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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

On a Wing and a Prayer

Thrills and spills flying the Afghan experience

By Anthony Davis


ONCE, TRAVELERS FLYING AFGHANISTAN'S Ariana carrier wondered if they would ever depart. Flights were notoriously prone to leave hours, even days late owing to bad weather or the whim of pilots. Now, frequent fliers in Afghanistan are far more likely to be worried about their chances of arriving.

The recent spate of incidents involving Asian airlines has many travelers concerned about air safety in the region. But for the most part, crashes are the exception rather than the rule. Not so in Afghanistan. A combination of factors -- the endless civil war, lousy maintenance and aviation practices as well as a fatalistic attitude toward flying -- makes the severely divided nation certainly Asia's (perhaps even the world's) most dangerous country for air travel.

Consider the grim litany over just eight months. Last August the northern opposition's newly appointed prime minister and several other officials died when their Russian-built Antonov transport (not Ariana, which is now controlled by the Taliban regime) crashed as it landed in perfect weather at an airstrip in central Afghanistan. The disaster was put down to mechanical failure or pilot error. In January an Ariana Antonov flying from southern Kandahar to western Herat crashed across the border in Pakistan after its crew had tried unsuccessfully to land at Herat, then at an airbase 95 km to the south, and back at Kandahar. When it finally ran out of fuel, it was desperately trying to reach Quetta in Pakistan. Not long afterward, another Ariana jet was written off when it tried to land at Jalalabad in the east. Last month Ariana lost one of its four Boeing 727s when the plane crashed in bad weather on its approach to Kabul from Dubai via Kandahar. All 22 crew and passengers died. The airline once linked Kabul with Paris, Prague, Moscow, New Delhi and the Gulf. Now it is reduced to three Boeings, a Tupolev and a few turbo-prop Antonovs.

A bleak logic lies behind the string of accidents. Maintenance has declined sharply as many skilled mechanics have quit. "Most of the engineers with experience of Russian planes have now left the country," says Roberto Olsen, a Pakistan-based Danish contract pilot flying U.N. planes in Afghanistan. "On top of that, they don't have spare parts." The dangers of flying aging and ill-maintained aircraft are compounded by the breakdown or lack of navigational aids on the ground. Air traffic beacons at Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif airports which could guide a pilot down to around 600 metres in reduced visibility have ceased to work, leaving pilots to find their own way over rugged terrain in often treacherous weather. Other frequently used domestic airports have no "navaids" whatsoever. "We fly by the book, which means you need at least 3 km visibility around a base," says Olsen. "But many of the Afghan pilots will go in even when the weather is bad."

How come? Part of the answer lies with Inshallah (As God Wills). The term punctuates the speech of many Muslims (both devout and less so), and particularly that of Afghans. It reflects an ingrained acceptance of a divine will which can make planning and precautions secondary, if not superfluous. In Afghan aviation, that attitude often translates into a cheerful disregard for safety procedures.

Nowhere is this truer than with overloading, a risky practice that is virtually routine. Military flights are generally crammed with as many troops and with as much equipment as can be squeezed aboard. And pilots who do protest are often overruled by impatient commanders with no technical knowledge.

Overloading was almost certainly a key factor in the loss of an Antonov transport belonging to Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostam's fleet in April 1993. In addition to more than 70 civilian passengers (including most of the national wrestling team) and crew -- all of whom died -- the aircraft was also loaded with jeeps and other freight. Overloading and poor maintenance have taken an even greater toll on helicopters, particularly those operating over Afghanistan's unforgiving mountain terrain. Since the fall of the communist government in 1992, over 20 Russian-built transport helicopters have been lost in non-combat crashes.

The alternative to flying is a lengthy bus or taxi journey along ruined roads through countryside plagued by banditry and fighting. So risky as flying may be, there is no shortage of travelers heading to the airport with their prayer beads and pushing their way on to an aging Antonov or a shuddering helicopter. If one was lost last week, well, this week your chances just might be better. Inshallah.


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