Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

TOP STORY >> Iraqi airmen proud of C-130s

By DANIEL CONNOLLY
Associated Press Writer

When the U.S. government gave three C-130 cargo planes to the new Iraqi Air Force, Iraqi airmen celebrated by slaughtering sheep and marking the planes with blood.

The ceremony was repeated in November, when they flew a mission without a single American aboard, said Lt. Col. Mike Bauer, an Air Force officer who is involved in their training.

“I mean, we dunk somebody in water or drink champagne, and they do the sheep,” Bauer said by phone from Iraq.
Bauer is involved in the effort to build a small but functional Iraqi air force. It’s part of the larger goal of strengthening the Iraqi military to enable the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

At the core of the fledgling air force is the C-130. The chubby propeller-driven transport aircraft is the specialty of Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, which has played a key role in training Iraqi air crews.

Bauer said more than 28 people from the Jacksonville base have trained the airmen in Iraq. And last year, more than 55 Iraqis came to Arkansas for training in loading and flying the C-130, said Lt. Col. Tom Walker, who launched the training program here.

The Iraqi Air Force remains small: In addition to the C-130s, it has eight light reconnaissance aircraft and 21 helicopters, Lt. Col. Maureen Banavige wrote in an e-mail message.

Coming to Arkansas was a dramatic twist for the Iraqi airmen, all of whom had flown in Saddam Hussein’s Air Force, which was nearly wiped out by U.S.-led forces in the 1991 Gulf War.

Word-of-mouth recruiting helped build up the force. “It was a previous high-ranking (Iraqi) Air Force officer who knew them by name and called them personally and asked them to come back and be part of the new Iraqi Air Force,” Bauer said.
The youngest of the pilots is 39 and the youngest navigator is 37, relatively advanced ages because more than a decade of sanctions meant it was difficult to train new airmen, Bauer said.

In January 2005, the first group of pilots, navigators, flight engineers and loading specialists came to Arkansas, Walker said.
They received classroom training, flight-simulator training, and one flight in a C-130 before returning to Iraq. They also have been trained in Jordan.

An interpreter was on hand to help in Arkansas. Some of the Iraqis also spoke English well and were able to interpret for their peers, Walker said.

The program wasn’t publicized. Walker said there was concern that the Iraqis’ families might face retaliation for working with Americans if their names and faces appeared in the media.

But the Iraqis’ presence on the base wasn’t a secret, Walker said. The Leader reported about the Iraqis in February 2005.
“We certainly didn’t hide them in any way,” Walker said. “We took them downtown, toured the state Capitol, shopping facilities, whatever they wanted to see.”

Walker recalled taking two of the officers to see his 13-year-old’s ice hockey practice. He said he offered to take them out to dinner, but they declined. On the way home he stopped at a Sonic fast food drive-in to buy a snack for his son.

They commented that going out at night would be impossible in Baghdad. And they also noticed the ice cream on the menu, he said.

“And they got all excited and said ‘I’ve changed my mind. I will have ice cream,’” he said.
Training Iraqi military members in the United States is unusual, but not unprecedented.

Iraqis have been trained at military institutions across the United States since the 2003 U.S. invasion, including at Fort Leaven-worth, Kan., and Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., said defense department spokes-man Lt. Col. Barry Venable.

Most of the training has focused on leadership. Venable wouldn’t give specific numbers of Iraqis trained.
“It’s a small number. They have more immediate needs over there than the institutional-type training that we can offer here,” he said. “It’s not cost-effective, either.”

Despite the sheep’s-blood ritual and other cultural differences, like occasional pauses for Muslim prayers, Bauer said the Iraqis have a lot in common with their American counterparts.

Today, the Iraqis continue to train in Baghdad alongside American airmen and have flown a variety of combat missions, including humanitarian missions as well as transporting dignitaries and combat troops, Bauer said.