Trio Of Afghan Mi-17 Helicopters Quietly Arrive At The U.S. Air Force’s Boneyard

There is immense pressure to keep ex-Afghan Air Force aircraft out of the hands of the Taliban.

byJoseph Trevithick and Tyler Rogoway|
Afghanistan photo


Three Russian-made Mi-17 Hip helicopters that previously belonged to the now-defunct Afghan Air Force arrived at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona yesterday and are set to be placed in storage at the boneyard there. These aircraft appear to be from among those that Afghan pilots and other personnel used to escape to neighboring Uzbekistan as the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August. This is also the first concrete evidence that American authorities are taking custody of at least some of the ex-Afghan military aircraft now scattered around the world, the vast majority of which were originally purchased by the U.S. government.

Thanks to the help from @az.aviator on Instagram, we have learned that the trio of helicopters arrived at Davis-Monthan inside the lone Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo plane belonging to Maximus Air, a division of the United Arab Emirates-based Abu Dhabi Aviation Group, according to a separate source familiar with the shipment. This also appears to be the first time Maximus Air's An-124, which carries the Ukrainian registration code UR-ZYD, has visited anywhere in the United States.

Maximus Air's An-124 Ruslan cargo aircraft., Eduard Onyshchenko via Wikimedia

While we can't say with absolute certainty where UR-ZYD first picked up the helicopters, online flight tracking software shows that plane flew from Abu Dhabi International Airport in the UAE to Bukhara International Airport in Uzbekistan on Nov. 10, 2021. That same day it flew back to UAE, but landed at Al Ain International Airport. Then, on Nov. 17, it left Al Ain for Davis-Monthan, flying there by way of Oslo in Norway and Denver, Colorado.

Data from flight-tracking website FlightAware showing UR-ZYD's flight to Uzbekistan on Nov. 10., FlightAware

The government of Uzbekistan had said back in August that some 22 fixed-wing aircraft and 24 helicopters that had belonged to Afghan Air Force had made their way across the border. Satellite imagery that The War Zone obtained confirmed that the vast majority, if not all of those aircraft had touched down at Termez Airport, which is situated less than 10 miles from Afghanistan. In addition to Mi-17s, the helicopters that made it to Uzbekistan included a number of UH-60A+ Black Hawks. A-29 light attack aircraft, AC-208 armed light utility planes, Cessna 208 Caravan small transports, and Pilatus PC-12NG intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms were among the ex-Afghan Air Force fixed-wing types observed at Termez.

A satellite image showing various ex-Afghan Air Force aircraft, including Mi-17s, at Termez Airport in Uzbekistan on Aug. 16, 2021., PHOTO © 2021 PLANET LABS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION

Bukhara is located some 230 miles northwest of Termez and it would not necessarily have been hard to relocate any of these aircraft there for shipment elsewhere.

When reached for comment, the U.S. Air Force declined to confirm whether or not the Mi-17s had previously belonged to the Afghan Air Force, but did acknowledge their arrival and offer some additional context.

"The Defense Security Cooperation Management Office-Afghanistan is retrograding U.S. and multi-national aircraft from U.S. and overseas maintenance support facilities to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona," Derek Kaufman, a spokesperson for Air Force Material Command (AFMC) told The War Zone. "We are unable to provide details on timeline for future arrivals, however, we can confirm that three Mi-17s arrived today."

The 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) is the unit in charge of the boneyard at Davis-Monthan. The Pentagon established the Defense Security Cooperation Management Office-Afghanistan in Qatar in July as part of the planned drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan prior to the Taliban takeover. That office's main job had been to coordinate security assistance programs for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), "to include over the horizon aircraft maintenance support," U.S. officials had explained at the time of its creation. Previously, this support had flowed through an office in Afghanistan itself.

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Depending on what the U.S. government's exact plan is now, dozens of former Afghan Air Force helicopters, as well as fixed-wing aircraft, could be headed to the boneyard in the near future. In addition to Uzbekistan, Afghan Air Force pilots and other military personnel used various types of aircraft to make their way to neighboring Tajikistan as the Taliban completed their takeover of Afghanistan in August. The fleeing Afghans were initially detained by Uzbek and Tajik authorities, but in both cases they have since been able to leave those countries thanks in part to U.S. diplomatic assistance.

Who actually owns those aircraft, along with other ex-Afghan Air Force airframes in the United States or other countries, has been unclear. In its most recent quarterly report, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said it was aware of at least six helicopters, a mixture of Mi-17s and UH-60A+s, that were outside of Afghanistan undergoing depot maintenance when the Taliban seized power. Reports from outlets in Afghanistan had suggested that there were as many as 25 aircraft in other countries for repairs. 

Another 37 UH-60s that the U.S. government had bought for the Afghan Air Force, but had yet to deliver, are also somewhere in the United States, according to SIGAR. Its latest quarterly report said that the Department of Defense managed to get two Hughes MD 530F armed light scout helicopters out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul during the final withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. The Department of Defense has not yet responded to queries from The War Zone regarding the status of these or any other ex-Afghan Air Force aircraft.

A table showing the Afghan Air Force's total inventory as of July 2021, according to data compiled by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. As noted, the table does not include figures for aircraft that were assigned to the Special Mission Wing (SMW), a secretive Afghan special operations aviation unit. The SMW was, among other things, the sole operator of Afghanistan's PC-12NG ISR aircraft, which therefore do not appear in this table at all., SIGAR

It has always been extremely likely that the U.S. government would use all available means to secure these aircraft or otherwise block their transfer to the Taliban. How and where American authorities could legally take possession of those assets has been much less clear, despite having paid for almost all of them initially.

"I would appreciate it if we could put that in writing to both of those countries that the equipment belongs to the U.S. — not to Afghanistan," Rep. Austin Scott, a Georgia Republican, told Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the hearing in September with regards to former Afghan Air Force aircraft in Tajikistan.

While we don't know the specifics, the U.S. government has clearly begun to recover some aircraft that had belonged to the Afghan Air Force and consolidate them at the boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. What will happen to them after they arrive remains to be seen.

It's worth mentioning that shadowy American flying units tied to the Central Intelligence Agency have long flown the Mi-8/17 type in small numbers and in modified form. While ceasing operations in Afghanistan would have greatly diminished the demand for these platforms, it would not have eliminated them totally. It is possible that parts from the Afghan Mi-17s could be used to help sustain U.S. operations of the type. 

Other aircraft of Russian design that have turned up in U.S. possession, sometimes after careers in clandestine test, evaluation, and training operations, have been turned into ground training enrichment aids or have been put on display at various locales. 

Regardless, just taking possession of these helicopters and letting them slowly fade into oblivion at the Pentagon's sun-soaked boneyard in Tucson may be deemed mission accomplished by some, at least to a degree, considering how contested the topic of the status of these aircraft has become.

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