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Iraqi pilot training

  • Published
  • By Col. Shaun Turner
  • 321st Air Expeditionary Advisory Group
The Iraqi Train and Advise Mission-Air Force is a diverse one, with literally hundreds of U.S. Airmen imparting their experience, knowledge and core values to our host nation partners at scores of locations across Iraq every day in virtually every Air Force core discipline.

One of these disciplines, and one at the heart of our effort, is training Iraqi pilots. I am extremely proud of the pilot training efforts that go on every day within the Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, and the Airmen who make it happen.

From foundational training at Kirkuk, to more advanced training at Tikrit, to operational skill development at Al Taji and New Al-Muthana air bases, the Iraqi Air Force and Army Aviation Command have been on a steady incline towards attaining all the mission essential capabilities necessary to enable the U.S. forces to depart next year. As with anything, a building block approach works best, and the first block begins at Kirkuk and the initial entry flight training schoolhouse.

Once the headquarters for the Iraqi Flying Training Wing (recently moved to Tikrit), Kirkuk now hosts Iraqi Squadron 202 along with our U.S. advisors in the 521st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron and Technical Assistance Field Team Security Assistance Training Management Organization, who conduct all of the initial training for Iraqi aviators.

Flying in the fixed wing Cessna 172s and 208s, along with Bell 206 Jet Ranger and OH-58 Kiowa helicopters, the Kirkuk pilots fill the skies every day with scores of training flights. As part of this training, every future Iraqi aviator gets screened for competency and potential in the Cessna 172. If the students meet the grade in academics, simulators and 15 flights, they are rewarded with a solo flight around the pattern.

Their training is conducted by a mix of U.S. military pilots, U.S. contractors and U.S.-trained Iraqi instructors.

"There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing the joy on the face of your student when he completes his first solo flight," explained Lt. Col. Adrien Schuettke, 521st AEAS commander on his role as an instructor. "Most of students have never been on an airplane before showing up here, and just a few weeks later, they're able to go out and preflight, start, taxi, takeoff, fly and land one on their's awesome."

Once screening is complete, the students are tracked into fixed wing or rotary wing follow-on training.

The fixed wing pilots get more academics, flight training and simulators in the Cessna -172 and then the larger single-engine Cessna-208. Once they complete the six-month program, some will move on to operational flying in other Iraqi squadrons, while others will remain as first assignment instructor pilots.

On the other side of the tarmac, the rotary wing candidates get a similarly intensive workup in the Bell 206s and OH-58s.

"The fixed wing screening gives the students some basic airmanship, but most of the rotary wing skills are brand new," said Army Lt. Col. Mike Hales, TAFT SATMO chief. "It takes a lot of patience, even when training native English speakers, but our instructors do an amazing job honing their skills, despite the language barriers."

While screening and training in the Cessnas at Kirkuk builds a solid foundation, the Iraqis came to realize that an advanced, high-speed, acrobatic trainer was a prerequisite towards developing combat aviators.

Together with the help of the United States, Iraqis procured 15 T-6 Texans and based them at Tikrit, where they embarked on the mission of advanced pilot training. The T-6 is the same trainer the United States uses for all fixed wing primary pilot training.

The U.S. Air Force's 52nd Expeditionary Flight Training Squadron operates the T-6s at Tikrit, along with a cadre of contracted maintainers, and academic instructors. Of the missions in the 321st AEAG, this one is the most directed by American advisors -- though that is rapidly changing.

Currently, there are 16 Iraqi pilots divided into three classes in various phases of training. Each student will go through the Primary Pilot Training syllabus before continuing on with Pilot Instructor Training. In these courses, they will learn all of the skills necessary for transition to operational platforms, including acrobatics, formation, instrument flying, navigation and low-level tactics.

Once the 16 pilots are finished, they will form the nucleus of the Iraqi pilot production for years...even come. Notably, the Iraqis recently celebrated a milestone, as the first student graduated from Primary Pilot Training.

This student, Lt. Col. Hamid, who will also serve as the first Iraqi T-6 squadron commander, has begun the PIT course and will graduate later this winter.

"[Colonel] Hamid is absolutely the right man to lead the Iraqis into excellence," said Lt. Col. Charles Stevens, 52nd EFTS commander. "He's a legacy pilot from the former regime, but he has western ideas and now western style training."

Within a year, all of the Iraqi students will graduate. Moreover, while the students are training as pilots, they are also learning how to run a training squadron. This will make the transition from U.S. to Iraqi operations seamless.

Pilot training, though, isn't limited to the schoolhouses. At New Al Muthanna Air Base (known as NAMAB, pronounced nay-mab) in Baghdad, along with Al Taji Air Base a short distance to the North, graduates from the basic programs are instructed in operational missions in a variety of airframes and missions.

At NAMAB, basic flying skills are sharpened, enabling the Iraqi Air Force to conduct Tactical Airlift and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance missions in the C-130 Hercules and King Air 350.

As Lt. Col. John Melloy, 321st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron commander, puts it, "Training never stops. Pilots come here as green copilots with some stick and rudder skills, but they don't know how to use those skills to employ a weapon system."

In a three year time frame, the pilots will upgrade to mission pilot, then aircraft commander, and eventually instructor. The sustained guidance by the 321st advisors has transitioned this steadily over time, so that now the two Iraqi squadrons at NAMAB are operating at or near total autonomy.

Last, but certainly not least, Al Taji is the hub of Iraqi rotary wing activity. Much like NAMAB, pilots who have completed their initial training show up to Taji to get mission qualified.

The mission sets are as numerous and complex as the helicopters flying around the patterns and training areas on the base.

U.S. advisors provide expertise to the Iraqi aviators on skills like emergency recoveries, instrument procedures, night vision goggle flying, and counter terrorism tactics in the Mi-17, UH-1H and T-407 helicopters. But advising is more than just teaching rudimentary skills.

"We are tactical actors on a strategic stage. At the end of the day, it's all about the relationships," said, Lt. Col. Ralph Okubo, 721st AEAS commander.

The trainers of the 321st AEAG have been developing relationships--along with flying skills--for many years. While steering away from imposing U.S. solutions, in favor of Iraqi ones, the advisors have placed discipline and integrity at the core of these relationships--and this training. This discipline and integrity will be the fuel that sustains the Iraqi Air Force and Army Aviation Command long after the U.S. mission here has ended.