Afghanistan is just about the worst place in the world to wage a high-tech war. Rugged, landlocked, stitched by countless tall mountain peaks, laced by extreme weather and mostly undeveloped, Afghanistan makes getting anywhere by any method expensive, time-consuming and dangerous.
Just ask the passengers and crews of two U.S. Air Force cargo planes that met disastrous ends on the new airstrip at the military’s Forward Operating Base Shank, in Logar province just south of Kabul. Since last year a $200-milllion C-17 airlifter and one of the smaller, $70-million C-130Js have careered off Shank’s 7,000-foot-long runway, fortunately sparing their occupants’ lives but effectively wrecking both planes and briefly halting other air traffic.
The heavily damaged Boeing-made C-17, which crashed in January last year, was finally removed after languishing three months. The Lockheed Martin C-130, which slammed into the ground in late May, is still there under Air Force guard, a forlorn monument to 12 years of hard, costly fighting that has defied the Pentagon’s high-tech methods.
Until mid-2009 Shank didn’t even have a working runway. But Pres. Barack Obama, as one of his first acts in office, had ordered tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan. The reinforcements needed new facilities, so the Army’s 877th Engineer Battalion swarmed over Shank’s dusty expanse. “There is a lot of construction going on … as they finish getting the runway and parking pads ready,” an Army aviator named Paul Galan wrote.
At first the new runway was made of clay and handled just helicopters and smaller transport planes. “If it rains, it turns to mud and the planes can’t land,” wrote Maj. Tom Baier, a military doctor.
In 2010 the Army reinforced Shank’s runway to handle the four-engine, 140-ton C-17, America’s mainstay long-range hauler, capable of carrying 80 tons of supplies across oceans. With the C-17 “we can accept new missions and accept new units coming in and different kinds of equipment,” said Staff Sgt. Dave Cygon, an Army cargo handler.
But the 7,000-foot runway was barely long enough for a fully loaded C-17, especially considering the 7,000-foot elevation, which increases a plane’s landing speed and therefore its landing distance. (It’s not clear why the Army didn’t make the airstrip longer, but the rough terrain could be the reason.) Add Afghanistan’s windy, icy winters to the mix and Shank became a veritable airplane trap.
At noon on Jan. 23, 2012, a C-17 from Charleston, S.C., slid out of control while attempting to land. The giant airlifter “departed the prepared runway surface, struck an embankment and came to rest approximately 700 feet from the end of the runway,” according to the Air Force. “The aircraft sustained damage to the landing gear, cargo floor, undercarriage, antennas and main structural components.”
“The cause of the mishap was the pilot and co-pilot failed to identify that the landing distance required to safely stop the aircraft exceeded the runway length,” the Air Force concluded. Weather has also been mentioned as a factor.
No one on board the plane was hurt, but the aircraft itself was almost totaled and prevented more C-17s from landing. The flying branch actually considered simply destroying the plane. But after consultation with Boeing, the Air Force concluded the C-17, one of just 220 in service, could be saved. Army and Air Force engineers built an earthen ramp and eased the airlifter to a corner of the base where Boeing workers could perform $70 million in repairs.
The military was tight-lipped throughout the mishap and aftermath, in part to prevent a Taliban attack on the engineers trying to repair the plane — and also perhaps because it was embarrassing. When Facebook users began speculating about the incident, a member of the recovery team named Mike Salmon issued a warning. “Not sure if everyone should be talking about this,” Salmon wrote.
And Shank wasn’t done eating airplanes.
On May 19 a 37-ton, propeller-driven C-130 coming from Kandahar on a medical evacuation mission slammed hard onto Shank’s runway, smashing its right wing and outboard engine nacelle — similar to the incident depicted above.
No one was hurt. The badly damaged plane moulders beside the runway as the Air Force investigates the incident.
There are plenty of clues. “Hard landings occur when an aircraft impact the ground while descending at a rate greater than normal,” Stars and Stripes noted.
A C-130 needs just 3,000 feet or fewer to land. At 7,000 feet, Shank’s runway is long enough, in theory. But in Shank’s thin, high-altitude air, some pilots might prefer to extend their drag-inducing flaps, swapping landing distance for a higher rate of descent.
Known to pilots as “max effort landings,” these quick touch-downs can be dangerous. After one violent max effort landing, a passenger scolded pilot L.D. Alford. “You’re walking away from it, aren’t you?” Alford shot back.
At Shank the C-130's crew and passengers walked away but the plane could be a total write-off — and the latest victim of an unforgiving airstrip in an unforgiving country after more than a decade of war.