By Krista Mahr and Aimal Yaqubi
KABUL (Reuters) - The lone Afghan flight engineer trained to operate C-130 transport planes regularly works 14 hour days when fighting flares, ferrying reinforcements and ammunition to troops battling an intensifying Taliban insurgency.
When he is able to return to his house in Kabul, he says his family can see the strain of fatigue on his face.
"Whenever I get home, I just want to eat my dinner and go to sleep," said the engineer, who has not been named for security reasons. "Eat, pray, sleep, that's it. Because tomorrow is my next mission."
There has been just one Afghan engineer qualified to control the C-130 Hercules aircraft's systems for nearly two years, reflecting Afghanistan's struggle to develop an air force capable of meeting the demands of the escalating war.
With a single complete all-Afghan crew of four to six personnel needed to fly the heavy transport planes, not every request for troops and equipment can be met, although more engineers are being trained to ease the shortage.
"We manage to move troops around, but we're not able to do everything the government asks of us," said Afghan Air Force Kabul Air Wing Commander Saeed Suliman Shah, citing the lack of flight engineers as one of the fleet's limitations.
C-130s, of which there are four in the Afghan Air Force, are called on to transport everything from casualties and human remains to troops, ammunition, vehicles, prisoners and VIPs. Far smaller Cessna C-208 planes and Mi-17 helicopters also help.
Shah estimated that the air force meets 60 to 70 percent of the Ministry of Defense's transport requests.
"We need the large planes in every province, but we're only able to move them out of Kabul," he said. "This is a big country."
A FORCE IN FLUX
The Afghan Air Force, built virtually from scratch after the hardline Islamist Taliban movement was ousted in 2001, comprises about 7,000 staff and around 90 aircraft in total, with more on the way.
The number of air force sorties increased significantly this year after the withdrawal of most foreign troops in 2014, but it still has only a fraction of NATO's former air power.
General John Campbell, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently said Western powers had been slow to build up the Afghan air force.
"We just, quite frankly, started late on their air force, building their close air support capability," Campbell said in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services.
Air advisers from the NATO coalition in Afghanistan had been scheduled to stay on, even before U.S. President Barack Obama announced last month that the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. military presence would be slowed.
The Afghan government welcomed his decision to leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through most of next year, the majority of whom are part of NATO's non-combat mission to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces.
Brigadier General Christopher Craige, commanding general of Train Advise Assist Command-Air (TAAC-Air), said the Afghan aviation capability was already "very good."
"I don't think they have enough of it," added Craige. "It just takes time."
In the case of C-130 flight engineers, training can take between 18 months and two years, helping to explain the shortages.
According to a coalition spokeswoman, some candidates started the training program but failed to finish it, partly because they were unable to keep up with the demands of the job.
As the war has intensified, foreign advisers have had to balance the competing interests of flight crews going out on more missions and training them.
"We're trying to upgrade people and train people, but this is a nation at war," said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Morales, 538th air expeditionary advisory squadron commander for fixed-wing aircraft.
In the Taliban's biggest advance of the last 14 years, insurgents briefly overran the northern city of Kunduz in late September before Afghan security forces retook it after heavy fighting.
As battles raged in the north, the engineer flew 13 missions in a single week.
He said his Afghan colleagues helped ensure he did not get too tired, and coalition aircrew also keep tabs on how often he flies and step in to relieve him during busy periods.
"All the switches belong to me on the airplane, so I need to be good with everything and not, like, do something weird."
(Writing by Krista Mahrl; Editing by Mike Collett-White)