I know what you are thinking. When I was first told that I’d be taking a ride with the Iraqi Air Force I thought I’d need to go change my pants. I saw how our Iraqi military partners drove their humvees and could only imagine how they’d fly helicopters!
When two Iraqi Air Force Huey helicopters arrived I was able to spend some time talking to the senior Iraqi pilot, who as it turned out had been flying since the Iran-Iraq War. Well educated and in nearly perfect English, he told me that he likes to fly solo, explaining that he worries about his door gunners (manning PKM machine guns) during combat operations. This Iraqi pilot also said that flying with too much support can make you lazy and that it’s important to be able to rely on your own skills and instincts. Who was I to argue?
A Light Colonel, he explained to me that we had completely destroyed the old Iraqi Air Force during the opening salvo of the 2003 invasion but that they were now getting a suitable air wing stood back up with American mentor pilots flying alongside them. Although they only had a few dozen helicopters at the time we spoke, he said that Iraq was making a significant investment in Eurocopter, whose helicopters could be flown for both combat operations and VIP transport.
My nervousness began to ease as we executed a training mission with our Iraqi assault force with the Iraqi Air Force delivering us to a practice target on our FOB. Although the Hueys lack the kind of stability that we’re used to from flying in UH-60 Black Hawks, the pilots were skilled enough infil and exfil us off the training objective without any significant difficulties.
The following day was a live operation that involved the Iraqi Air Force with their American mentor pilot and Iraqi SWAT with us, their US Special Forces advisers. I can report that the Iraqi flight crews and pilots executed their mission with complete professionalism and my initial concerns proved to be unwarranted.
While the future of Iraq often seems uncertain, the Iraqi Air Force is off to an impressive start.