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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Wednesday it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. In the ongoing war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rugged terrain and poor roads make military aircraft essential for everything from troop movement to supplying bases to evacuating casualties. But the fledging Afghan Air Force has few pilots, planes, or spare parts. And NATO says it will take at least three more years to get that force up to scratch. NPR's Sean Carberry reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLANE)

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: A grey C-130 cargo plane flies low over the runway at Kabul Airport. Moments later it lands and passes under the spray of two fire trucks before stopping in front of a crowd of officials. This ceremony last month marked the official transfer of the first two C-130s from the U.S. to the Afghan Air Force.

BRIGADIER GENERAL JOHN MICHEL: On this airplane here, the copilot was one of our two aircraft commanders that we're growing.

CARBERRY: U.S. Air Force Brigadier General John Michel says that the Afghan Air Force currently has only two pilots certified to fly the C-130s.

MICHEL: They're trained by our standards. They are trained at Little Rock Air Force base, which is the same place I send our C-130 pilots.

CARBERRY: Michel says these two planes nearly double the cargo capacity of the Afghan Air Force. Up until now it's been relying on small single engine Cessnas. The Afghans also have a small fleet of Russian-built helicopters. And next year the force will receive two more C-130s as well as attack aircraft. But it will still be a fraction of the air power NATO has deployed here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: NATO is currently making a big push to train Afghan flight crews as well as Afghan instructors who can run the training after the current NATO mission ends next year.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

CARBERRY: Here in a cold, dark hanger in Kabul, an Afghan crew is training in a flight simulator. There are two American Army mentors here, but the instructor is Afghan, Major Farid, who goes by one name.

FARID: Last week we start our training with the new crew, air assault training, and alone without the mentor.

CARBERRY: Farid says today's scenario is to depart Kabul, fly to a base to pick up combat troops and deliver them to a commander on the battlefield at an exact time.

FARID: So we are looking for a good crew coordination. They make a decision what time we will take off, the heading, the fuel.

CARBERRY: Army Captain Brandt Anderson, one of the program mentors running the simulator, says they are gradually increasing the difficulty of the training exercises.

CAPTAIN BRANDT ANDERSON: Today, we're going to reduce the visibility, start increasing the winds and seeing how they're able to respond once they take off and realize their time isn't exactly going according to plan.

CARBERRY: So right now standing inside the simulator, and they're taxiing down the runway, and it looks like they've just lifted off. The crew is able to make the appropriate adjustments and completes the mission on time.

Major Farid says the crew did a good job, but they need to vary their routes and stick to their headings.

CAPTAIN AHMAD FAWAD HAIDARY: We still have a lot of challenges in front of us.

CARBERRY: Captain Ahmad Fawad Haidary, one of the student pilots, says the Air Force needs ongoing support from NATO.

HAIDARY: We have good pilots trying to build a country, trying to improve the Air Force. But we need aircraft, we need spare parts, we need logistics.

CARBERRY: The Afghan Air Force regularly has to cancel missions because aircraft are out of service. Even at full capacity, they can't meet the demands for troop movements, medevac, and delivering supplies.

MAJOR GENERAL KEN WILSBACH: Developing an air force takes time.

CARBERRY: Major General Ken Wilsbach is commander of U.S. and NATO Air Forces in Afghanistan.

WILSBACH: Keep in mind that just over a year ago this Air Force was grounded for safety violations and not following the rules.

CARBERRY: Wilsbach says the force has turned things around over the last year. But he warns that the progress will be in jeopardy if the U.S. and Afghan governments fail to reach an agreement that would allow U.S. trainers to remain here after 2014. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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