CAMP TAJI, Iraq: Air Force pilots from the 721st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron here train, advise and assist Iraqi helicopter pilots around the clock, helping the Iraqis further develop their air force.
Maj. Christopher Elam, an Mi-17 instructor pilot, and Maj. Jack Swinehart, a UH-1HP Huey military transition team lead, fly side-by-side with Iraqi pilots throughout Iraq, fine-tuning their daytime combat skills and recently introducing them to nighttime flying with night-vision goggles.
Historically helicopter pilots routinely fall under the army, but after the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Iraqis began to focus more on building their air force’s rotary wing flying capabilities, said Major Elam, a native of Evanston, Ill.
“Many of the pilots we train with are old regime kind of guys who are in a new program,” said Major Elam, who is deployed from Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. “They bring a lot of experience to the table, but they also bring old habits that we’re trying to break and instill new habits. Since they’ve never had night-vision capabilities before, we’re starting from ground up, teaching them everything from how to operate NVGs, preflight them and maintain them.”
The Mi-17 allows Iraqis to swiftly transport their troops and cargo and medical evacuation peers out of harm’s way, as well as conduct counter terrorism missions.
Iraqi air force Maj. Ammar, an Mi-17 pilot, has flown five different aircraft since 1983. With more than two decades of experience, he said he is still learning from the American pilots.
“I like flying because we get good information from the American side,” said Major Ammar. “They are teaching us about goggles for flying at night. We’ve never done this before in Iraq. They’re teaching us technical landings and how to attack targets. It’s very important because we now have new information and procedures for flight.”
In addition to the Mi-17, UH-1 Hueys permit the Iraqi air force a quick response time to counter insurgent operations, support ground troops and perform improvise explosive device searches. Its small frame also has the ability to fly where larger air frames can’t.
“The Huey platform was the first Iraqi air force aircraft to fly NVGs on missions, and shortly after, the Mi-17 began to do the same thing,” Major Swinehart said. “The young guys who we’re getting in now are really phenomenal pilots. They desire to fly and learn. These guys risk a lot coming out to do this job. It’s easy to take for granted ’cause we’re on the base and relatively safe.
“Back in 2006, 2007, there wasn’t one guy within this squadron who didn’t have his life threatened for being in the Iraqi air force, so these guys care about what they’re doing a lot,” he continued. “They stake a lot — their life really — on coming out here and trying to make their country better and doing something with the skills they have, or are going to have.”
However, before Iraq can benefit from the helicopters’ capabilities, the Iraqi pilots must show they are capable of handling the aircraft. Several have proven their skills and are now instructor pilots alongside the American Airmen.
“We recently upgraded several more senior instructors to NVG instructor pilot in a small amount of time,” Major Elam said. “We’re here to help out as much as possible in that end goal, but it’s really about them doing for themselves. The successful air adviser recognizes that and doesn’t perform missions for them, but guides them toward their development of their own mission sets and their own skill sets so that they can do it on their own.”
Major Swinehart volunteered for this year-long deployment after friends from his home station and hometown, Fort Rucker, Ala., encouraged him to do so.
“It’s a real pleasure to get to come over here and do something meaningful in the Huey air fame and be able to fly combat missions and hopefully help them get those foundational capabilities that will help them maintain their air sovereignty in the future,” he said.