Post-hurricane stricken Puerto Rico and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan are vastly different situations, but one thing they have in common is the opportunity for contract aviation to make a positive difference in both places. It’s not all glory and excitement for those working in the contract aviation arena. The risks can be significant, the stakes high, and in some cases, the operating environment unfriendly; but when success is achieved, the impact is tangible and real.

1. Contract Aviation: What are we really talking about?

Contract aviation encompasses a broad spectrum of missions and individual responsibilities. It’s more than just the pilot that flies the plane that has been contracted out. It includes the trainers, the maintainers, the equipment, all of it or maybe only one part of it. It can operate within our borders or overseas, on a short-term basis or in a sustained status. In short, it covers anything aviation-related that an organization (or government) needs – but can’t provide – in order to accomplish a goal, so an outside contractor like MAG Aerospace is hired to do the job.  It might be easier to understand what contract aviation entails when viewed from the perspective of some of the missions involved. MAG has led the way in three distinct extraordinary examples of contract aviation, all of which demonstrate the diverse but extremely valuable contributions this field of work makes.Support and Training for Special Mission Wing – Afghanistan

The Afghan Special Mission Wing (SMW) is an 800-man elite aviation unit which is an off-shoot of the Afghan Armed Forces under the Ministry of Interior. It was created in 2005 when Afghanistan realized their security forces required rotary wing tactical mobility and manned Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) to support counternarcotics missions. Since then, the SMW’s role has been expanded to supporting counter-terrorism missions against the Taliban and ISIS, as well as humanitarian operations. As a special operations aviation unit, the SMW requires a much greater level of technical proficiency than ordinary Afghan forces because of the extreme difficulty and complexity of the missions they are called on to conduct.  

At first, the SMW did not have all the equipment or the expertise to conduct their mission. They needed assistance, which came from the U.S. Armed Forces, along with contractors, who provided that support and training. The SMW needed to learn how to operate the Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter to conduct combat operations, night-time raids, troop insertions, quick response missions and other types of challenging operations. In 2014, MAG arrived as one of the contractor companies supporting this mission and has been providing support to the SMW ever since, working alongside the U.S. Special Operations Advisory Group (SOAG). MAG has a sizable team in place, split evenly between pilots and maintainers.   

When MAG stepped in in 2014, they immediately deployed teams of instructor pilots, crews, mechanics, and logisticians to train, advise, and support the SMW. Later, in 2015, MAG set up an SMW aircrew training program and maintenance capability in Kandahar, all within a 30 day period and 4 months ahead of scheduled implementation.  

MAG’s efforts also included the following initiatives, as they worked side by side with the Afghan forces:

  • Provided Aircrew Progression and Mission Qualification Training for the SMW, creating a fully qualified day/night air assault force capable of providing fully proficient mission support and planning to Afghan military special mission units.
  • Developed an aircrew training program with both Afghan SMW and US military advisor buy-in that is tailored specifically to the SMW’s mission and can be sustained for the long term.
  • Provided surge maintenance capacity and training for the SMW and flight operations support personnel to support both the operational and training mission for the SMW in theater.

One of the primary goals of MAG’s work with the SMW – and a key indicator of success – was how well the Afghan forces in the SMW could ultimately operate on their own. Until 2014, MAG personnel conducted missions on the Mi-17 with the Afghan forces. MAG also worked closely with the SMW to train the pilots and sensor operators on the PC-12 surveillance aircraft they had received in 2013. By 2015, the SMW was fully trained to independently fly both the Mi-17 and the PC-12.

Now the entire contractor team (to include MAG) serves primarily in a mentorship capacity (training new recruits and providing continuation training) as the SMW has gained the independence it needs – and should have – to conduct counternarcotics/counter-terrorism missions. Considering that the drug trade is the Taliban’s primary source of funding, the success SMW has achieved in disrupting that trade is critical to influencing the Taliban toward peace negotiations. In 2017, for example, the SMW was responsible for denying $180 million in revenue to the Taliban. Shortly into 2018, the SMW had already caused the Taliban to lose $69 million in revenue.

While a large part of the U.S. mission to train, advise and assist the SMW comes from the U.S. military (specifically the SOAG), contract aviation service providers have certainly played a pivotal role in the SMW’s success in Afghanistan.

