KABUL, Afghanistan – Decades of civil war decimated Afghanistan's Air Force, and what little was left under the Taliban was bombed into oblivion during the coalition invasion following 9/11. But now the Afghan Air Force is being reborn.
"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, one of the most exciting things is to watch this fledgling Air Force regain its wings," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Walter Givhan, who is spearheading the reconstruction of the flight program.
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Givhan gave FOX News a tour of the new headquarters and dorms just built at the Kabul Air Field for the pilots, a kind of Afghan version of West Point, where their elite officers are being trained.
"It's great to be back," said Afghan Capt. Rohullah Safi as he leaned on the frame of an MI-17 Russian-made helicopter. "My dream was to fly again."
Safi was shot down by mujahideen rebels 18 years ago as he flew missions for the Soviet-sponsored Afghan Communist government. His helicopter fell — along with his government — and that was the end of his service.
Safi takes flight now in an MI-17 in the left seat, his co-pilot, American trainer Lt. Col. Todd "Burt" Lancaster, flying right.
The helicopter churns to life slowly as Safi and Lancaster flick the switches and the rotor blades spin up for take off. It's one of 29 helos and fixed-wing aircraft now bearing the Afghan flag, including the three that will fly President Karzai.
Most of the current trainees and pilots barely speak English but are still able to communicate with their American trainers. "There's a lot of what we call 'pointy, talky, grunty,'" said Lt. Col. Lancaster — but they usually understand one another, though not always.
"The other day I was flying a younger pilot, and he was pushing the stick forward, and I was pulling the stick back," he told FOX News. "I usually win in the end."
The MI-17s are up to 30 years old but have been refurbished and repainted, their old Russian-language cockpit labels replaced with English ones. The choppers cost about $3 million each, compared to an American Black Hawk, which is five times that. And the MI-17s are good in the mountains, vital for working in Afghanistan.
Brigadier General Givhan is like a proud father. He flies with us 45 minutes south to an American forward operating base to watch the Afghan Air Force do just what American pilots do every day, pick up cargo and drop some soldiers. "These guys are in the fight right now ferrying cargo and getting shot at," he told FOX News. "And they're good pilots."
Most of the current pilots are in their mid 40s, trained first by the Russians and now retrained by the U.S. Air Force and Army, working hard to get them off the ground again.
A crop of new pilots will soon go to America for further instruction as the U.S. government steps up to buy more aircraft for the Afghans, including fast attack aircraft a few years down the line.
The "7th Corps," as the flight squadron is known, is also flying MI-35s, the big Russian gunships the Soviets used to brutal effect during their invasion and run of the country, according to U.S. Army Col. James Brandon, who runs much of the Kabul Air Field for the Afghan Air Corps.
But Brandon says those gunships, which "strike fear into Afghans who still remember them," are now being refurbished to protect the Afghan people and their government.
"It's a proud moment," he says, to look up and see the Afghans flying again.
Proud and somewhat nerve-racking: as Safi approaches every mountain ridge, he seems to skim by just 10 feet above the rocks, clearly relishing his return to the skies.