Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Adventures in Afghanistan......


                                          ADVENTURES IN AFGHANISTAN!


Having spent a reasonable amount of time recently bumbling around the airports and airspace of Iraq, I now had the opportunity to try my luck at the equally interesting Afghanistan region. A country which posed significant challenges for a multitude of reasons as we shall see.

These challenges are not exaggerated by the following statement reproduced from the Afghanistan A.I.P…….
“………There are continuing reports of indiscriminate small arms and missile attacks on aircraft operating in Afghanistan, primarily at low altitudes. Therefore, operators that undertake flights within the Kabul FIR (Flight Information Region) shall do so at their own risk…….” Not sure how my personal life insurance would be affected by this statement!

Over the last eighteen months I have been ‘fortunate’ to operate in this newly challenging environment, amongst other destinations on my company’s route network. Flying into Bagram, Camp Bastion, Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-E-Sharif, mostly on flights for ISAF; The International Security Assistance Force. A NATO-led security mission inAfghanistan that was established by the United Nations Security Council in December 2001.

Primarily these flights originated from Burgos (LBBG) airport in Bulgaria where the freight is delivered from the Bulgarian munitions factories direct to the aircraft, a Boeing 747-400 freighter. AlthougI have operated similar flights from Karup (EKKA) in Denmark and Belgrade (LYBE) Serbia.   

Normally these flights are restricted in the amount of payload which can be carried by the need to 
arrive at the planned Afghanistan airport with sufficient fuel for the return flight back to our home airport. This was a carefully calculated balancing act as obviously payload means profit and fuel means cost to the company; especially as the fuel is extremely expensive in Afghanistan as it needs to be normally trucked in

This is constantly fraught with danger from the convoys being attacked by insurgents. I was talking with a Canadian consultant who dealt with this operation and he said that there was an expected 10% loss on all convoy movements and this was built in at the planning stage……a sobering thought, especially if you were one of the convoy’s drivers.

My particular adventure to this region usually started with our pick up by a shuttle bus, driven by the Burgos airport handling company, from our downtown hotel situated on a pretty Black Sea beach to 
the nearby airport’s crew security building.

At the often sleepy Burgos airport we would have to pass through their security where we would be relieved of our belts and other metallic objects prior to passing through the metal detector. Our crew 
bags would be scrutinised and laptop computers ‘investigated’ as being real. If they only realised what we would be carrying on our aircraft then this process would seem rather unnecessary!

A short bus ride from the security building would take us to our aircraft, which was usually fully loaded and awaiting our arrival. Onboard we would meet our two loadmasters and ground engineer as well as the crew which flew the aircraft in,all of whom would be looking forward to deadheading with us over the next two sectors!

Generally on this operation the Captain completes the walk-round of the aircraft, on a Boeing 747-



400 this would take around 10 minutes and followed by a check of the freight. This is a final check to ensure that all the pallets were correctly loaded and secured. With around 100,000 kilograms (100 
tonnes) of freight which contains high explosive ordnances………it is not desirable to have this moving around unsupervised! Especially after the tragic crash involving the National Airlines Boeing 747-400 at Bagram,should it be proved that ‘load-shift’ was the cause of this accident.

In the cockpit the documents relating to the flight are analysed and checked. These include the weather charts and reports, NOTAMs (Notice To Airmen), the Operational Flight Plan which primarily states the routings and fuel requirements as well as the document stipulating the specific overflight and landing clearances. Included in this information pack should be the document which states our ISAF call-sign and transponder code which we need for entering Afghanistan airspace; as this flight operates with a civilian call-sign upuntil reaching the Afghanistan border.

Once all the paperwork has been completed, and the cockpit checks and crew briefings have been run through, with the co-pilot having loaded the route and performance data into the Flight Management System, it is time to close the ‘front door’ and prepare ourselves for departure.

The pushback tug here in Burgos is not powerful enough to push us back whilst starting the engines, so we have to wait for the pushback procedure to be completed and our aircraft lined up on the taxiway, prior to starting our four Rolls Royce RB211 engines.

With all four engines running and the Before Taxi Checklist completed it is time to move under our own power along the rather bumpy taxiway towards the departure end of the active runway. With the flaps selected to our company standard setting of 20 degrees (Although 10 degrees of flap can also be used if necessary, subject of course to the necessary performance calculations.)

For our flight we are departing from the 10,500 foot runway04 on a NESAR 4A departure; so with our Air Traffic Control Clearance received, along with our take-off clearance, it is time to aviate!
Initially setting 70% N1 by advancing the four thrust levers, checking that the engine parameters are 
all stable, the TOGA (Take-off Go-Around) switches are pressed and the auto-throttle system takes 
over control of setting the required take-off power.

Accelerating down the runway which has more lumps and bumps than the lunar surface; we initially start rolling uphill and then after a third of the runway is behind us, up onto a more level surface where we can now see the runway’s end!

