He is among a small group of US-trained Afghan military pilots handpicked to defend their country in the years leading up to the Taliban’s return.
But when Islamist fighters were about to retake Kabul last year, he turned his back on his allies and handed over his helicopter to former enemies.
He is believed to be the only former Afghan army pilot to have done so.
“My aim was to protect an asset that belongs to Afghanistan,” he told the BBC.
Momand is part of a select group of US-trained pilots — Photo: MOHAMMAD EDRIS MOMAND via BBC
Momand joined the Afghan military in 2009, and left for the US to undergo a grueling four-year training program at the American Military Academy — known as West Point.
He was told that it costs up to $6 million to train a helicopter pilot in the US. Momand values this opportunity and still cherishes the day she made her first sortie — or operational flight — in the US.
“I was very happy and excited. I couldn’t believe that a day like this would come in my life”, he says.
It wasn’t until training was over that he returned home and saw his family again.
Initially, he was sent to Herat, in western Afghanistan, where he flew Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters. A few years later, he had another opportunity.
“In late 2018, a small group of young pilots who had studied cutting-edge Air Force technology were selected to fly Black Hawk helicopters. From then on, I was flying Black Hawks.”
These military helicopters were used in supply and transport roles.
Momand piloted a variety of helicopters for the Afghan Air Force — Photo: MOHAMMAD EDRIS MOMAND via BBC
For years, the US and its allies have invested tens of billions of dollars in training and equipping the Afghan Armed Forces in the hope that they will be able to keep the Taliban at bay once foreign forces leave the country.
But that hope turned into an illusion.
The Afghan army lost control of the country to the Taliban at a surprising rate after US President Joe Biden gave a speech in April last year announcing that the last US troops would leave the country on 9/11.
In July, as Afghanistan descended into chaos, the departure date had to be brought forward to August 31. But the Taliban’s advance was faster.
On August 6, the first provincial capital was taken by the militants. One after another, cities and towns fell into the hands of the insurgents until the group took Kabul on August 15 with virtually no resistance.
The Afghan Armed Forces, trained and equipped at great cost, simply collapsed—and many of the country’s leaders fled, along with tens of thousands of other Afghans and foreigners.
Biden criticized Afghan government leaders who fled — and said the country’s military “gave up, often without trying to fight.”
Momand says he will serve his country until the day he dies — Photo: MOHAMMAD EDRIS MOMAND
Momand was clear to whom he owed allegiance.
He remembers reporting for duty at the Kabul airbase on August 14. The situation was tense, with the Taliban at the gates of the capital. There were rumors that top political and military leaders planned to escape.
The airport was under US military control, but it was unknown how long it would remain safe.
“Our Air Force commander ordered all pilots to fly out of the country. He directed us to go to Uzbekistan,” Momand recalls.
He was irritated by the instruction and decided not to obey.
“My commander was urging me to betray my country. Why should I obey such an order?”
Momand asked for her family’s advice. He says his father told him he would never forgive him if he left the country — and warned him:
“The helicopter belongs to Afghanistan.”
Momand province, Kunar, in the east of the country, had already fallen into Taliban hands. His father spoke with the local governor, who assured him that he would not be harmed if he took the helicopter there.
Momand then devised an escape plan—but he had to get rid of his crew first.
“Every Black Hawk has a crew of four. I knew I couldn’t trust them with my plan. I was sure they wouldn’t agree. They would have put my life in danger and even destroyed the helicopter.”
He then devised a strategy to deceive them.
“I told the Air Force commander that the helicopter had technical problems, and I could not take off. When they heard this, the three crew members climbed aboard another helicopter that was being prepared to depart for Uzbekistan.”
After all the other helicopters took off, he started the engine for a 30-minute solo flight to Kunar.
“The Americans were controlling air traffic control. So I told them over the radio that I was taking off for Uzbekistan. After leaving the airport, I turned off the radar mode and went straight to Kunar.”
“I landed in my village, close to my house. After getting reassurances from the Taliban, I took the helicopter to a place where helicopters were refueled in the past.”
He says his family, friends and neighbors were fully supportive of his decision.
Momand claims that she has no regrets for her actions. He points out that he had the option of leaving Afghanistan with his wife and children, but decided to stay.
“American advisers sent me three messages. They said, ‘Even if you can’t bring the helicopter, come along the road with your family members to be evacuated.’ But I didn’t accept the offer.”
Momand, seen here in August 2022, says only seven Black Hawk helicopters are operational now — Photo: MOHAMMAD EDRIS MOMAND via BBC
As of late June 2021, the Afghan Air Force was operating 167 aircraft, including helicopters and attack planes, according to a report released by the US-based Special Inspector General for Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Sigar).
Some of these air assets were flown out of the country by Momand’s colleagues. An analysis of satellite imagery of Termez Airport in Uzbekistan on August 16 shows that it housed more than two dozen helicopters, including Black Hawks, Mi-17s and Mi-25s, and several A-Light attack aircraft. 29 and C-208.
American troops did what they could to sabotage most of the planes and helicopters left behind in Kabul.
It is unclear how many remain operational in Afghanistan today.
“We now have seven usable Black Hawk helicopters. Afghan engineers with limited resources were able to repair them. Little by little, we will put other Black Hawk helicopters into use,” says Momand.
Far from feeling he has abandoned his comrades, Momand blames them, saying they inflicted heavy losses on Afghanistan by blindly following the order to leave the country.
“Those who flew their helicopter to Uzbekistan really let the country down. The helicopters belong to our country. They cost too much. I don’t think we’ll ever get them back.”
Momand sees no contradiction in piloting her Black Hawk for the Taliban, having been trained by the US to fight the insurgents.
“Governments always change. People like us belong to the nation and serve the nation. The military shouldn’t get involved in politics. The country has invested a lot in people like me.”
Although the Taliban have been in power for a year, no country has formally recognized them as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.
Despite this, Momand remains determined.
“I will continue in my field to serve my nation until the last day of my life.”