Sunday, June 06, 2021

Former smuggler who survived 1979 'pot plane crash' in Charleston tells his story

 Jerome Lill

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (WCHS) — Sunday marks 42 years since the infamous Charleston "pot plane crash."

In 1979, a cargo plane carrying about 13 tons of marijuana crashed at what is now Yeager Airport.

Now, decades later, the last surviving member on board, Jerome Lill, has returned to Charleston to tell his story in his first TV interview.

“I crashed this airplane DC-6 here 42 years ago -- June 6, 1979," he said. "Lot of stories about that plane. Most of them weren’t true."

The former smuggler grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and got involved in the marijuana trade and at one point crossed paths with drug lords like Pablo Escobar. Lill's trip to Charleston started in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1979 where the plane took off at 5 a.m. the day before the crash. It did make a stop in Colombia for a pickup.

“Escobar owned all the property and the private strip. We got there and landed on a dirt runway and all these Colombians came with these trucks stuffed with bales and fuel," Lill said.

The plane was loaded down with 26,000 pounds of marijuana bales. Planners of the trip were looking for a small airport that they could land at night and be in a central location to reach states like Ohio and New York. The Kanawha Airport, now known as Yeager Airport, was the perfect target. Two trucks would be waiting for them on the runway, but things went south when the pilot dropped the hydraulics by mistake.

Lill said rumors have swirled that the plane overshot the runway or that the plane was too overloaded with cargo, but he said it was the hydraulics. Lill was not the pilot of the plane, but he was one of the four on board.

“We started to veer off to the right to the side of the runway, but David muscled it back," he said. "When we got to the end of the runway, the only words said by anyone was, 'Oh , S,' and that was it.”

The four on board were injured, but took off running from the scene. Lill said he remembers the bales of marijuana rolling down the hill hitting him during his run.

“It was quite a dramatic jog, and I was in the woods for seven hours, and then the fiasco began," Lill said.

Once the four gave in and were arrested, word got around about the marijuana. The quiet Keystone Drive area suddenly became known as "Happy Holler."

Robert Harrah, who has lived on Keystone Drive all of his life, was 20 years old at the time.

“We were real famous for a little while," Harrah laughed.

Police tried to burn what they could, but they were dealing with tons of product.

“There was bales of marijuana that rolled off the hill laying in the ditches," Harrah said. "It ended up growing in my aunt’s gutters on her house. The hillside was crawling like ants with people going up, putting it in the trunk of the car, going back and getting more.”

The phenomenon continued well into the months-long trial. Each person involved got a different sentence, but Lill ended up serving about two years before getting out on bond. It did not take him long to end up back in prison as he continued smuggling.

Now, he’s in Florida. He is sober, and he’s an author of a new book titled "Final Approach." It details his life as a drug smuggler and the crash, but also his redemption. He is hoping his message will resonate with people who are stuck in a bad place.

“God saved my rear end," Lill said. "And anyone who has all these drug problems or suicide or anything like that, you don’t got to go that way.”

As he stands next to his friend Tim DiPiero, the former prosecutor who helped put him prison, he feels his life coming full circle. However, he knew in order to complete it, he had to come back to the mountain.

“If I had to go through all that again to be able to do this and say this stuff, I’d take it again, but I don’t want to do that," Lill said.

He plans to donate proceeds from his book to help fight the drug crisis, especially in West Virginia.

A year after slashing staff, airlines are getting ready for a hiring binge

New York (CNN Business)   The latest sign of air travel returning to normal is the two words being repeated at most of the nation's major airlines: Help wanted.

The three largest US carriers — American, United and Delta — have announced they are currently hiring or will do so before the end of the year. Southwest, which cut less of its staff during the pandemic than its three larger rivals, said it is preparing its own hiring process as well.

"I think the current carriers are eager to get as many flights back in the air as possible," said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, one of the major airline unions. The labor group expects the number of flight attendants on the job to rise from 80,000 today to 100,000 within two years. "At the beginning of 2020, all [of the airlines] said they'd be hiring thousands," Nelson said. "Really what we're doing is catching back up where we're supposed to be."

The hiring initiatives come sooner than many expected.

"I would say it's somewhat surprising that they're talking about it now, but it's certainly an indication of the confidence there will be a substantial recovery by the year's end," said Philip Baggaley, chief credit analyst for airlines at Standard & Poor's.

Leisure travel on the rise

Air traffic is still not back to pre-pandemic levels — business travel is still a fraction of what it was, as is international travel. It is expected to take years for those lucrative sectors to return to normal. But leisure traffic and bookings are already approaching pre-Covid levels, lifting fares and increasing the immediate need for staff.

