Col. Latifa Nabizada, the only female pilot in the history of Afghan aviation, travels to some of the most remote and dangerous corners of her country with a devoted partner next to her in the cockpit – her 5-year-old daughter Malalai.
They walk hand-in-hand as they head into the hangar at Kabul's Military Airport, and then board a chopper. They have flown together on more than 300 missions over the past few years, and Col. Nabizada acknowledges the risks of having her daughter on board.
But she says she has no choice. The air force has no child care facility.
"Trust me, when I have my daughter with me on the flight, I am really worried from the moment we take off to the moment we land," says Col. Nabizada. "For me, it's my profession to go to dangerous areas. So if anything happens to me, it is expected. But why should something happen to my daughter? I am really worried."
U.S. military advisers have asked her not bring Malalai on missions — or at least move her out of the cockpit. But the little girl won't stand for it.
"As soon as they moved her, Malalai would throw a tantrum," Col. Nabizada said. "She would grab my uniform and cry. Anyhow, I am confident of my abilities to control the helicopter while my daughter sits next to me."
The colonel says things could change next year when her daughter turns 6 and can start school.
A Long Journey
This is just one of the many challenges Col. Nabizada has faced on her long journey to becoming a military pilot. It began in the late 1980s, when she and her sister, Lailuma, were the first female graduates of the Afghan Air Force Academy. Lailuma later died during childbirth.
After the Taliban seized control of the country in 1996, Col. Nabizada fled to Pakistan. She later returned and rejoined the air force after the Taliban were ousted and the Afghan government began rebuilding the military.
Today, Col. Nabizada's missions often involve supplying troops in remote areas or flying to disaster zones to help provide assistance.
Being a woman in the Afghan military is still not easy, but it has toughened her, she says. She is no longer harassed, she says, citing an Afghan saying that translates roughly as "steel gets harder with the hammering."
The Afghan Air Force still uses Russian helicopters, a legacy of the Soviet military occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviets helped train a relatively large Afghan Air Force. But it was reduced to a few rickety planes and choppers in the 1990s, when the country was locked in a brutal civil war.
Rebuilding an air force is a tough task, says U.S. Brig. Gen. David Allvin, commander of the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan.
"Compared to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, it appears the progress has been much slower in the Air Force," he said. "To tell the truth, an air force takes longer to build."
Today, about 120 Afghan pilots are being trained outside the country, including 40 in the United States. Four Afghan women are among those training in America, hoping to follow in the footsteps of Col. Nabizada.