One of the most unlikely aircraft types to be seen flying over the rolling wheat-fields of Salisbury Plane in Wiltshire, England, in recent times has been the Russian-made Mi-17 Hip helicopter. This is the first time in living memory that Russian aircraft have been seen flying in British military markings, and when first reported these sightings resulted in much speculation as to what their activities might be. It is well known that NATO Special Forces in Afghanistan have been making use of these helicopters, as they are capacious, extremely rugged and have a better hot and high performance than many Western helicopters. The truth, it can now be told, is somewhat more down-to-earth, but nevertheless of great significance as coalition forces start to contemplate how a phased drawdown of force levels might happen in the coming years. The reason these helicopters are in the UK, and based at the secretive Boscombe Down test and evaluation base is because they have been providing flying training for a new generation of Afghan Army pilots under the title of “Project Curium”. Boscome Down was chosen for this task as it has extensive aircraft operating and support facilities, is relatively isolated from any major centres of population, and the land surrounding it consists mostly of Army training areas and open farm land.
The Mi-17s are painted in the distinctive red, white and blue colour scheme that is a hallmark of former MOD research and development establishments, now part of QinetiQ, and have been operated by instructors from Joint Helicopter Command, which also tasks the UK’s coordinated RAF/Army/Royal Navy helicopter force in Afghanistan. The training project resulted from an initiative from the military authorities in Afghanistan and NATO, followed by a positive response from the US and UK governments to assist in bringing forward selected volunteers from the Afghan Army who wished to become helicopter pilots. Now that the groundwork has been laid, a training regime is proven and certification issues resolved, so it will be far easier to re-instate further training programmes in the future should this be requested and agreed.
The first course began training a number of Afghan pilots and flight engineers in the UK in February 2008. Supported technically throughout by QinetiQ, the project has so far trained a total of 27 Afghan aircrew. The time and effort invested in them has already yielded tangible results. Initial reports from Afghanistan suggest those pilots who have already returned are a well-respected, competent and motivated cadre of professionals.
They are intended to be the seed corn of an indigenous Afghan National Security Force helicopter capability. The Project Curium pilot training programme lasts typically 12 months, consisting of two flying periods interspersed with ground school. The key to developing an indigenous capability as quickly as possible was the decision to train the Afghan aircrew on the type of helicopter they will fly on their return - the Mi-17. Training Afghan students on this machine has also brought the additional benefit of not denying valuable training slots for UK helicopter aircrew students at the Defence Helicopter Flying School.
Wing Commander Al Smith, OC the Special Duties Squadron at Boscombe Down, explained to APDR how the training team had set about this new operational initiative. He said, “The students, who are officers in the Afghan National Security Force, took part in English classes before beginning their UK flight training. This consisted of 10 hours on a Slingsby Firefly fixed-wing trainer before each spent over 60 hours flying in a Gazelle helicopter. They had no previous flying training in their own country and started at Cranwell, then received basic helicopter elementary training based on the helicopter training given to UK students at the Defence Helicopter Flying School at Shawbury, albeit conducted on different aircraft types. At first, Army Gazelles were used at Netheravon but this moved across to Boscombe Down so as to be concentrated alongside the Mi-17 training and the ground school. The engineering syllabus is slightly shorter than the pilot course.”
The student pilots then transferred to the Mi-17 helicopter, flying over 40-hours each
including basics in tactical flying, formation keeping, confined area landings
and flying some defensive manoeuvres. Further flying experience will continue once the new pilots arrive home in Afghanistan, and Al Smith added, “ This will involve preparing them for operating in the hot and high conditions there, enabling them to both build on and share what they have learnt.”
