Friday, June 6, 2008

Case Study in Frustation: The Helipad Project

This incompletely demolished building supposedly holds in a wall the unexploded grenade which gave the Afghan deconstruction workers a long weekend and the helipad project another delay.

A former girlfriend of mine described the beginning of our relationship as a series of “fits and starts:” My behavior would give her fits every time she attempted to start something meaningful. Development projects in Afghanistan usually follow a similar course, and I am the person frustrated. I offer the case of construction of the National Military Hospital (NMH) helipad in Kabul as an example.

The NMH is the tertiary care center for the Afghan Army’s hospital system, and a helipad to accommodate casualty evacuations from smaller regional Army hospitals and battle areas is a reasonable expectation. Utilization of the helipad necessitates helicopters, however, and the fledgling Afghan Air Corps has only a dozen or so of those, none of which are outfitted specifically for carrying casualties. Moreover, the Army has few if any medics who could actually accompany and support casualties on a flight; and even if trained medics were available they would not have the life-support equipment necessary for the job. The fact that Kabul sits at an elevation of 6000 feet also presents a big problem for casualty transport as a helicopter would have to climb even higher than Kabul itself to clear mountains around the city, and the altitude necessary would not behoove the state of a critically ill patient aloft in non-pressurized aircraft. So I don’t expect to see activity resembling the M*A*S*H intro anytime soon.

In fact, I might not see a helipad at all in the near future as controversy (as well as supposed unexploded ordnance discovered at the site) has stalled its construction. Several buildings stand on the site where the helipad will rest. A local firm procured the contract to level the buildings, but when crews arrived to begin the deconstruction project an Afghan general stopped them, claiming that the bricks, wood and metal from the buildings were property of the Army; and that he would supervise razing the structures with his own personnel. A few weeks before this confrontation, I attended a meeting where Afghan medical authorities requested a crane in order to assist with the helipad project. I thought that was strange, as I assumed the contractor would bring his own equipment to the job site. Only in retrospect did I realize that the general was planning then his own deconstruction project, an activity well outside the contract for the helipad as the language clearly gave the private firm possession of all scrap material from the buildings’ destruction. I’m not sure where the general instructed his men to transport the building material, but I would guess that, were he successful, the yard at his home would have resembled a second-hand lumber outlet.

In the past few days, the engineers and contracting officers seem to have quelled the contentious debate over ownership of the scrap material (by ruling in favor of the contractor). That does not mean, however, that the deconstruction/construction project is once again moving along, as work crews reported two days ago that they found an unexploded grenade in the walls of a building they were wrecking. Now work at the site is suspended until someone (who exactly I don’t know) comes to remove the ordnance. I’m suspicious that what they found was not an explosive at all, as the workers claimed they tore the top off the ordnance before recognizing it as a grenade. I don’t know very much about combat arms, but I think that ripping “the top” off a grenade either would leave it inert (as you removed the firing tab) or cause it to explode after a few seconds. Yesterday I toured the now-barricaded helipad site with one of my supervisors who wisely suggested that we explode the thing ourselves as that would not only destroy more of a building that’s coming down anyway, but also get the Afghans back to work on the project.

I’m calling this project a helipad, as that is the eventual purpose of what will in reality be a large concrete slab; but some of the contracting agents insist on calling it by its official name: overflow parking lot. The US military command funding the construction had not allocated money for a helipad in the budget for fiscal year 2008. Therefore, you cannot officially build a helipad in the year 2008. But a budget somewhere must have committed money to parking lots, because under that financial rubric the project received money; and now the helos, if they ever arrive to land, will technically alight on Parking Lot LZ, which will be distinctive for the large H painted in the middle of it. Hopefully, the few Afghans who own cars will not decide to park there, and no grass will grow at the edges of Parking Lot LZ, as I can imagine a helicopter approaching with a wounded soldier only to find a couple of 1985 Toyota Corollas blocking the middle of the slab and grazing sheep occupying the periphery.

The wisdom of the US federal budgeting process dictates that the fiscal year 2009 budget will include money for helipad construction, and my engineering colleagues informed me that next year the site will receive upgrades such as lighting and increased size. With nightly illumination, the helipad will be one of the few sections of the hospital actually designed and funded to operate 24 hours per day (if someone remembers to turn on the lights in the evening).

I am not trained in anything aerospace related, so I was intrigued last week when I met with officials from the local airport and Europeans from a neighboring NATO base and they showed me a satellite photograph of Kabul with a few circles drawn on it, circles that designated restricted Kabul airspace and which bisected the NMH campus and the site of the helipad. I got a bit nervous when they explained that the restricted space was to prevent aircraft from flying over, among other structures, the Afghan Presidential Palace. They assured me that the restricted space could be redrawn, especially in light of the military medical helipad construction, but that they would appreciate a copy of the site survey, surely conducted before selection of the landing site, which would outline approach patterns and possible flight obstacles and other things you apparently are supposed to study before selecting a site for a helipad. I assured them that I had absolutely no idea if a site survey had been done, but that I had seen the site and my layman’s evaluation was that the helicopters would be able to come in just fine as long as we kept the Corollas and livestock off what, technically, will be a parking lot.

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