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Semper Gumby

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman
  • 321st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
What started out as a "typical" flight out of Baghdad International Airport on March 3 turned out to be anything but routine. As it turns out, just about any flight out of New Al-Muthana Air Base has the potential to be a stomach-churning, white-knuckle, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. It seems that remaining flexible is the key to success.

Earlier in the week, I had coordinated a flight with the 321st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron to cover the training U.S. advisors are doing here every day. U.S. Navy Lt. Philip Ritchie, 321st AEAS training officer, scheduled a flight from NAMAB to Basrah International Airport to facilitate training with an Iraqi pilot. The flight had been delayed several times already because official reports said it wasn't safe to fly.

By Thursday morning, everything was finalized except the paperwork that would allow me to fly on an Iraqi plane. It seemed simple enough on the surface, but thanks to multiple levels of security, safety and red tape, the flight was delayed several additional hours. While we waited, Lieutenant Ritchie, a T-44 King Air instructor pilot deployed from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, and our Iraqi pilot sat down for a pre-flight lesson.

"He is a promising candidate. He studies hard and seems very prepared for each and every flight," said Lieutenant Ritchie, who is originally from Austin, Texas. "I was supposed to fly with a different Iraqi pilot yesterday, but I had to give him a 'no go' because I could tell he hadn't studied at all."

They discussed various aviation-related topics such as navigation, equipment malfunction and weather, which turned out to be extremely valuable.

On the first leg of the trip, to Basrah, Lieutenant Ritchie and the Iraqi pilot went through their checklist step-by-step. In the back of the plane, Tech. Sgt. Troy DeLeon, 321st AEAS mission systems operator, scanned images captured by the surveillance equipment installed in the aircraft. Everything finally seemed to be going smoothly. However, as we approached Baghdad International Airport on what was supposed to be the final leg of the trip, the call came in from air traffic control that the airport was closed due to poor visibility.

Apparently a cold front had moved in from the north causing one of the unpredictable sand storms that wreak havoc on air traffic in the region. Visibility went from bad, to worse, to zero in a matter of minutes.

Sergeant Deleon, originally from Pensacola, Fla., and the rest of us passengers noted it was nearly impossible to see anything further than the wingtips of the plane. Lieutenant Ritchie calmly acknowledged instructions from ATC and made a command decision to fly to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq.

"In the entire time I've been here, this is the first time that I've heard of one of our missions being diverted," said Sergeant DeLeon, who is deployed from Robbins Air Force Base, Ga., where he is a senior director technician on the joint surveillance target attack radar system. He is 10 months into a year-long deployment.

As the conditions rapidly deteriorated, Lieutenant Ritchie was able to establish communication with ATC at Al Asad, who directed us to remain in a holding pattern because visibility was nearly zero. By this time, the plane was running low on fuel thanks to the extra time in the air. So Lieutenant Ritchie - ever the consummate professional aviator - alerted ATC of our in-flight emergency. If we didn't land soon, we would be out of fuel.

Listening in on the headphones Sergeant DeLeon let me borrow for the flight, I was more than impressed by the calm, cool and collected demeanor Lieutenant Ritchie and our Iraqi pilot maintained while ATC gave them step-by-step instructions for landing in conditions that were far from ideal. By the time we touched down, nearly every taxiway was lined with fire trucks, airfield management and multiple emergency vehicles, all with lights flashing like a presidential motorcade!

One might assume that our adventure was over, but it was only beginning. To begin with, the cold front that caused the sand storm had moved into the area. It was quite warm earlier in the day, and no one had prepared for the biting wind that cut through our clothes as we stood on the flightline waiting for a fuel truck to arrive. Who knew it would be so cold in the middle of the desert?

While several men refueled our aircraft, Lieutenant Ritchie went to inform our chain of command of the diversion and make overnight lodging arrangements. Because our crew was unexpected, there was no room for us at the inn. Our only option was the transient quarters which consisted of a large, hardened tent and sweaty-smelling cots. It wasn't the Hilton, but it sure beat sleeping in the aircraft on the flightline overnight. Well, except that the guy on the other end of the tent snoring loud enough to vibrate the floor wouldn't have been in the aircraft with us.

After a rough night's sleep with no pillows or linens, we finally made our way back to New Al-Muthana Air Base under clear blue skies. Throughout the entire excursion, I was more than impressed with the professional demeanor of the pilots and aircrew. They were able to adapt and overcome each situation as it evolved as if it were common practice.

According to Lt. Col. John Melloy, 321st AEAS commander, the training program is flourishing. The Iraqis have been able to successfully plan and execute their own missions and should be able to keep the program running productively after the planned U.S. withdrawal in December. If they remain flexible, it is a fair assumption they will be successful.