US airline employment was at a post-9/11 high just before the pandemic hit, with 757,000 workers — both full and part-time — in February 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That was the equivalent of nearly 500,000 full-time employees.

The nation's 11 publicly traded airlines reported they cut 18% of jobs during the course of 2020, through buyouts, early retirement packages, and employees who took voluntary unpaid leaves but kept benefits and, in some cases, part of their pay. Those on voluntary leaves with benefits were counted as part-time workers in the government's employment figures.

The low point in employment came in October, when a government prohibition on airlines making involuntary layoffs, a provision in the first round of federal financial support, came to an end. But many of those laid-off workers came back when a second round of federal help was passed in December, and a third round has helped keep them on payrolls.

More importantly, as vaccination rates rose and travelers started returning to the skies, the airlines began calling back workers who had been on voluntary leave. The total number of part-time and full-time employees had risen 6% through March, according to the BTS, and is expected to climb higher through the rest of this year, although the airlines have not given hard targets for how many workers they plan to hire back.

"We're going to have needs throughout the network," said Robert Isom, president of American Airlines.

The carriers are going to try to get by with fewer employees in some positions, including reduced staffing at airport gates and permanent cuts to the number of managers. United said it expects to save $300 million a year in management compensation alone.

Unlike some low-paying industries, such as retail and hospitality, Nelson said she doesn't believe the airlines will have trouble attracting workers. Flight attendant jobs pay an average annual salary of $50,000 to $60,000 at the major airlines, she said. Pilots at those airlines earn more than twice that amount. But there will be a need for more pilots and flight attendants to fill positions left vacant through early retirement packages accepted in 2020.

"People took an early out or retired sooner than they were planning to before the pandemic," Nelson said. "Some quit because it's not the same job." The rise in confrontations between passengers and flight attendants prompted some workers to leave the industry in the last year, she added, though the overwhelming majority want to stay on the job.

"This is a job that gets in your blood," Nelson said.

Vice President Kamala Harris Departs on New Plane After Return Due to Technical Issue

Vice President Kamal Harris walks off Air Force Two at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, on June 6.

Vice President Kamala Harris’s departure for a trip to Guatemala and Mexico was briefly delayed after her plane returned to Joint Base Andrews with an unspecified technical issue and a replacement was swapped in.

After the plane landed back at the military base outside Washington, Harris gave a thumbs-up to reporters and said: “I’m good. I’m good.” She took off about two hours later on a different aircraft -- after giving reporters another thumbs-up and a wave.

The original plane turned back not long after takeoff due to “a technical issue with the vice president’s plane,” spokeswoman Symone Sanders said earlier Sunday. “There are no major safety concerns and we will be able to land safely.”

Harris ditched her usual jetliner because of a technical issue during a stop in Los Angeles in March. At that time she switched to a smaller plane, while reporters and most of her staff took a C—17 cargo plane.

Harris is on her way to Guatemala and Mexico as she works on the Biden administration’s strategy to deal with record numbers of migrants from Central America.

The Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment on the incident.

Hall County charges dismissed against man who barricaded himself on plane at Central Nebraska Regional Airport (KGRI)

Tyler Caudill

Tyler Caudill exits a plane and surrenders after Grand Island Police fired chemical munitions through an open door at the Central Nebraska Regional Airport on May 4, 2021.

GRAND ISLAND, Nebraska — Hall County Court charges against a man who allegedly barricaded himself in a plane May 4 in Grand Island have been dismissed because he has been charged at the federal level.

Tyler Caudill of Phillips was indicted May 21 by a federal grand jury for the District of Nebraska.

Caudill, 19, was scheduled to have a preliminary hearing Friday in Hall County Court. But Hall County Attorney Martin Klein told Judge Alfred Corey he was dropping the charges.

In Hall County Court, Caudill had been charged with attempt of a Class 2-A felony and possessing a firearm while committing a felony.

In federal court, he is charged with being an unlawful user in possession of a firearm. The maximum possible penalty if he’s convicted is 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, three years of supervised release and a $100 special assessment.

Caudill allegedly entered the eight-person aircraft at Central Nebraska Regional Airport the day after he tried to gain entry to Kearney High School. The pilot found Caudill sleeping in the jet, which is owned by Menards. The pilot took an AR-15 .223 and a bag from the plane before police were summoned to the Grand Island airport.

