When Capt. Lisa Becker deployed to Afghanistan, she didn't expect to fly Mi-17 helicopters alongside Afghan pilots.
"It's an opportunity that I didn't know I'd have," said Becker. "It's very fulfilling to be able to have that mentorship role."
Becker is believed to be the first American female soldier to be rated to fly the Russian-made helicopter. She also is the first female Aviation Foreign Internal Defense/Special Operations Forces aviator to serve with the Special Mission Wing in Afghanistan.
The Special Mission Wing, which has its headquarters in Kabul, is the rotary-wing and fixed-wing intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance component for all Afghan special operations forces.
The wing is home to the Afghans' only night-vision air assault capability and organic ISR capability, with operational reach to put Afghan special operations forces anywhere in the country.
The wing, led by a one-star Afghan general, partners with the Special Operations Aviation Group, which for the last 12 months was led by Col. Don Fallin.
"We're the American advisors, we train, advise and assist the Afghan Special Mission Wing," Fallin said during a phone interview with Army Times shortly before completing his deployment and returning to the United States.
Fallin, who's an AH-64 Apache pilot, saw Becker's potential.
The young officer was initially deployed in October to work in a non-flying billet on the operations staff at the headquarters, Fallin said.
"She was excelling, so I moved her down to one of the squadrons in a major's position in Kandahar and had one of my instructors do a qualification course," he said.
Becker passed the course, earning the ability to serve as a Mi-17 air mission commander
Capt. Lisa Becker conducts a crew mission brief before combat operations in Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Special Mission Wing - Special Operations Advisory Group (
Now, Becker and her fellow advisors work with the Afghans on "flight mission planning, operations, the full-spectrum of aviation operations in combat," Fallin said.
Fallin said Becker hasn't had any issues with her Afghan counterparts because of her gender.
"The one thing that's unique about our unit is it's really ethnically color-blind," he said. "My counterpart is an exceptional leader. He is fiercely loyal to his country, and his men are fiercely loyal to him."
The Afghan general also already has women on his staff, including in the personnel and medical sections, Fallin said.
"He's a trendsetter," he said. "He's not the norm."
Becker, who wears a headscarf out of respect for her Afghan colleagues, said she hasn't encountered any issues working with the Afghan aircrews, and she believes her time at the wing headquarters in Kabul helped.
"Because I developed relationships throughout the first four to five months before I started flying, I think they already had some respect for me, so it was a little bit smoother of an adjustment than if I just came in and said 'hey, we're going to fly in the cockpit together,'" she said.
Becker, who typically flies the UH-60 Black Hawk, credits Fallin for the opportunity to fly.
"It was really Col. Fallin who said, 'hey, you're an aviator, let's get you back in the cockpit,' " she said. "This is a unique opportunity."
Learning to fly the Mi-17 was "different," Becker said.
"It really makes you get back to the basics of piloting because it doesn't have the same automation that the Black Hawk does," she said.
Also, everything on the Mi-17's controls is the opposite of the Black Hawk, Becker said, likening it to driving a right-hand drive vehicle.
In addition, Becker's role as an advisor not only has her flying with the Afghans but also providing them mentorship on decision-making, mission execution and how to command an air mission.
Becker said she's learning a lot from the Afghan air crews.
"They've been flying the aircraft a lot longer than I have, so both of us are learning," she said. "I'm probably learning a lot more than they are."
And while there's really no so-called typical day for Becker and her teammates, she said she typically spends two to eight hours a day talking with the Afghan pilots, mentoring them on topics such as aircraft, mission support, and piloting skills.
"It's really building relationships and a rapport with them so if they have an issue they can come to you," Becker said.
Becker, who has a deployment to Iraq under her belt, said she's grateful for the opportunity to fly and work with the Afghans.
"Actually getting to work with the Afghans, you can see the passion they have for their country," she said. "They want to make it a better place. They want their children to grow up in a peaceful environment. It makes the job so much more fulfilling to see there are people who really are passionate about this."
As for the distinction of being the first woman in her role, Becker deflected any credit.
"I'm just doing my job," she said.
Michelle Tan is the editor of Army Times and Air Force Times. She has covered the military for Military Times since 2005, and has embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Haiti, Gabon and the Horn of Africa.