After about seventy seconds we pass our V1, this is the maximum speed by which we need to start initiating a rejected take-off should a problem occur, followed seconds later byour calculated rotation speed of 165 knots. Now the 340 tonne aircraft is maneuvered into the air and with a positive rate of climb confirmed, the 18 wheels belonging to the landing gear are raised into their respective wheel wells. Automatic braking occurs to stop the wheels from spinning when tucked up inside and here they will stay locked up until we finally configure for landing.

The next three hours see us drinking coffee and eating rather tasty crew meals as our route takes us from Bulgarian airspace over the countries of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan andTurkmenistan before reaching the Afghanistan border at a navigational fix called LEMOD.

All flights which are planned to land at an Afghanistan airport require a descent down to around 28,000 feet prior to entry at LEMOD, also clearance needs to be granted by the Kabul area controllers using our new ISAF call-sign and transponder code. With two-way communications established with Kabul ATC, Turkmenistan dismiss us and now the fun begins!

With all flights into Afghanistan these days…..well nights actually…..as most of my operations into these airports are during the hours of darkness fortunately; we use a procedure similar to ops into Iraq, where we switch all of the aircraft lights off during the descent. This was ‘suggested both byprudence and the Afghanistan AIP. (Although I believe that the latest version of the A.I.P. has been amended and thissuggestion has been deleted.) These lights would remainextinguished and 
generally not switched back on until committed to land and crossing our destination airport’s 
perimeter fence.

I have mentioned in previous articles about mortars and rockets landing on both Baghdad and Basra airports whilst I was operating there, as well as being targeted by lasers inbound to Erbil and Kabul. Watching military aircraft dispense flares on departure from Camp Bastion and Baghdad……because of cockpit warnings……all adds up to the fact that the threats are obviously real and that see and be seen doesn’t apply here!
As stated earlier there are several airports in Afghanistan which we operate into, all having their own ‘peculiarities’, however, we will look at them individually from North to South, starting in this issue with Mazar-E Sharif (OAMS).The other airports will be discussed in a subsequent article in Airways Magazine.
Due to the dynamic nature of operating in Afghanistan no two days are ever the same, so no inbound routings until reaching the initial approach fix can be ‘accurately’ planned for.Afghanistan has high mountains and Mazar-E-Sharif has no radar, so we must always know where we are, unfortunately aircraft have impacted the mountains in this country when situational awareness has been lost, the last one being and Ilyushin 76 which took a ‘short cut’ inbound to Bagram and impacted the Shakar Dara Mountains. Onboard the Boeing 747-400 we can use the TERRAIN feature which gives a visual depiction of the terrain on the N.D. (Navigational Display) in front of both pilots, this in conjunction with the E.G.P.W.S. (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System), gives great situational awareness and protection.
Kabul Air Traffic Control eventually signs off from assisting and gives clearance to xxxxx where the approach begins and other hazards come in to play………especially as the airport is still mined!
We will continue with the approach into Mazar-E-Sharif and the other Afghanistan airports in the next issue!


