Italian shuttle flights to Kabul

The following article was published in the July 2002 issue of Air Forces Monthly


Protected from indiscreet eyes and far away from the honors of the mass media’s news reports, there is a very delicate operation that sees the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (Italian Air Force, ItAF) engaged from December 28th 2001: the mission in Afghanistan.

Although many details of this operation were kept secret and not unveiled for much time, in accordance to rigorous security measures adopted after the September 11th terrorist attacks (and later because of the growing tension that carried to the beginning of the Operation “Anaconda”), the impressive air lift sustained from the crews and aircraft of 46th Aerobrigata (Air Brigade) of Pisa to support the ISAF (International Security and Assistance Force), constitutes one of the more important involvement of the ItAF today. In order to have an idea of the logistic effort sustained by the ItAF in order to build up an “out of area operation” of such proportions, with relative deployment of aircrafts and personnel on a foreign airport, it could be sufficient to have a quick look at the numbers of the mission, updated up to the end of February: 81 sorties for Kabul and Bagram for 324 flight hours and 720 passengers with 257,400 pounds of transported material.

The Italian base at Abu Dhabi

Unlike the Operation “Stabilise” (the one sustained from the multinational force of peace INTERFET in East Timor), that saw the G-222 of the 46th Aerobrigata operating from a military airbase, Darwin AB, the missions in Afghanistan of the Italian aircrafts originate from an international airport: Abu Dhabi.

Initially, the Italian aircraft operated from Muscat, in Oman, then, after the first flights, the Italian “decision maker” decided to move the Hercules in a more “strategic” base that could give planners more than a single route to choose to reach the destination and that could also be away from the thunderstorms that could cause either delays or cancellations of the sorties. Completely overcrowded with American aircraft the familiar base of Al Dhafra, in the United Arab Emirates, that during the Desert Storm had accommodated the “Locusta Village” of the Italian Detachment and its Tornado, the only airport able to accommodate the cumbersome Italian transports was the large and heavy- traffic Abu Dhabi, that still hosts the Italian shuttle flights to Afghanistan. All the material needed to build the ItAF detachment was carried from the first ten C-130J of 46th Brigata Aerea that carried out 29 sorties for a total of 165,5 flight hours with 269 passengers and 150,400 pounds of material transported, and from the B-707 of 14th Stormo (Wing) from Pratica di Mare which, in a mixed configuration, combi-pax (fleeting cargo and passengers), carried out 14 sorties for a total of 90 flight hours. A few cargo flights were also rented from civil carriers.

The Detachment, Commanded by T.Col. Fausto Braghieri, is currently operating 2 aircraft and 40 men between officers and enlisted personnel. The aircrafts are the “old” C-130H, equipped with self-defense systems required for the employment in theatres of operations like the Balkans. Also the new C-130J can be quickly equipped with modern defense systems and have a more advanced self-defense suite, however crews have not yet completed the training courses so, at least for the moment, the “J” are only used for liaison and transport flight to/from Italy while “H” are used for the shuttle flights UAE-Afghanistan. The personnel is obviously composed of flight crews and maintenance specialists, plus officers that carry out functions of “liaison officer”: they coordinate operative tasks, ATC (Air Traffic Control) routes and diplomatic clearances with the national joint operative center, COI (Centro Operativo Interforze), and with the Command of the aerial operations of the “Enduring Freedom” based in Tampa, Florida. For this purpose, it must be emphasized that the Italian contingent belonging to the ISAF, operates in Afghanistan like a distinct unit from the larger Operation “Enduring Freedom”. The structures of the two, “Enduring Freedom” and ISAF, are supported from different hierarchies of Command and Control, but they act in the same theater of operations and are correlated thanks to an incessant activity of coordination. Italy participates in the ISAF with 350 military, with personnel from the intruders, cavalrymen and NBC experts, with the aim of assisting the Afghan political institutions in the attempt to maintain a safe atmosphere in the city of Kabul and in the nearby areas. The burden of the movements of the Italian contingent to and from Afghanistan, from the beginning, weighs on the assets provided from the Aeronautica Militare: without the aircraft of the ItAF the Italian contingent could never be deployed.

The first missions were destined to Bagram, a small city located a few miles North of the capital city of Afghanistan that has a small landing strip that allowed the downloading of the first soldiers of the advance group of Italian contingent in the operative area.

A typical day

A pair of sorties are launched daily from Abu Dhabi (one for every C-130H available).

The aircraft take off every day between the 8:30 and the 9:00 A.M. even if the EOBT (Estimated Off-Block Time, the estimated time of removal of the blocks from the wheels used as reference to determine the take off time) can vary in comparison to the operational requirements in the theater of operations. The shuttle flights are allocated a “slot”, that is a temporary window of 30 minutes within which aircraft have to take off in order to be both deconflicted from the air traffic departing from the Emirates airports and to be able to arrive within the allocated slot for the landing in Kabul. The coordination for the release of ATC authorizations and the “diplomatic clearances” needed to overfly the countries along the route is guaranteed from the support staff to the Air Attaché of the Italian Embassy. Obviously, in order to take off that early, the crews are forced to very early risings: the alarm-clock sounds some minute before the 5 A.M., crews have just enough time to dress with Bosnia-like uniforms, with ankle boots and flying jacket, then jump on the coach to get to the airport. The short way that separates the lodgings from the Abu Dhabi airport, allows the pilots to begin discussing the mission, anticipating the arguments that will come at the pre-flight briefing. Once the airport is reached, crews carry on the usual procedures of security identification and customs passage, and then reach the aircraft, normally parked beside civilian “wide bodies”. A noteworthy aspect is the remarkable level of integration of the Italian personnel with the airport authorities of the UAE, in spite of the atypical cohabitation between the two realities, one civil, and the other military.

