The past year has seen the skies over Wiltshire filled with two strange, foreign machines which are shortly due to depart our shores.  Steve Smith reports for Aero Resource…

These two aircraft have fascinated enthusiasts, spotters and photographers all over Salisbury Plain and the hype they created has seen people staking themselves out for hours in the Salisbury Plain Training Area (SPTA) or chasing them from point to point in a mad dash across the Plain.

The training program which these aircraft are a part of is due to end on 31st  March 2010, bringing with it the conclusion of Project Curium.

Project Curium is a small scale project, which began in February 2008, and has seen the UK JHC (Joint Helicopter Command) training a number of Afghan aircrew (pilots and flight engineers) to become proficient in their chosen field. There is a similar project running with the United States Military.

The aircraft in question are of course, the ungainly looking Mi-8’s, known as Mi-17’s, which are the export version. They are quite unmistakeablely unique helicopters and Qinetiq believe they are the only eastern bloc aircraft ever to be UK registered and flown with UK markings. The two examples are ZB697 and ZB698, are both ex-Bulgarian Air Force machines, built in the mid-80s. The Mi-17s were chosen for Project Curium as they are very similar to the machines native to the Afghan National Security Force. This also has the added benefit of not tying up valuable Squirrel and Griffin aircraft that UK students use.

The airframes were over-hauled by Helisota in Lithuania, to check airworthiness and configure them in a very similar arrangement to the aircraft that the student pilots will be flying in Afghanistan, once they graduate.

Maintenance has been provided by Qinetiq’s team of over 25 employees and have been ably backed up by a Helisota, who have extensive experience working with the type. Being introduced to service in 1965, most if not all issues that can occur with this type have been previously identified.

It is clear from speaking to the Qinetiq representatives that they are very fond of the aircraft and that reliability has been as good, if not slightly better than other types! Spare parts requisition has occasionally been an issue, however the majority of occasions in which one or other airframe has been grounded is due to Health and Safety issues, rather than mechanical.

The teaching staff are all volunteers from the Special Duties Squadron (SDS) and come from each of the three services. In total there are 12 instructors, many of whom have recent operational experience in Afghanistan. The majority of these instructors at present, come from the Royal Navy. Of these 12, three are Mi-17 instructors, having been educated on the type by private firm Concorde 21, two are Gazelle instructors, three teach the Flight Engineers and the remainder are the HQ element.

At present 27 aircrew have passed through the course including 18 pilots and 9 flight engineers. Only one has failed, although he has found a useful role in Ground Instruction in Afghanistan.

When meeting and speaking with two trainee Afghan pilots, it is very hard not to develop an immediate respect and admiration for what they have been through and what they intend to do once they return home. They have come to a foreign country, learned a foreign language and then learnt to use an incredibly complex piece of machinery in a short period of time.

The rigorous selection and training procedure they have been through runs as follows;

  • Most aircrew are volunteers already serving with the Afghan National Security Force, the majority of which have no previous flight experience.
  • Their first tasks comprise of learning a good standard of English and examinations in key subjects such as English and Mathematics.
  • Basic flight training follows at RAF Cranwell followed by a period of Ground Instruction on the Gazelle.  Flying experience on the Gazelle then commences comprising roughly 60 hours including basic helicopter training and low level training.  This is then followed by 45 hours on the Mi-17s lasting about 4 months, which is comprised of both helicopter training and threat avoidance and tactical training.  The average sortie length on the Mi-17 is around one hour and thirty minutes

There is no Mi-17 simulator available at Boscombe so all the training has to be conducted with the aircraft.

Several of the aircrew who have already graduated have returned to Afghanistan for more detailed training before they are declared fully operational.

It is clearly a tough program, usually lasting around 12 months for pilots, although the Flight Engineer program is slightly shorter. Both training schemes have been modelled on the very successful training given the UK students at the Defence Helicopter Flight School at RAF Shawbury – and pass rates have been similar!

It is hoped that eventually the aircrew trained at Boscombe Down will go on to teach the same subject to fellow Afghan aircrew to enable them to become self-sustaining. This in turn will allow for the eventual withdrawal of UK forces from the country.

Upon conclusion of the course the two airframes will be gifted to the Afghan Security Forces and sadly therefore, will no longer be seen gracing our skies. Qinetiq have no plans to continue a private training program on the Mi-17.

Project Curium is considered a success by all who have been involved in it and it seems the UK instruction staff take great pleasure and pride in their work, knowing they are helping Afghanistan to recover from the events of the last few years.

The trainees too, seem to have enjoyed their time in the UK and show great respect for the instruction staff. As the program is coming to an end, the trainees we spoke to were shortly due to return home and their determination to take the skills they have learnt on Project Curium back to Afghanistan is obvious. They want to get back and see their families and help re-build their war-torn country.

Many thanks go to Douglas Millard and all the MOD staff and aircrew who took time out to speak at the Press Conference and to show us around these remarkable machines.