Normally these flights are restricted in the amount of payload which can be carried by the need to arrive at the planned Afghanistan airport with sufficient fuel for the return flight back to our home airport. This was a carefully calculated balancing act as obviously payload means profit and fuel means cost to the company; especially as the fuel is extremely expensive in Afghanistan as it needs to be normally trucked in. This is constantly fraught with danger from the convoys being attacked by insurgents. I was talking with a Canadian consultant who dealt with this operation and he said that there was an expected 10% loss on all convoy movements and this was built in at the planning stage……a sobering thought, especially if you were one of the convoy’s drivers.
My particular adventure to this region usually started with our pick up by a shuttle bus, driven by the Burgos airport handling company, from our downtown hotel situated on a pretty Black Sea beach to the nearby airport’s crew security building.
At the often sleepy Burgos airport we would have to pass through their security where we would be relieved of our belts and other metallic objects prior to passing through the metal detector. Our crew bags would be scrutinised and laptop computers ‘investigated’ as being real. If they only realised what we would be carrying on our aircraft then this process would seem rather unnecessary!
A short bus ride from the security building would take us to our aircraft, which was usually fully loaded and awaiting our arrival. Onboard we would meet our two loadmasters and ground engineer as well as the crew which flew the aircraft in,all of whom would be looking forward to deadheading with usover the next two sectors!
Generally on this operation the Captain completes the walk-round of the aircraft, on a Boeing 747-400 this would take around 10 minutes and followed by a check of the freight. This is a final check to ensure that all the pallets were correctly loaded and secured. With around 100,000 kilograms (100 tonnes) of freight which contains high explosive ordnances………it is not desirable to have this moving around unsupervised! Especially after the tragic crash involving the National Airlines Boeing 747-400 at Bagram,should it be proved that ‘load-shift’ was the cause of this accident.
In the cockpit the documents relating to the flight are analysed and checked. These include the weather charts and reports, NOTAMs (Notice To Airmen), the Operational Flight Plan which primarily states the routings and fuel requirements as well as the document stipulating the specific overflight and landing clearances. Included in this information pack should be the document which states our ISAF call-sign and transponder code which we need for entering Afghanistan airspace; as this flight operates with a civilian call-sign upuntil reaching the Afghanistan border.
Once all the paperwork has been completed, and the cockpit checks and crew briefings have been run through, with the co-pilot having loaded the route and performance data into the Flight Management System, it is time to close the ‘front door’ and prepare ourselves for departure.
The pushback tug here in Burgos is not powerful enough to push us back whilst starting the engines, so we have to wait for the pushback procedure to be completed and our aircraft lined up on the taxiway, prior to starting our four Rolls Royce RB211 engines.
With all four engines running and the Before Taxi Checklist completed it is time to move under our own power along the rather bumpy taxiway towards the departure end of the active runway. With the flaps selected to our company standard setting of 20 degrees (Although 10 degrees of flap can also be used if necessary, subject of course to the necessary performance calculations.)
For our flight we are departing from the 10,500 foot runway04 on a NESAR 4A departure; so with our Air Traffic Control Clearance received, along with our take-off clearance, it is time to aviate!
Initially setting 70% N1 by advancing the four thrust levers, checking that the engine parameters are all stable, the TOGA (Take-off Go-Around) switches are pressed and the auto-throttle system takes over control of setting the required take-off power.
Accelerating down the runway which has more lumps and bumps than the lunar surface; we initially start rolling uphill and then after a third of the runway is behind us, up onto a more level surface where we can now see the runway’s end!
After about seventy seconds we pass our V1, this is the maximum speed by which we need to start initiating a rejected take-off should a problem occur, followed seconds later byour calculated rotation speed of 165 knots. Now the 340 tonne aircraft is maneuvered into the air and with a positive rate of climb confirmed, the 18 wheels belonging to the landing gear are raised into their respective wheel wells. Automatic braking occurs to stop the wheels from spinning when tucked up inside and here they will stay locked up until we finally configure for landing.
The next three hours see us drinking coffee and eating rather tasty crew meals as our route takes us from Bulgarian airspace over the countries of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan andTurkmenistan before reaching the Afghanistan border at a navigational fix called LEMOD.
All flights which are planned to land at an Afghanistan airport require a descent down to around 28,000 feet prior to entry at LEMOD, also clearance needs to be granted by the Kabul area controllers using our new ISAF call-sign and transponder code. With two-way communications established with Kabul ATC, Turkmenistan dismiss us and now the fun begins!
With all flights into Afghanistan these days…..well nights actually…..as most of my operations into these airports are during the hours of darkness fortunately; we use a procedure similar to ops into Iraq, where we switch all of the aircraft lights off during the descent. This was ‘suggested both byprudence and the Afghanistan AIP. (Although I believe that the latest version of the A.I.P. has been amended and thissuggestion has been deleted.) These lights would remainextinguished and generally not switched back on until committed to land and crossing our destination airport’s perimeter fence.
I have mentioned in previous articles about mortars and rockets landing on both Baghdad and Basra airports whilst I was operating there, as well as being targeted by lasers inbound to Erbil and Kabul. Watching military aircraft dispense flares on departure from Camp Bastion and Baghdad……because of cockpit warnings……all adds up to the fact that the threats are obviously real and that see and be seen doesn’t apply here!
As stated earlier there are several airports in Afghanistan which we operate into, all having their own ‘peculiarities’, however, we will look at them individually from North to South, starting in this issue with Mazar-E Sharif (OAMS).The other airports will be discussed in a subsequent article in Airways Magazine.
Due to the dynamic nature of operating in Afghanistan no two days are ever the same, so no inbound routings until reaching the initial approach fix can be ‘accurately’ planned for.Afghanistan has high mountains and Mazar-E-Sharif has no radar, so we must always know where we are, unfortunately aircraft have impacted the mountains in this country when situational awareness has been lost, the last one being and Ilyushin 76 which took a ‘short cut’ inbound to Bagram and impacted the Shakar Dara Mountains. Onboard the Boeing 747-400 we can use the TERRAIN feature which gives a visual depiction of the terrain on the N.D. (Navigational Display) in front of both pilots, this in conjunction with the E.G.P.W.S. (Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System), gives great situational awareness and protection.
Kabul Air Traffic Control eventually signs off from assisting and gives clearance to xxxxx where the approach begins and other hazards come in to play………especially as the airport is still mined!
We will continue with the approach into Mazar-E-Sharif and the other Afghanistan airports in the next issue!



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