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A deadly mix of hard use and poor maintenance has taken a heavy toll in recent months on Afghanistan’s ageing fleet of Soviet-era helicopters, one of the mainstays of its air support while U.S. Black Hawk helicopters enter service over coming years.
A crash in southern Afghanistan last month in which two crew members were killed was at least the eighth this year. Earlier incidents have included a crash in the western province of Farah in October in which a deputy army corps commander was killed along with several other senior officials.
As the pace of operations against Taliban and Islamic State insurgents has increased, crews say they have been under pressure to take short cuts with maintenance, an issue U.S. military advisers have highlighted as a major concern for the fledgling Afghan air force they are trying to build up.
Afghan officials say the relentless tempo has pushed pilots and crews to fly overloaded aircraft and carry out non-standard “local maintenance” of problems that can range from repairing bulletholes to fixing engine damage.
“There are 20 operations in the country at one time and we need the choppers to support the ground forces. If they are not flyable, we have to make them flyable,” a senior government official said. “The helicopters are not that old but their maintenance cycle is a big issue.”