British military Hips
QinetiQ initially provided Release to Service recommendations for the Mi-17 Hips, enabling them to be placed on the UK military register, with follow on recommendations to increase capability. This included adding extra armour protection and defensive aids as well as some cockpit modifications. QinetiQ has subsequently provided a comprehensive range of managed services including airworthiness capability and the full range of engineering support needed to maintain the aircraft. The team of over 25 has also been fully supported in engineering activities by QinetiQ’s sub-contractor Helisota, a Lithuanian maintenance and repair company with extensive Mi-17 aircraft experience. Helisota has provided several engineers with specific Mi-17 experience to assist in the maintenance of the aircraft as well as providing Post Design Services capability.
“This was a unique project, and we faced a huge challenge while working to very strict timescales,” explained Jeff Gardner, QinetiQ’s Technical Manager on Project Curium.
“You have to be pragmatic, and we were able to approach countries with appropriate Mi-17 experience and experts who had used the aircraft. The ex-Bulgarian aircraft arrived in the UK with low flying hours on their airframes but there were some issues which had to be solved before they could be used for training. For example, the cockpit instruments had to be Anglicised from the aircraft's native Cyrillic, although some instruments still bear elements of the Russian alphabet. QinetiQ was also tasked with producing a new maintenance timetable that reflected existing UK operating standards. The experience we have gained puts us in good stead should we be asked to develop civil or military support programmes for other unusual aircraft types in the future.”
JHC has provided a total of 12 permanent SDS staff, many of whom have recent operational flying experience on other rotary types in Afghanistan. Of that 12, three are Mi-17 instructors, two are Gazelle instructors, three staff train the flight engineers and the remainder make up a headquarters element. They are all volunteers who find immense satisfaction in training Afghan students. Since arriving in the UK, the Afghan students have clearly made remarkable progress, mastering a complex task in a foreign language. Of all the students who have undergone training so far, only one pilot student has not graduated, a success rate on a par with that of UK students at DHFS. The student that did not meet the standard will still deliver an invaluable ground-based aviation role in Afghanistan, so his training will be put to good use.
Two Afghan students present during the author’s visit included Karim and Sayeed (preferring not to give their full names for security reasons) who in very good English said they were looking forward to using their skills for real back home, and were also looking forward to seeing their families again. Second Lieutenant Karim, who had never flown previously, said his first time flying a helicopter in the UK was "big fun". "I now want to help my country and serve my people," he said. Sayeed said,“I want to work for our people. I want stability in my country, and I want peace in my country, because we are anti-terrorist. We are against those people who are against our country. So if those people are against us, so I am against them, this is for sure. That’s why I am training.”
A new start
By typical air training standards the total number of pilots trained to date, and the size of the training task at Boscombe Down may be considered a small-scale project but it is regarded by the UK’s MOD as having a high return. The time and effort invested in the project brings closer the time when Afghan crews will be able to take on more tasks currently flown by British helicopters, moving in turn closer to an eventual withdrawal of UK forces. This is probably some time well into the future, but anything that can help reduce the heavy helicopter commitment is being encouraged, even though a major expansion of UK helicopter orders is currently underway (with the Chinook fleet being increased to 70). An idea of the huge scale of current operations in Southern Afghanistan can be judged from the fact that the UK-operated base at Camp Bastion handled over 15,000 air movements of all types during February 2010 alone. This pace of activity clearly cannot continue indefinitely and so efforts are increasing to train as many Afghans as possible to take on more of their own defence responsibilities. But nobody believes this will be easy or quick.
The Boscombe Down Mi-17s, currently owned by the MoD, are being gifted to the Afghan government at the end of the training programme and after being re-painted will be transported to that country to join an expanding fleet of Mi-17s, where their performance is much appreciated. For the time being, Project Curium is deemed to have served its purpose, with successful results, and all the JHC instructors will soon be returning to more routine flying. For some, the agricultural strength, simplicity and operational utility of these big, high flying machines will be missed. Though they do not have all the sophisticated defensive aids suites and communications systems fitted to most front line NATO helicopters operating in the most dangerous regions of the operational theatre in Afghanistan, they and their crews represent an important building block on the road to establishing a viable national Afghan air component for the future.