Taliban helicopters, a Black Hawk veteran pilot’s thoughts

The author (credit Jack McCain/US Navy)

Jack ‘Whopper’ McCain fought in Afghanistan in the Blackhawk and MH-60S ‘Sierra’ helicopter. He also trained Afghan servicemen to fly. Following a recent crash by a Taliban-seized H-60, I asked Jack for his thoughts on the Talibans potential use of helicopters.

How many US or former Afghan armed forces aircraft have fallen into Taliban hands?

It is difficult to tell just how many they have, and what their condition is. The American contractors did an excellent job of doing what they could to disable aircraft and support systems before they left during the evacuation. Other aircraft were lost due to battle damage and accidents or were taken apart for maintenance and abandoned. The best numbers I have for the Blackhawk specifically is 2-3 that are in somewhat airworthy condition.

“I am not someone who would ever wish another person death, even in the case of a pilot who betrayed me personally, and those he vowed to fight alongside. So, I do not relish the thought of the lives lost in the crash. However, I can be glad that the Taliban now have one less asset at their disposal, and fewer people to fly for them.”

How likely is it the Taliban will develop an air power capability – what stops them?

I would put the likelihood of them developing a credibly air-power capability at low. They will likely have better success with their Russian helicopters, as those programs were further along, and the Taliban and other mujahadeen forces had mixed success flying them after the Russian retreat from Afghanistan. They also had longer to develop maintenance personnel and pilots capable of doing maintenance test flying, but even those aircraft still used foreign advisors to run the maintenance programs and logistics. Their American systems are facing a two-fold problem. The first is that it will be significantly difficult to procure spares and components. And while some spares do exist there already, that supply is finite. The second, and this one is most specific to the UH-60 and MD530s, is a lack of trained maintainers, and pilots capable of maintenance test flying. There are no UH-60 pilots left in Afghanistan who were qualified to do maintenance tests, we evacuated all of them. The maintenance test flight, or Functional Check Flight for the Navy readers, is a highly technical process of methodically testing each aircraft system after maintenance has been performed. In helicopters, this is especially critical, because it requires balancing all of the blade shaft, and other component, vibrations so the aircraft is capable of controlled flight. Without this capability, the aircraft have a very limited shelf life.

A Taliban piloted H-60 crashed – what happened?

Attempting to dissect any accident without a thorough mishap investigation by qualified personnel is little more than educated speculation, but in this particular case I have some edifying information. That air-frame had been damaged by ground fire in Shorab (see below). The ground fire had damaged one of the cables that runs from the tail rotor pedals to the tail rotor quadrant. The UH-60 was an aircraft designed out of the lessons of the Vietnam war, with as much redundancy as possible. So this particular problem, the tail rotor cable shearing has that same redundancy built in. If one of the two cables shear there is a compensation system to maintain some controllability of the tail rotor. If both shear, the tail blades move to a pre-set fixed position, making the aircraft have known flight characteristics at certain airspeeds and weight configurations. If one cable sheared, the issue may have gone unnoticed by the pilot, and a poor or slow reaction put the aircraft into an uncontrollable state. If both sheared, or the emergency was compounded by another tail rotor controllability issue, which seems somewhat likelier, the aircraft would begin to spin out of control, especially in a high power situation like the out-of-ground-effect hover they were in, and unless a well-drilled crew reacted as they were trained to do, the aircraft would quickly become un-recoverable. That is a long answer to say, it was most probably a tail rotor problem, brought on by a sheared tail rotor cable.

Image: Jack McCain

Are US-trained pilots still in Afghanistan?

There are. As for the UH-60, nearly every seasoned pilot was evacuated thanks to the monumental efforts of a huge number of people, many of whom I want to continue to thank publicly, especially Shawn VanDiver, the pilots of HSC-85, and one individual named Mike, to whom I owe the most. There are still some pilots, that we are working to get out, but they were not the ones who had been qualified to fly missions. The Taliban were denied that strategic resource. However, one pilot, who I will not name, is flying for the Taliban, as he was coerced by means of his family’s detainment. The second Idres Mohammed, was a turncoat, who lied about his aircraft having a maintenance problem, which he then stole, landed in his village, and covered up so it could not be sought by coalition drones. After the Americans left, he flew it to Taliban lines. I signed off on his Aircraft Commander upgrade checkride, which I regret to this day.

What should I have asked you about air assets in Afghanistan?

Less a question, and more of a sentiment. The National Resistance Front, a coalition of former Northern Alliance members, former Afghan military members, and others, who are resisting Taliban rule, under the command of Sandhurst Graduate Ahmad Massoud, the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, in the Panjshir valley. They have had some notable success, including the downing of a Taliban helicopter in June.

All hope is not lost, and there is credible resistance to the Taliban. I feel like this is an important point to make, because it needs to be a part of the narrative, and any ongoing conversation about the future of Afghanistan.

What are your personal feelings about seeing images of H-60s in Afghanistan today?

I am not someone who would ever wish another person death, even in the case of a pilot who betrayed me personally, and those he vowed to fight alongside. So, I do not relish the thought of the lives lost in the crash. However, I can be glad that the Taliban now have one less asset at their disposal, and fewer people to fly for them. I also hope this scares off anyone even mildly considering trying to fly a Talib aircraft. In this particular accident they were trying to train a new pilot. They are not maintained and are much more dangerous to anyone trying to pilot them, than to anyone they could be fighting against. You’d have to be stupid or suicidal to get into one. I feel loss, having had pilots I trained killed fighting against the Taliban. But also hopeful, knowing that the United States now has a group of brave, dedicated, and fine people who will make amazing American citizens. There is much work to be done on their behalf, and on so many others either under or resisting Taliban rule, but at least that work has begun.

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