locations in a Third World country that has almost no infrastructure or transportation. It is a logistics nightmare, but we seem to figure it out.”
Between tours, pilots train at FlightSafety simulators and soon at the CAE S-61 simulator in Stavanger, Norway, where they will “get a little tune up,” including instrument recurrency, on their way back in country, according to AAR’s Wilson. All AAR pilots are required to hold an instrument rating.
Wilson also notes that the pilot attrition rate is falling, a helpful metric considering the high cost of training, transportation and compensation. “Our goal is to get our pilots to the three-year point. I have three customers: the pilots, the FAA and the [DoD] commercial [aircraft] review board. If we are doing what is right with those groups, we will retain the first and get the approvals of the others. The pilot training costs in these aircraft are staggering, and you want to retain that investment. The best way to do that is to improve the employee’s quality of life. If you get a guy going from his second year into his third, you’ve done a really good job. A lot of our managers in country are four- to five-year employees. Granted, our attrition is higher than the industry standard. They’re in Afghanistan.”