The AR-15 was not loaded, but police did find ammunition on the plane after Caudill was arrested and taken away.

Illegal drone scares terns, which abandon 2,000 eggs on Bolsa Chica nesting island

Some 3,000 elegant tern eggs were recently abandoned on a nesting island at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach after a drone, prohibited in the area, crashed and scared off the would be parents.

At the beginning of June each year, the biggest nesting island in Huntington Beach’s Bolsa Chica wetlands is white with elegant terns overseeing their eggs as they begin to hatch in ground nests.

Until this year.

On May 13, two drones were flown illegally over the nesting area, with one crashing on the island. Fearing attack from a predator, the several thousand birds abandoned their nests, leaving behind some 2,000 eggs.

There will be no hatchlings this year on the sand-covered island, which is now littered with the egg shells.

Peter Knapp, who’s been monitoring endangered and threatened birds at the reserve for more than 20 years, had never before seen such a large-scale abandonment of eggs there, according to reserve manager Melissa Loebel.

Nick Molsberry, a warden for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said drones have grown into an ongoing problem at the wetlands – a problem not seen on other state lands in Orange County because they lack such highly visible nesting areas.

“It’s ironic,” he said. “Drone owners are attracted by the nesting colonies of birds, and then their actions destroy it.”

Off-leash dogs

Drone activity has increased with the popularity of the remote-controlled flying cameras, but it’s only part of the illegal activity disturbing the usually abundant bird life at the reserve, according to both Loebl and Molsberry.

With the pandemic driving more and more people to outdoor spaces, last year saw about 100,000 visitors to the Bolsa Chica reserve – up from about 60,000 the previous year, Loebl said.

That’s contributed not only to increased drone activity, but also to more dogs and bicycles on the trails – all of which are illegal. Another problem is the Brightwater development of multimillion-dollar homes on the hillside at the north end of the reserve overlooking the wetlands. While most residents respect the sensitive nature of the estuary, there are a few troublesome scofflaws that allow their dogs into the area.

“It’s residents that sometimes feel entitled, that feel they should be able to use the land as they like,” Molsberry said.

As with the drones, dogs mean fewer birds at the de factor avian sanctuary. At nearly 1,500 acres, the reserve is the largest saltwater marsh between Monterey Bay and the Tijuana River Estuary. Some 800 species of plants and animals live at or migrate to Bolsa Chica, 23 of which are endangered, threatened or species of special concern.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in dogs, particularly off-leash,” Loebl said. “That’s devastating for wildlife and this is prime nesting season. The dogs chase the birds and the birds abandon their nests.”


There are just three state Fish and Wildlife wardens for Orange County, which means that one is typically on-site at the Bolsa Chica wetlands for three to six hours over the course of a week. However, they respond to the reserve when there are complaints and Molsberry encourages the public to call 888-334-CALTIP (888-334-2258) when they see a dog or a drone at the wetlands.

“It gives me justification to spend more time here,” he said.

Molsberry said he writes up tickets for all violators, even though some apparently haven’t seen the signs prohibiting dogs, bikes and drones.

“This is an area where I don’t give warnings,” he said.

The May 13 drone that crashed on the tern island has not been claimed, although Molsberry said he plans to examine the memory card to try to determine the owner. The other May 13 drone crashed in a fenced nesting ground for the endangered least tern and while it flushed the birds from the area, they returned to their nest. That drone’s owner contacted the Department of Fish and Wildlife to get his drone back and was cited, Molsberry said.

Within two hours during Molsberry’s visit to the reserve Thursday, June 3, two drones appeared. One was operated from a reserve parking lot by an owner who was immediately cited, and who said he was unaware of the prohibition. Another was apparently being operated by someone at the nearby Bolsa Chica State Beach, which complicates enforcement because it can be difficult to track down owners at off-site locations.

Molsberry said his department is in the process of coordinating a program that will result in volunteers being posted at popular entry points to provide information and deter those with drones, dogs and bikes. And Loebl said she’s arranging a presentation for the Brightwater homeowners association.

“Most of the people obey the rules,” she said. “But we have people who just don’t care.”

Pontotoc man wins innovation award for experimental aircraft

Max Crausby, 90, started building experimental airplanes in the 1970s. Here, he poses with his third plane, and RV-4.  Last month, Crausby won an innovation award for the fourth plane he built, an RV-6A. 

Charles Richey, left, and Max Crausby talk about the Van's RV-4 that Crausby built in the 1980's and sold to Richey in the 1990's.

A nameplate in the RV-4 shows Crausby as the builder of the experimental aircraft. 

