It was an unforgettable flight. Carl Gustafson, a First Officer with Jet Blue Airways out of Long Beach and a volunteer at Flabob Airport, got a little more excitement than he anticipated in flying a Cessna Skylane to Shindand, Afghanistan. Gustafson was one of a flight of three that helped launch a new Afghan Air Force. He was joined by professional ferry pilot Brian Quindt and retired Delta pilot, Jeff Hall, who also flew Cessna Skylanes halfway around the world. The three Cessna T182T’s will be used as primary trainers by the Afghans.
They will eventually be joined by three other T182T’s and 28 Grand Caravans, all part of an $88.5 million U.S. grant to the Afghan military. This marks the first time Afghanistan has had its own flight training operation.
Gustafson, and the others departed St. John’s, Newfoundland last week on a direct course to Prestwick, Scotland. “It was a new aircraft and it performed flawlessly,” said Gustafson, “but being out over an ocean for 10.6 hours, most of it at night, is really stressful. You spend a lot of time focused on the engine monitoring gages.” From Scotland, they flew down to Ankara, Turkey. To avoid Iranian airspace, they followed the south shore of the Black Sea, crossed the Caspian Sea and went down through Turkmenistan into Afghanistan. Once they were handed off to ATC in Afghanistan, they noticed the controllers spoke perfect English. They were U.S. Air Force personnel, who quickly informed them that Shindand was a “hot spot”, subjected to frequent mortar attacks and gunfire. “That brought on a whole new level of stress,” said Gustafson, who admitted they had taken on the assignment with little idea of what they were getting into. Fortunately, the three Skylanes were not used for target practice.
Their arrival at Shindand coincided with ceremonies opening the new training facilities. The airport is left over from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. About a thousand people greeted the three pilots and the Skylanes. After a number of speeches, the three civilian pilots were flown to Kabul, where they boarded flights to India, leaving the war zone behind them.
“The scenery we passed over was phenomenal,” said Gustafson. “The contrast between Europe and Afghanistan was very dramatic. It was like a time trip. The wastelands on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea are amazingly stark and truly fascinating to fly over.”
Gustafson turned down an offer to fly a new Caravan over the same route. Total time for the Skylane delivery flight, which started in Wichita, was 45.8 hours.