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Female Afghan helicopter pilots left grounded

Sourya Saleh, 2nd Lt., 20, right, and 2nd Lt. Masooma Hussaini, 21, are two Afghan Air Force helicopter pilots who were trained in the United States. They returned to Kabul in late October, but have still not gotten orders, uniforms, or an assignment. 'It seems we've been put on a very long vacation,' Saleh said. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

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By The Los Angeles Times
Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 9:18 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Unlike most women in Afghanistan, Sourya Saleh knows how to drive — but she's taken the wheel only with her brother beside her, out of respect for tradition. Her friend Masooma Hussaini is still learning.

Both young women, though, are experts in a more demanding mode of travel: They've flown 204 hours each as pilots of military helicopters.

The first female chopper pilots in Afghanistan since the Soviets trained a woman as a pilot in the 1980s, these two are pioneers.

After 18 months of military helicopter training in the United States, 2nd Lt. Saleh and 2nd Lt. Hussaini have returned home as two polished, confident Afghan air force pilots. But they don't have uniforms, flight suits or an assignment. They haven't even seen a helicopter, much less flown one.

Since returning here Oct. 28, they've spent their days at home with their families, helping with housework. A superior says their paperwork is “under review.”

“It seems we've been put on a very long vacation,” Saleh said in nearly perfect English, honed by months in Texas and Alabama.

They prefer to believe that the country's nascent air force is just slow and bureaucratic and that they'll be flying soon.

“I fought too hard for the right to fight for my country — I'm not going to stay home and wait,” Hussaini said.

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