Max Crausby won the Wright Brothers Award in 1986 at the Dayton International Air Show for an RV-4 experimental plane he built. 

Crausby's RV-4 experimental aircraft

Pontotoc, Mississippi --  When Maxwell "Max" Crausby built an RV-6A experimental plane and added a baggage compartment, he didn't think it was anything special.

But the folks at Van's Aircraft did.

On May 22, Van's awarded Crausby the 2021 Innovation Award for "the only RV-6A with a baggage door."

Van's Aircraft is an American kit aircraft manufacturer, founded by Richard "Van" VanGrunsven in 1973. Van's RV series of aircraft, from the single-seat RV-3 to the latest RV-14, are all-aluminum, low-wing monoplanes of monocoque construction.

Crausby, 90, got interested in airplanes when he was just a boy.

"The first ride I took in an airplane I was 11 years old," said Crausby, who was born Oct. 1, 1930. "They was out here flying in a hayfield about a mile up the road, and old nosey me wanted to know what they were doing. I paid $2 for that ride."

Just a few years later, when he was about 15,  Crausby earned his pilot's license, then called a student pilot certificate.

"Daddy used to say he got his pilot's license before he got his driver's license," said Karla Parham, one of Crausby's daughters.

For several decades, Crausby worked as a licensed aircraft mechanic at the Pontotoc County Airport.

But in his spare time, he followed his passion: building homemade experimental airplanes.

"The first plane I built was a one-seater RV-3," Crausby said. "I built my own parts from scratch, but not the engine."

He completed the RV-3 in October 1977 after 18 months of work. He kept the plane for almost nine years before selling it to a United Airlines pilot in Chicago.

When asked why he enjoyed building airplanes, Crausby just shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know," he said. "What makes a doctor want to cut on people?"

The second plane he built, an RV-4, was a single-engine two seater, called a tandem. It took him almost three years to build, and it earned him a prestigious award.

In July 1986, the then-55-year-old Crausby was one of 10 people in the country win the Experimental Aircraft Association's Wright Brothers Award at the Dayton International Air Show.

The award is presented annually to honor outstanding airplane builders. He was the first Mississippian to win the award.

"It's the most coveted award," Crausby said at the time. "I'm very proud and thankful. It's just a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

At the time Crausby won the Wright Brothers Award, he was in the process of building a second RV-4. He ended up selling that plane in the 1990s to a friend, Charles Richey of Tupelo.

"This plane was built to fit Max," said Richey, who houses the plane at the Pontotoc County Airport. "I'm a bit bigger and taller than he is, so I had to change the cushions in the seat to lower them."

Richey said he only flies the plane in the area now, but in the day, he regularly flew it to Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Oklahoma.

"Max and I have been friends for years," said Richey, 82. "I was always over here when he was building something. I'm going to tell you something about Max Crausby. I don't know of nothing he can't do."

The last plane Crausby built was the RV-6A that won the Van's Aircraft award last month for the unique luggage door. Crausby sold that plane in late 2020 to a couple of guys in Ohio.

"The boys who bought it knew it was special," said Crausby's wife, Jane. "Max didn't know it was special – he just did it. But they thought enough of him to have him recognized for it."

Crausby said he quit flying when he was in his 80s. He misses almost all the aspects of it.

"I never enjoyed flying over the ocean," he said. "I never was comfortable with that."

Mirage Cafe excited for business to take off as flights return to Worcester Regional Airport (KORH)

WORCESTER, Massachusetts - Mirage Express is getting ready to stock the shelves and fill the café with customers. They're re-opening August 19. It’s the same day JetBlue will resume commercial flights out of Worcester Regional Airport to JFK.

“We finally have light at the end of the tunnel,” Mirage Express manager Cynthia Rmeih said. “We are just so excited. I hope our customers are excited to see us as we're excited to see them.”

The family-run business has been closed since commercial fights at the airport were suspended last year. While many small businesses were hit hard by the pandemic, Rmeih says her family's business faces a big challenge. 

“Other small businesses like restaurants were able to put their minds together and figure out ways to generate an income during the hard circumstances, they were able to sell liquor to go,” Rmeih said. “They were doing takeout. Whereas us, you need a ticket to get to our location. There was zero income because there were zero passengers.”

Rmeih says after being busy in 2019, the café had high hopes for 2020. 

“We loaded up our stores, and unfortunately we lost all our inventory everything expired so it was a big hit,” Rmeih said. “It was not easy, the bills never stopped.” 

