The UK Ministry of Defence has lifted the veil on a previously secretive helicopter training service being provided to future Afghan national security force pilots.

Details of the Project Curium activity were revealed at the MoD's Boscombe Down facility in Wiltshire on 3 March, along with information on a pair of Mil Mi-17 transports photographed in the circuit at the base and over the nearby Salisbury Plain Training Area since early last year.

Painted in the colours of the Qinetiq-managed Empire Test Pilots' School and carrying the registrations ZB697 and ZB698, the Russian-built aircraft were sourced from surplus Bulgarian air force stocks. Flightglobal's HeliCAS database says both were built in 1985.

 Mi-17 pair - Qinetiq
© Qinetiq

The first of 18 new Afghan pilots began their instruction in the UK in February 2008 with English language tuition, before moving on to fly 10h on the Slingsby Aviation Firefly, 60h on the Eurocopter Gazelle and 45h on the Mi-17. Nine flight engineers will also have been trained by the course’s conclusion on 31 March.

“Our first graduates are already flying Mi-17s in Afghanistan,” says Wg Cdr Al Smith, officer commanding the UK Joint Helicopter Command’s (JHC) Special Duties Squadron. This allocated 12 personnel to deliver the training programme, alongside more than 25 Qinetiq staff.

 Afghan Mi-17 pilots - Qinetiq
© Qinetiq
New generation: 10 of Afghanistan's UK-trained aircrew line up

The MoD describes the new aircrew as "a well-respected, competent and motivated cadre of professionals", and "the seed corn of an indigenous Afghan national security force helicopter capability". After completing tactical training in Afghanistan and flying operationally, several of the graduates are expected to be selected to instruct other new recruits.

"We want to serve our country, and bring peace to Afghanistan," says one of the new pilots, identified only as Karim, who will finish his UK-based training on 5 March.

Deep maintenance and engineering support for the Mi-17s was provided by Lithuanian maintenance and repair company Helisota. Modified with western communication and defensive aids equipment, the transports also had cabin armour added to closely match the aircraft configuration likely to be flown in Afghanistan, the MoD says.

 Mi-17 cockpit - CH FINT
© Craig Hoyle/Flight International
The aircraft were overhauled and upgraded by Mi-17 specialist Helisota

Qinetiq project director Charlie Ford says the helicopters - the first Soviet-bloc aircraft ever to have been added to the UK Military Register - have been reliable training assets, with Curium on track to finish on schedule.

Acquired using JHC funds, the aircraft will be gifted to the Afghan government and transported to the country shortly after its last pilots have completed their training, the MoD confirms. Qinetiq has no plans to replace them, but says it could do so if a follow-on training requirement was identified for Afghanistan. "There is already a very captive market out there for Mi-17 training," it notes.

The Afghan national army air corps has an inventory of 28 Mi-8/17s, as listed in HeliCAS. This includes a batch of four new Mi-17s acquired for the service by the US Navy within a 65-day period last year.

Source: Flight International