I saw an advertisement for Kam Air. It started in 2004 by Zamaray Kamgar. My friend, who was current employee of Kam Air, told me about a job with them for check-in staff. He told me about checking people in, giving them boarding pass, checking their luggage, helping them with immigration if it was international flight, guiding them onto airplane. It sounded interesting because it was at the biggest airport in Afghanistan. I was not thinking about becoming a pilot.
After two years, it was one early morning around 6 am. We supposed to open our check-in counter to New Delhi. I was standing there, very sleepy, and I see a captain, officer and other crew. I saw the respect people giving to captain. Everyone is standing with hand on top part of chest which is the sign of respect in our culture. Everyone, even the customs police, is welcoming them to Afghanistan. When I saw that, in that moment, I decided that is what I want—to be a captain.
Instead of opening the counter for passengers, I was looking at how to become a pilot. I was searching where is best place to start initial training and prices. The second link was place in US. I thought, I know English, let’s try that. But then I saw it was $80,000 and my salary was $400 per month. So I stopped searching and started checking in people.
After I closed the flight, I was thinking if it is possible to be cabin crew instead. They said yes and I started studying the cabin crew book which explained how to operate the doors, how to give oxygen during emergency, first aid, how many minutes you have during emergency landing on water. I scored top marks and became cabin crew. My first flight was funnily to New Delhi. I was thinking being cabin crew is very nice, you get to see other countries. I start to love aviation.
I start collecting a very good salary and because my living accommodations was free, I was saving a lot of money. I saved $40,000 in two years. I wanted to touch $80,000 because my goal to be a captain was never out of my mind.
I somehow came to this decision to request Kam Air if they can help with funds. I suggest, I have this much money and if they could help me with rest, I could come back and they can deduct from my new pilot salary.
I went to the big boss and said I have a suggestion for you. He was like, “Oh, you have a suggestion for me?!?” But he listened to me and said he would get back to me. Weeks later, he calls me in for a meeting. I didn’t know where they would send me for training centers—maybe Philippines, maybe Indonesia. He turned his monitor towards me with a flight school website. I saw the American flag and I was like “YES! I want to go!”
When I was searching on my phone where is the best place to learn how to fly, I realized even people from Europe were going to the US, especially Florida. Because having FAA license is very important. Big airliners give opportunity to those having FAA license. I was thinking if I go to other airliners, I need FAA license.
When I talk to the HR guy in Kam Air about my training, he said, “Man, everyone’s talking about you. You’re the first guy to get Kam Air to send you to the US to become a pilot.” In Afghanistan, the United States has a very big name. Very big.
With that moment, I started dreaming about how I will start flying. I knew I would finish my courses, get my commercial license, go back to Afghanistan and start at Kam Air because they really helped me.
I was so proud when I get my license. When I came back to Afghanistan, there was my father, uncle, cousins waiting for me in the airport. There was a band playing Afghan local music for me. Then, my father took me to our hometown, Mazar-i-Sharif. Everyone in my family, my father’s friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends knew I was coming. My father was very proud, showing off everywhere. “My son is coming with an American license. He’s going to start flying!” Everyone knows studying in America is much higher than other countries. And it’s actually true. When you study in the US, you have a very good reputation among the people in Afghanistan—that you actually studied in America!
My first flight was amazing. First takeoff – I don’t know how to explain it in English – but it was a very, very awesome feeling. I was feeling every single second: I’m taking off, I’m climbing, I’m reaching cruise altitude. I could actually see the sand below. It was magnified, this feeling when you love something and you’re achieving it. Then first touch down on runway, I wanted to carry that moment forever. It was a really unforgettable feeling.
I flew more than 3,000 hours. But no flight is the same. You fly twice to Delhi with same crew and it will be totally different. Because of weather, because of traffic around the airports, because the routes.
When you first start flying, you’re not even a co-pilot. You’re just training pilot. You have a captain with experience with you, so if you mess up something, they can recover you. For my flight exam to be a co-pilot, I was very, very nervous. I was sweating a lot. It was to Delhi and I remember when we landed, we went to gate C117 at Indira Gandhi International Airport Terminal 1 on the south side. The instructor told me to go buy him chocolate from Duty Free. I didn’t know why he asked for chocolate. I came back with a whole basket and gave it out to everyone: cabin crew, staff, captain, instructor. That’s when he put the stripes on my shoulders.
He said, “Congratulations, you’ve achieved being a first officer of Boeing 737. But never ever quit studying. Keep going. Even when you become captain in future, you still need to study the procedures again and again. Never quit. Other than that, you’re released by my side.” He signed the documents without any restrictions. Most people get restrictions, like you are released but next 200 hours need to fly with a senior captain only. In that moment, I was very happy. I hugged everyone. Including the instructor who I just met.
I never had an emergency, but I had an abnormal situation once on a night flight to Ankara. We had fuel leakage from left tank which is located on the wing. We were losing a lot of fuel, so we go through the handbook. There needs to be at least one handbook inside the cockpit. With fuel case, we go through the weighing process, company procedures and divert to the nearest airport. It was the captain’s decision and I was confirming everything we’re doing. We came back to Kabul, change the airplane and continue our journey.
I was not scared because it’s not an emergency situation. It’s a fuel leakage, but we still have time. Even though the leakage is a lot, the good part in Boeings – and one of the reasons also why I love them – you can control which part of the wings you can use, which part you can close for fuel leakage. Plus, I have another tank on the right side and I can use it for both the engines. I knew we were okay.
During the Afghan evacuation, we were part of the flights as requested by the US government. We were flying to Abu Dhabi and empty flight back to Kabul. Kabul was very restricted at that moment. Because everything was changing by the second. We did not have direct communication with the US military. And if you don’t have US military clearance, you cannot land in Kabul. We hold a little bit over Kabul. They say you don’t have permission so go to alternate. We go to alternate airport and land. At that moment, there was a blast at Kabul International Airport. All flights was stopped for a couple of days.
There was a chance for my family to leave but Kam Air wants me to stay. They said my family can leave and they will take me to wherever my family is in the future. But my wife was pregnant seven months. I did not want to be far from my family. It was my first baby. Kam Air helped me become a pilot and I would love to fly with them up to the end of my life. But with the situation, I need to think about my family: my parents, my wife, my sisters.
I contact one US military guy, he told me all flights are going to Abu Dhabi or Qatar where US operates. Once we get cleared in Abu Dhabi, we land in Virginia. We worked with IRC, the International Rescue Committee, for our paperwork. The guy asked me what I do back home. I said pilot and I have FAA license. He was surprised, saying “We have a lot of pilots here, but most of them don’t have proper documents. But it seems like you have your documents so reach out to Upwardly Global.”
I connected with Upwardly Global and they helped me with training to get a job, write my resume, search for careers, interviewing. They will help me know if my FAA license will let me fly now or if I need some more training. I may need a different job before I fly again. But it will be temporary. Because Upwardly Global is helping me understand how I can continue to be a pilot in the US. It will take time, but I believe I will fly again. Because I love flying.
Photos provided by Hafiz.
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