A once-in-a-century hailstorm took a heavy toll on the availability of airpower to support troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
Details of the incident last April 23 have only recently begun to come to light now that coalition air forces are starting to return to service aircraft seriously impaired in the storm, which occurred at Kandahar airfield. Golf-ball-sized hailstones peppered the airfield and the hundreds of aircraft based there, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. Conceivably, a large number of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft will have to be written off.
The storm also caused a number of civilian deaths in nearby Kandahar City.
Details of the storm's affect on the U.K. Royal Air Force began emerging late last year when RAF, Lockheed Martin and Marshall Aerospace officials revealed work on Operation Weatherman, a program devised to return five of the RAF's 24 Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft to operations.
Engineers inspecting aircraft in the aftermath of the storm discovered that C-130Js had suffered “unprecedented damage.” The hail had severely impacted wings, empennages, windows and fuselages. Initial checks showed that more than 850 aircraft panels had been compromised, rendering approximately one-fifth of the RAF's fleet of 24 Hercules unavailable for flight operations. As a result, the RAF was prompted to push one of its C-17 Globemasters, usually deployed as strategic transport, into use as an intra-theater airlifter.
“This once-in-hundred-years event was reported as a monstrous storm,” says Group Capt. Nick Cox, Hercules team leader at the U.K. Defense Equipment and Support agency.
Perhaps most significantly, the hail pummeled flight-control surfaces, which had to be replaced in order to return the aircraft to the U.K. for repairs. Engineers from the RAF, Lockheed Martin and Marshall Aerospace, the company that provides depot-level maintenance for RAF Hercules, set about drafting a recovery plan.