JetBlue is also resuming flights to Fort Lauderdale on October 21.

“We are excited to come back to what we are used and to come back to our element," Rmeih said. 

Fort Bragg units to use regional airports as repairs are made at Pope Army Airfield (KPOB)

Fort Bragg air traffic that normally is seen and heard at Pope Army Airfield will temporarily move to airports in the region, officials said.

The military airfield is undergoing an $81.49 million repair project, a Fort Bragg spokeswoman said.  

That means Fayetteville residents and travelers at Fayetteville Regional Airport will see military traffic at the airport, a city news release stated.  

“Fayetteville Regional Airport always stands ready to support our military neighbors and are happy to support the ... aviation units based on Fort Bragg and Pope Army Airfield over the next few months,” Airport Director Toney Coleman said in the city’s news release.  

When asked what’s being done to fix Pope Army Airfield's runway, Army officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year that $25 million was approved in fiscal year 2020 for airfield lighting repair, and another $65 million was planned for repairs to the runway and taxiways in fiscal year 2021.

The Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District is overseeing the project, and RC Construction Co. was awarded the contract.  

The project includes demolition and replacement of the runway and replacement of north and south taxiway lighting, Col. Daniel Hibner, commander Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, said in a December video. 

Existing pavement about 40 football fields in length is being removed, Hibner said.  

The asphalt surface will be replaced with concrete, Col. Scott Pence, Fort Bragg’s garrison commander, said.  

“What that’s going to do is increase the lifespan from 8-12 years for up to 50 years, Pence said in a video released by the Corps of Engineers in December. “So you can see the cost advantages and operational advantages can come for a full generation after work on this airfield.”  

Airfield operations being temporarily relocated to airfields throughout the region, which has required planning, logistics and coordination to allow operations to continue while the runway is closed, Hibner said.  

The relocation will not impact commercial flights. 

The airfield is part of the national command strategy and used by the 18th Airborne Corps, 82nd Airborne Division and other units across Fort Bragg to include the Golden Knights parachute team, said Col. David Fielder, chief of staff of engineers for the 18th Airborne Corps.

Hibner said that because the airfield is a critical asset to national defense, the runway closure to air traffic is being limited to four months.  

Butler’s Creek runs under the airfield, and crews are ready if they run into different site conditions, Hibner said.  

The overall project will take two years, he said.

“This may not be the largest, but it very soon will be the highest visibility project in the Corps of Engineers, with DOD-wide readiness implications,” Hibner said. “That’s one of the reasons why we have to ensure that this project is able to be completed on time.”  

Without United States contractors, the Afghan military will lose its main advantage over the Taliban — air power

The loss of United States contractors could trigger a game-changing shift in the military balance between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

WASHINGTON — Afghan government forces could lose the single most important military advantage they have over the Taliban — air power — when private contractors and U.S. troops leave the country in coming weeks.

The Afghan security forces rely heavily on U.S.-funded contractors to repair and maintain their fleet of aircraft and armored vehicles, and a whole array of other equipment. But the roughly 18,000 contractors are due to depart within weeks, along with most of the U.S. military contingent, as part of Washington's agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all "foreign" troops.

Without the contractors' help, Afghan forces will no longer be able to keep dozens of fighter planes, cargo aircraft, U.S.-made helicopters and drones flying for more than a few more months, according to military experts and a recent Defense Department inspector general's report.

The Biden administration has vowed to keep up U.S. financial support of Afghanistan's army and police even after American troops leave by a Sept. 11 deadline, and Afghan officials say they are able to take on the Taliban without the need for American boots on the ground. But the contractors' departure represents a potentially devastating blow for the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban.

"We're talking about the more or less grounding of the Afghan Air Force," said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the center on military and political power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Air power is arguably the Afghan government's main competitive edge in its fight with the Taliban, said Bowman, a former Army officer and Black Hawk helicopter pilot who served in Afghanistan. "If we don't help them maintain those aircraft, then the Afghan security forces will be deprived of that advantage and that could have a decisive impact on the battlefield and ultimately on the state of the Afghan government."

Under the U.S.-Taliban deal signed last year during the Trump administration, the U.S. pledged to withdraw all American and allied troops as well as all non-diplomatic staff including "trainers, advisers, and supporting services personnel."

When President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, defense contractors remained in the country.

Pentagon officials and senior military officers have told lawmakers at congressional hearings that the administration is looking at "options" for supporting the Afghan security forces from afar, possibly by repairing equipment outside the country or by providing assistance remotely. But the clock is ticking on the U.S. exit, with the withdrawal at nearly the halfway point as American troops hand over bases across the country, and Afghan officials are scrambling to find an alternative solution.