2. Support to ISR Operations – Middle East

For the past three years, MAG has been supporting a government-owned contract air surveillance mission in the Middle East to monitor terrorist and insurgent activity. The mission specifically involves operating ISR aircraft. MAG stepped in to provide the requisite 24/7 surveillance 365 days a year when other contractors struggled to keep up with the high operational tempo of the mission.

MAG provides both the pilots needed to fly the specialized fixed-wing platform, and the sensor operators to operate the sensor systems on the aircraft. These aircraft provide a persistent capability to detect, locate, classify, identify and track targets of interest with a high degree of timeliness and accuracy. Collected information is processed on board and turned into actionable intelligence that can be provided to commanders and operational units on the ground.

The surveillance efforts are critical to supporting friendly forces on the ground, and maintaining continuous coverage is paramount. MAG’s success is marked by its ability to sustain the high operational tempo despite challenges that face them, such as bad weather, employee attrition, illness common overseas, aircraft maintenance challenges, and difficulty of flight in these areas due to the terrain. Through targeted recruiting efforts, MAG now maintains a staff of over 500 highly qualified pilots on the team, properly trained and available to do the mission. Half of the team is in the Middle East at any given time.  A pool of over 300 sensor operators is supporting the effort as well. Although the mission is not expected to grow, it is expected to continue for the foreseeable future – at least as long as U.S. troops are on the ground.

3. Restoration Operations in Post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was dealt a devastating blow when Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017. With an aggregated economic toll estimated at 65 billion, the hurricane currently ranks as the eighth costliest natural catastrophe, one place higher than Hurricane Irma. The small nation of 3.4 people lost its entire electrical infrastructure and required a tremendous amount of Humanitarian Assistance to get back on its feet. Unfortunately, FEMA did not have the means or capability to re-build the power structure. MAG quickly stepped in with its contract aviation assets and started developing innovative solutions to restore power. Within 24 hours, they had already begun helping the island nation get its power back.

Downed lines, flooding, massive amounts of debris, as well as dense vegetation and insurmountable terrain made for an extremely challenging environment. Utility workers simply couldn’t gain the access to the electrical structures that they needed in order to restore power. MAG worked with the US Army Corps of Engineers, different sling manufactures, aerial subcontractors, and the FAA to develop an aerial lifting plan for all items that needed to be lifted, whether that was people or equipment that needed to reach inaccessible areas.

As part of the effort, MAG also helped to deploy and field test the Air Chair, which was used for the first time in Puerto Rico during the recovery operations. This device consisted of a set of chairs that were suspended from a hovering helicopter so workers could repair downed power lines and other structures.  

In total, after working in Puerto Rico for three months, MAG was able to restore power to more than 250,000 homes, hospitals and businesses on the island. Using their expertise, air assets, and creative thinking, they removed a significant amount of debris, reinstalled 1311 electrical structures, strung more than 1500 miles of sock-line, trained more than 400 utility workers and surveyed more than 60% of the Puerto Rico power grid. Although Puerto Rico is still on the road to recovery, over a year after the hurricane hit, there is no doubt that contract aviation was an integral part of the initial recovery efforts to help bring the island back to life.

Keys to Success

How did contract aviation achieve success in the Middle East? with the SMW? in Puerto Rico? In each case, it provided the right expertise at the right time. When necessary, it came up with innovative solutions, tapping into the expertise resident in its people. It’s what you need when you need it: flexible, innovative and responsive. MAG Aerospace is an industry leader in providing and enabling real-time situational awareness to help our customers make the world smaller and safer. If you want to learn more about contract aviation or any other services we provide, contact us now.

About MAG Aerospace
MAG Aerospace, headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, is a leader in providing and enabling real-time situational awareness to help its customers make the world smaller and safer. MAG delivers full spectrum ISR Services (operations, training, and technical services) and other specialty aviation to federal, international, civilian, and commercial customers around the world. MAG’s team of 1,500+ professionals operate 200+ manned and unmanned special mission aircraft, delivering ~100,000 flight hours annually on six continents in support of its customers’ missions. For more information on MAG Aerospace, please visit www.magaero.com.