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Airmen help Iraqi air force become self-sustaining service

by Staff Sgt. Ruth Curfman
332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

6/9/2008 - CAMP TAJI, Iraq (AFPN) -- High above the desert terrain, they fly in providing security to the people of Iraq. The airmen are vigilant, alert and ready to engage the enemy while patrolling the sky over Iraq. They are the new breed of Iraqi airmen.

The Iraqi air force has evolved by leaps and bounds in recent years, and guiding these airmen on their journey to rebuilding their service are American Airmen assigned to the 770th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron at Camp Taji.

The 770th AEAS Airmen train the Iraqi Airmen daily on all things helicopter-related. Their goals are already coming to fruition.

"When we got here about a year ago, there were maybe three helicopters that were capable of being able to fly outside the wire," said Master Sgt. Bradley Martens, the 770th AEAS operations superintendent and head instructor for the Iraqi air force aerial gunner program deployed from Hurlburt Field, Fla. "Today, we have 35 qualified gunners, a number of qualified pilots and we have operations going on in Basra and Mosul that are Iraqi only due to the training we have provided here."

"Rotary wing capability is critical to transporting people and supplies quickly and safely throughout the country and enabling security personnel to move more rapidly around the country to pre-empt or respond to security problems," said Lt. Col. Mark Daley, the 770th AEAS commander deployed from Andrews Air Force Base, Md. "Once this wing is fully operational, the Iraqi air force squadrons will be able to provide the government of Iraq the flexibility and functionality it needs to maintain its own internal security."

The current Iraqi air force setup at Taji consists of four helicopter squadrons, a developing maintenance group and the beginning stages of a mission support group.

"We have been tasked by the 370th Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, which is overseen by the Coalition Air Force Training Team in Iraq, to assess, advise, educate, train and assist the Iraqi air force helicopter wing personnel on providing counter-insurgency operations via air support," said Maj. Jiro McCoy, the recent 770th AEAS Mi-17 (multirole helicopter) commander of advisers. "This process will help us to transition the security of this country back to the Iraqis by providing them the tools to develop operations, maintenance and support capabilities through the establishment of self-sustaining training programs."

The 770th AEAS Airmen are advising the Iraqi air force about aircrew, maintenance, logistics and support personnel, which sets a strong foundation for the rebuilding of the force.

The training the coalition forces provide to the Iraqi air force differs from training provided in the U.S., and the Airmen must come up with creative ways to multitask.

"In the U.S. you don't see an operational unit conducting aircrew training and maintenance training at the same time," Sergeant Martens said. "Here we have to come up with alternate ways of communicating. A lot of times we will use hand signals, interpreters or demonstrations to explain what we are doing, but they (Iraqi students) are eager to learn and we have guys who are eager to train so that his been beneficial in this environment."

Even though this training is accompanied by various challenges, all of the participants involved in this mission recognize the impact of the work being done.

"The training we receive from the 770th AEAS personnel is very important," said Iraqi air force Col. Shamkky Abbas, Iraqi air force wing chief of operations. "Not only does it allow us, as an air force, to get more experience from the coalition forces, we also cooperate together for logistics assistance and to be able to strike the terrorists and critical militias."

Many of the Iraqi pilots came to the squadron with years of experience as Mi-17 multirole helicopter pilots from Saddam's military. Still, quite a bit of training had to take place for them to fly in Iraq's current complex airspace filled with numerous coalition assets. The continued training is a two-way exchange of knowledge that makes this partnership work.

"They definitely have the flying expertise in the Mi-17s and they end up teaching us a lot about that particular aircraft," Major McCoy said. "However, we are training them to operate in an environment that is English-language centric and much more complex than anything they've flown in the past. We are also teaching them tactics for employing helicopters in a counter-insurgency role."

"Training is a very important factor for building self-reliance," said an Iraqi aerial gunner. "Iraqi air force officers need to have the ability to eradicate terrorism and the conflict with the law. Being prepared and ready to train new aircrew members helps us to attain that goal."

In addition to operations training, the Iraqi air force is learning how to set up its own wing structure that will mimic that of the U.S. Air Force and have similar command and control elements.

"Our job here is to take the Iraqi air force and help them to expand their capabilities and to function as an equivalent to an Air Force wing," Colonel Daley said. "We are helping the Iraqis shape the development of Taji Base by combining their processes with our processes and coming up with new ways of making it work for both sides."

"The coalition forces try their best to help us by providing training and logistic assistance in the areas of advanced methods of training, to pilots, technicians, engineers and the Aero Ground Equipment personnel," Colonel Abbas said. "We are even able to send Iraqi technicians to the U.S. to get advanced training in their respective career fields which is a great way for us to develop (and maintain) our professional skills."

This education and guidance not only entails the air crew, but the maintenance of the helicopters as well.

"The people from the previous rotation were able to give these guys the basic knowledge regarding the ability to maintain the helicopters," said Master Sgt. Jerry Lindsey, a 770th AEAS combat airpower adviser of munitions and armament deployed from Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. "Like the U.S. Air Force training system, once you get the basics down, you can move onto more advanced training and that's what we are doing now."

Even this training; however, has not come without difficulties, mainly because of the language barrier.

"Some of the students had a decent grasp of the English language and they were able to blaze through the training on the airframes," Sergeant Lindsey said. "This helped us tremendously when it came to discussing why documentation of maintenance is so important and we were able to work together to combine ideas of their ways and our ways and come up with a new way that would work for both of us."

One way Sergeant Lindsey was able to work around communication difficulties was by finding a way to relate to his students differently.

"I am not good with languages, but I am really good with numbers," the sergeant said. "So, one of the first things I did was to learn my numbers in their language, which gave us a common ground to start with since our jobs are based on a lot of numbers."

The Airmen also relate on a more personal level with their trainees by spending time with them outside of work.

"We would go over to the Iraqi offices and watch a show on television that is a big hit in their country," Sergeant Lindsey said. "Not only does this allow us to share their culture, but it also helps when we meet new people and we have that common thread, from a television show. They realize that we have taken an interest in their culture and them as people. I never thought that doing something so simple, as watching a show, would help us build such a strong relationship with the people we work with here."

Although the main goal is to teach the Iraqi air force students, the U.S. Airmen often find themselves as pupils.

"Back at home station we normally are in charge of building the ammunition and delivering it to the flightline, that's usually where are job ends," Sergeant Lindsey said. "Here, we are learning at a high rate of speed, about actually loading the items on aircraft and performing all armament inspections on these airframes that we are not really familiar with, so I guess we are students in a way as well."

With all of the obstacles and challenges the U.S. Airmen face, they are making great strides in providing the essential training that Iraqi Airmen need to master the critical skills required of a self-sustaining force.

By providing a foundation for the Iraqis to build upon, the American Airmen realize the importance of their contributions.

"There is a certain amount of satisfaction in watching a country go from nothing into what we are able to do today," Sergeant Martens said. "The ability to send all-Iraqi crews out to fly missions and have them return safely and successfully, with a smile on their face, is well worth all of the effort that we are putting into this mission."

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