Air Kandahar

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KANDAHAR AIRFIELD -- The man in the photo below spent nearly three decades in the Canadian military, and then, working for the private military company Skylink, three years as de facto commander of the African Union's air force. When I met him at dawn in Kandahar, his current place of business, he had already nearly finished sending his fleet of helicopters out on their daily appointed rounds. He had also already lit up his first Cohiba of the day, and smoked it nearly down to the butt.

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Bob Waring runs Kandahar's branch of Skylink, which carries military cargo all over southern Afghanistan. His business responds directly, and with remarkable efficiency, to the central logistical challenge of the war: the roadside bomb. Convoys keep getting attacked and blown up, and even when they spot an IED and have time to handle it, they can be delayed for many hours at a time. Skylink faces no such problems. Each morning a gaggle of white helicopters, all ex-Soviet models with Eastern-bloc crews hardened by years flying in the worst conditions on earth, take off and ferry equipment to bases in the region. They fly tactically, and they know what it's like to get shot at, because some of the pilots remember the terrain from a certain grittier war that lasted from 1979 to 1989.

By now everyone is familiar -- not to say comfortable -- with the pseudo-mercenary outfits like Blackwater and Triple Canopy, which replicate the functions of the military, but as private entities. Many even accept that these companies often do good and laudable work more efficiently than any government. What is less well understood is how fully private companies have proliferated to fill military functions other than those of ground-based shooters and personal security details. As ground movements have become messier and more dangerous, emphasis has shifted to air power, both among militaries and the companies that support them.

Airborne military contracting is not new. In Iraq, a publicity-shy company called AirScan used to fly modified single-engine planes out of Kirkuk, watching for activity on the sensitive oil pipeline in northern Iraq. Its personnel draw from Air Force Special Operations veterans. Waring's company performs an logistical role, and one that is more vital to the smooth function of ISAF. During the cool morning hours, before the heat of the day cooks their equipment and increases the risk of a malfunction, the crews scramble to take on payloads, and the roughly two dozen helicopters depart in the space of about an hour. Here's a video of a few of them taking off:

Ex-Soviet aircraft have long suffered mockery for their rickety construction, chewing-gum repair jobs, and bibulous crews. In Iraq a few years ago, I frequently saw Antonovs and Ilyushins whose dings had been hammered out with sledgehammers, and whose pilots were semi-nude Moldovans (to beat the heat, they stripped to their briefs, anointing their seats with the sweat off their pale, hairy backs).

Waring declined to make his crews accessible for interviews, but he insisted that the old image of drunk Slavs flying into Pamiri mountainsides had become unfair. Indeed, the crews I saw on a visit at short notice seemed professional and at the very least concerned enough with their own survival to make sure their equipment worked perfectly. They wore crisp uniforms and were going through a visible checklist routine. Waring said that the generation trained during the Soviet era is starting to age out of their useful years, and are being replaced with a younger generation of Eastern European aviators with more sophisticated aeronautical education. As for the equipment, it remains pared to its essentials, and therefore simpler to maintain and fix in an environment whose heat and dust ravages complex machinery.

Here's a video of a Skylink helicopter picking up an external payload (slung underneath):

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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