Afghan officials have yet to announce any new arrangements with outside firms to maintain U.S.-supplied aircraft and military equipment.

Afghanistan's embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and senior officials have long acknowledged the "critical role" played the Afghan Air Force and other military aircraft, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told NBC News, adding that the Defense Department will continue to provide the resources they need.

The administration’s budget request submitted to Congress last week, he said, "fully funds contracted logistics support for the Afghan aviation fleet so the Afghan government can maintain its advantage in the air."

David Berteau, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, an association for contractor companies, said in April that there were "a lot of unanswered questions" about what comes next after the troop withdrawal. "We’ll be raising this with the Defense Department over the coming days, and a lot of our member companies are asking us to weigh in on this."

If the Afghan government secures contractors on its own, possibly with Western financial support, the U.S. military would not be on the ground to provide security. The contractors also would not enjoy U.S. legal protections and would be subject to Afghan law, which likely would mean the companies would charge much higher fees for their services, experts said.

Although the Afghan security forces are dependent on U.S.-funded contractors to repair most of their gear, the Afghans do not require American help to maintain their Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters. U.S. government officials and Congress encouraged the Kabul government to replace the Russian choppers with U.S. Blackhawk helicopters and "Little Bird" MD-530 helicopters, but the Afghans still fly a significant number of Russian helicopters.

Apart from sustaining more than 170 aircraft, U.S-funded contractors also maintain thousands of armored vehicles and personnel carriers for the Afghan army and police.

"In the absence of contract maintenance support, within some number of months, you will have an Afghan Air Force that has pretty significantly reduced capability, i.e. you can't fly, and an Afghan army that can't move," said Jonathan Schroden at the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research center.

U.S.-funded contractors are crucial for almost every aspect of the Afghan military's operations, helping to maintain radio communications gear, surveillance balloons, radar for artillery, logistical networks, fuel supplies and even the government's system for paying troops. Their absence, coupled with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and air power, carries a psychological as well as a practical effect, experts said.

Comparing the military strength of the Taliban and Afghan security forces, Schroden said the insurgents have a slight edge now but Afghan troops could prevent the government in Kabul from falling in the short term — but not if they are unable to keep Afghan helicopters and planes in the fight.

"If the air force goes away or at least becomes significantly degraded, that is a game changer with respect to the military balance between the two sides," Schroden said.

The Taliban have proven to be a capable fighting force that has steadily rolled back Afghan government forces across the country over the past several years. But the insurgents have no air power at their disposal, apart from some basic drones, and no effective anti-aircraft defenses against Afghan fighter planes and attack helicopters.

"What often has tipped the scales in some of the battles between Afghan security forces and the Taliban is close air support," Bowman said. "And if you can't maintain the aircraft, you're not going to be able to provide that close air support."

Officials with the U.S. military's training mission in Afghanistan said last year that without logistical and other assistance from contractors, "no airframe can be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months," according to a Defense Department inspector general's report.

Over the years, efforts to reduce the Afghan government's dependence on outside contractors have fallen far short of the Pentagon's objectives, according to reports by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.

The Pentagon had previously set a goal to have the Afghan Air Force carry out 80 percent of its required aircraft maintenance by 2023.

U.S. advisers and contractors have also overseen regular maintenance schedules for aircraft, something Afghan military commanders have tended to ignore as they focused on the immediate demands of combat, Schroden said.

"What we've seen in the past, without U.S. advisers leaning on the Afghans to adhere to those routine maintenance schedules, they just blow through them," Schroden said. "The operational exigency to provide air support to forces in the field, just completely outweighs long term views of the health of these air frames."

In announcing his decision in April to bring home the roughly 3,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden vowed to keep up aid to the country's army and police. "We'll continue to support the government of Afghanistan. We will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defenses and Security Forces," Biden said.

But the Biden administration has come under bipartisan criticism over unanswered questions about the troop withdrawal, including uncertainty about how the U.S. will continue to support Afghan security forces in the future, how Washington will protect Afghans who face Taliban threats due to their work for the U.S. government and how the United States will track terror threats in the country after the troop pullout.

"I mean, all the questions that have not been addressed should have been addressed because, frankly, right now the appearance of it is that since we didn't have a plan, we basically have said, 'To hell with Afghanistan.'" Leon Panetta, former CIA director and defense secretary in the Obama administration, said at an event last week. "I mean, that's the message."