When pilots take the aircraft on charge to go through the walkaround procedure, pre-flight checklist and engine start-up, maintenance specialists have just finished performing the last check, that on chaff and flares dispensers. Because of the duration of every sortie, (between the 10 and 11 hours), in order to guarantee the availability and the efficiency of the aircraft during the day (the activity is only performed during the daylight hours), the maintenance people work on the two aircrafts during the night. The “pipistrelli” (the “bats”), as they nicknamed themselves because of their nocturnal engagement, begin working around 10:00 P.M, possibly ending, when the daily ATO (Air Tasking Order) demands the employment of a single aircraft, even at 1:00 A.M. of the following day!

Full fuel load is required for take off since in Kabul there are no refueling facilities. Consequently, internal fuel tanks are filled to the maximum capacity and some pound of material or some soldier is left on the ground. It will be transported to Kabul with the next shuttle flight.

First part of the mission is calm enough. Takeoff, instrumental departure from the Abu Dhabi control zone as routine, then the aircraft (that do not fly in formation and are always separated to each other by many minutes) head towards the “warm” zone. Despite the fact that tracks to destination change daily, in order to render the routes of the aircraft more unpredictable, the approach paths to the Afghanistan are practically fixed. The first route foresees the turn to a North heading after reaching the Strait of Hormuz, to cross the Iran, and finally to turn starboard, North East, to Kabul.

The second route, allows the aircraft to fly along the coasts of the Arabic peninsula until reaching Pakistan, then proceed North, in order to enter Afghanistan in direction of capital city from the South East of Kabul. The first route has been very rarely used: it demands a long coordination work to obtain the required “diplo-clearance” even if, especially during the days of massive strikes, it has constituted a valid alternative to the route overflying the Pakistan zone overcrowded with reconnaissance and fighter aircrafts performing CAPs, Combat Air Patrols. Moreover, this route has a long leg inside the Afghan territory while the second one allows the aircrafts to enter in enemy territory only in the last phase of the flight. Independently from the chosen route, navigation must be as sharp as possible so as to avoid the overflight of zones where Intelligence has signaled the possible presence of the dangerous “Stinger” Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs). All navigation is GPS-based because no radio-aid is available along the route while continuous calls are radioed by “Magic”, the E-3 AWACS that has the tactical control of the flights above Afghanistan, to provide the “picture” that is to say information concerning threats and other allied traffic operating nearby.

Tension in cabin increases as the flight proceeds on mountains, plateaus and deserts of this part of central Asia that, from above, looks like a lunar environment. The four members of the cockpit crew, all people with a lot of experience in international missions, scan the overflown land with attention, trying to notice every suspect activity or, worse, the classic white smoke trails of the antiaircraft missiles. Should a launch of a missile be identified, there would be a handful of seconds to put into effect the appropriate evasive maneuvers and to try of avoid it as a C-130, loaded with fuel, material and passengers, is surely not very agile. Only to avoid the flight path being too predictable, the Hercules carry out quick turns to right and on the left of the route, in what from the ground could seem a true ballet. Fortunately, so far, no airplane has been object of attention from SAM, nor launches of missiles have been reported.

From the cockpit, as the aircraft approaches its destination airport and the surrounding mountains, Kabul looks like a fortress surrounded by mountains 5,000 meters tall: the arrival route to capital town gives no escape, from whichever part the aircraft arrives, it is forced to cross narrow valleys, where sharp-shooters could easily hide, with a predictable path. As the aircraft joins the overhead of the city, it starts spiraling to lower level, keeping eyes wide open to see if there are other aircrafts in the visual pattern or helicopters flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules) around the airport. A pair of medium altitude passages for the recognition of the runway and the first C-130 turns into the final heading for landing. The overflight of the city denotes a myriad of small houses of which only foundations remain.

On the ground the temperature is cold (less than 5° C), at least 20-25°C lower than the mild Abu Dhabi, and the runway is struck from a stiff wind that raises a lot of powder and sand. The runway is surrounded of ruins and wreckage of civil and military aircraft, many of which were probably destroyed well before the “Enduring Freedom”. The air terminal seems similar to the Sarajevo one: same devastation, same bullet holes on the walls. What is really different are just the shadings of the surrounding landscape, rigorously colored in ocher-yellow.

The “Hercules” does not switch the engines off: in 40 minutes it must download all and leave again, disengaging the parking pit beside the runway in order to make room for the other landing aircraft. The engines kept running are just a precaution that allows to take off in a sort of “Scramble” should the need to evacuate the airport arise. After a quick takeoff and a steep climb (the aircraft is now lighter), the return flight is carried out with the same modalities (and the same tension) as of on the way. Because of the psycho-physical engagement demanded by this type of mission, crews are swapped on a monthly basis, trying, if possible, to employ 3 crews and rotate them on the 2 aircrafts: two crews in flight and one resting every day.

To the sunset, the coastal cities of the Emirats are clearly visible many miles off the coast and tension gradually decrease. When the aircraft land, the “bats” are already waiting for the C-130, to begin a new night shift: tomorrow the Italian aircraft have to fly again in the “fortress”.

© David Cenciotti