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Airmen, Iraqi air traffic controllers work together

by Staff Sgt. Julie Weckerlein
U.S. Central Command Air Forces Public Affairs

6/11/2007 - Baghdad, Iraq (AFPN) -- Standing 200 feet above Baghdad International Airport in a weathered control tower, Air Force air traffic controllers are busy directing aircraft while their Iraqi counterparts get certified through intensive formal training and hands-on experience.

It's a job that is extremely challenging, yet extremely rewarding, said Capt. Pedro Rampolla, who is serving his second deployment here.

"It's neat to see how things have improved," said the 447th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron airfield operations flight commander. "The Iraqis are great guys, very friendly and they really want to learn."

The language barrier is the most immediate challenge facing the Airmen and Iraqis. While the Iraqi controllers speak English (which is the universal language for air traffic control), they could not understand the rapid-fire "phraseology" over the airwaves.

"They were a little perplexed the first time they heard the dialogue between tower (operator) and pilot," said Captain Rampolla. "They could speak it, but they couldn't comprehend it as fast as it was coming at them."

That's changing now. The Iraqi controllers are attending an academy run by the Iraqi Civilian Aviation Authority, or ICAA, which is similar to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. They must pass a series of rigorous English tests before graduating. The goal is to get the Iraqi controllers certified with the International Civilian Aviation Organization, which sets the standards for air traffic controllers around the globe.

"So far, things have been pretty good," said Staff Sgt. William Ferguson, a Wyoming Air National Guard air traffic controller who is serving his second deployment here. "There are some who need the additional help, but for the most part, they are doing well."

In conjunction with the academy, the Iraqi controllers work in the tower with the Airmen, learning how to keep up with the increased number of flights. Before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the airport averaged 10 flights a day. Now, there are about 14,000 flights a month.

"Frankly, they didn't have the experience or the technology to meet the demand," said Captain Rampolla. "That's why we were requested to come in and assist."

Over the course of several expeditionary deployment rotations, the Airmen also helped modernized the tower's infrastructure established by the ICAA, helping the Iraqis to handle more flights. They also have formed bonds with each other that transcend nationalities and religious beliefs.

"The interaction has been great," said Sergeant Ferguson. "We've shared tea and lunch. These guys were here for my first deployment, and they remembered me. It was like a family reunion when I returned."

Captain Rampolla pointed out there is a mix of Sunnis and Shiite Muslims working together every day with no problems.

"It's not an issue with them," he said. "They'll tell you they're just here to do their jobs."

However, doing their job presents great danger for the Iraqis. A few years ago, a controller's father was kidnapped and killed because of the controller's association with Americans. Others simply never showed up again. The controllers still get constant death threats.

"I think it says a lot about their character," said Captain Rampolla. "They continue to work despite everything. We're all looking forward to the day we can hand off the operations up here to the Iraqis and say 'okay, you got it from here.'"

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