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By: Lt. Col. John J. Loughlin II, USAR (Ret.) and Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Hill, Nebraska Army National Guard

During Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom, coalition forces decimated the Iraqi Air Forces’ rotary wing fleet consisting of more than 600 helicopters with overwhelming ‘shock and awe.’

“In the wake of the wars, the (Iraqi) capability to launch and field helicopters was reduced to ashes,” said U.S. Army Col. Thomas J. Trossen, the former Chief of Army Aviation Division for U.S. Forces – Iraqi, Advising and Training Mission from July 2010 to July 2011. “It seems only fitting that the headquarters of the emerging Iraqi Army aviation force should be located at a place called Pheonix Base in the International Zone.”

 

The aptly made reference is to the Greek mythological bird, the Phoenix, which rose from its own ashes to fly again. 

 

Phoenix base, was turned over to the Iraqi government in 2010. Trossen’s Army Aviation advising team which has grown from 4 to 19 soldiers and airmen, is now directed by U.S. Army Col. Mark W. Weiss now Chief of the Army Aviation Division. Col. Weiss is no stranger to rotary wing forces.

Weiss, the former Deputy Assistant Commandant of the Army Aviation Center, was deployed for a year-long tour in Iraq. He has flown the UH-1H, OH-58 and UH-60 helicopters during his time with the Arizona National Guard. Today, he leads a team which includes Air Force logisticians, personnel specialists and a wide variety of Army aviators from his offices in the former Baath Party Headquarters at Forward Operating Base Union III, Baghdad. “It really is a team effort and more importantly a multi-service effort,” said Weiss. “We fall under the Iraq Training and Advising Mission- Air Force, 321st Air Expeditionary Wing, commanded by Air Force Maj.  Gen.  Anthony Rock.”  

The challenges are many, said Weiss, but the rewards are great working on a daily basis to influence the Iraqi military and professionalize the service.

“Army aviation is unique in Iraq, although they began as a part of the Iraqi Air Force, they have formed a separate service apart from both the Air Force and the Army,” he said.

 The mission is to build inter-military relationships that will lead to a higher level of capability in Iraq, said Weiss.

“Our mission is really build partner capacity in Iraq,” Weiss says, “that will lead to an Iraq that has a higher level of partner capability.” 

An Operational Focus

“Progress has been made working toward the goal of having the Iraqi Army aviators pick up operational missions in support of security operations in Iraq,” said Cpt. James D. Wells, a Louisiana National Guard Blackhawk maintenance test pilot and aviation maintenance officer at Army Aviation Support Facility 1, Hammond, La., who is on his third tour in Iraq.

“They (the Iraqis) are now actively flying missions in a variety of airframes in support of Iraqi Security Forces; missions that just six-months ago were outside their sphere of capabilities,” said Wells . “These missions include pipeline security, routine anti-indirect fire patrols and even night-vision-goggle patrols in support of over watch.” 

He said, the Iraqi Army aviation helicopter force discovered four improvised explosive devices, during a route reconnaissance in Anbar province last August. 

“The Iraqi helicopters radioed back to the ground commanders and then transported an Iraqi explosive- ordnance disposal team to the scene where they defused the IEDs consisting of 40 kilograms of C4 explosives,” he said.

“These capabilities, and the Iraqi helicopter forces ability to accomplish them, didn’t just happen,” said Weiss. “They were the result of many months of hard work by the entire team.” 

Weiss speaks often and glowingly of the team assembled in Iraq and the difficult and demanding work they have performed in support of this mission. 

A Flying Helicopter Pot Purée

With a mixed fleet of aircraft spread around the country training the force, and more importantly developing a logistical capability to sustain the force, has been a monumental challenge. 

Currently the Iraqis fly the former Soviet Mi-17, the Mi-171E MM gunship, the Soviet era  Mi-8, and American helicopters such as the BJR/Bell OH-58, and  the UH-1, upgraded to the UH-1 P Huey -II which includes upgrades to the engine and transmission as well as a rudimentary flight management system.

Recently, the Iraqis took re-delivery of two Soviet era Mi-8’s that were spirited away to Jordan on the eve of Operation Desert Storm about  20 years ago. The pair were rebuilt in the Ukraine and delivered in pieces to Baghdad International Airport, ready to join the mixed-bag fleet.  

The fleet is diverse and challenging to train on and maintain, but like the old TV slogan says, “But wait – there’s more!”

“The Iraqi’s have in their fleet five newly acquired EC-635 Eurocopters,, civilian Bell Jet Rangers, and six French-made Gazelles,”  said U.S. Army Cpt. Ann Sage, an Army Beechcraft RC-12, and UH-60 pilot deployed to Iraq for her second tour.

Sage  and U.S. Army Lt. Col. Steven A. Ballew, a Georgia National Guard Blackhawk pilot, coordinate much of the training for the Iraqis, bringing into focus the need for them to have a seat at the table as the government stands-up its equivalent of the Federal Aviation Administration to manage airspace.

“It is extremely rewarding to help the Iraqis understand the need for all the things we take for granted as aviators.” said Ballew, “We know when we depress the push-to-talk switch there’s a trained and ready controller at the other end who can respond. – That’s something that does not yet exist in Iraq.”

Off The Shelf and Off To Service

Chief Warrant Officer Three Daniel Hill who flew AH-64 on active duty during Desert Shield/Desert Storm and OH-58 for Nebraska Army National Guard and Chief Warrant Officer Four Jason Ganitano US Army, an OH-58 instructor pilot, assigned to Ft. Rucker, have logged an impressive 466.2  flight hours, 392 sorties and 22 Iraqi Pilots to include 4 Iraqi Instructor Pilots in the three Bell IA 407’s delivered just  seven months ago to the airstrip at a dusty Forward Operating Base, 20 miles north of Baghdad called Camp Taji.

“The Iraqi pilots have been quick to grasp the fundamentals of flight, and at the same time have shown a keen interest in the tactical procedures needed for armed reconnaissance,” Hill said. “I guess at the end of the day, helicopter pilots are helicopter pilots and the language barriers  notwithstanding, these guys share the same love of flight that we do. “

 “One Saddam-era pilot tells the story of how he was ordered to pick up troops with a Mi-17 during the Iran-Iraq War,” said Hill. “When he arrived at the LZ he could see the area was swarming with Iranian troops. Rather than abort the mission and report what he saw, he landed near Iranian troops and allowed his helicopter to suffer numerous hits from small arms fire. He feared that if he returned without battle damage he would be punished for disobeying orders.”

Changing habits in the cockpit and on the ground has proven successful for these instructor pilots restoring a foundational capability. It’s a foundation that the training team at Camp Taji has been able to build on throughout the duration of the Advise and Training mission. 

Change is in the Wind

“This portion of our mission has concluded; the Advise and Training mission ends on October 1st and the mission here in Iraq takes on a new focus,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Christopher Fleming, a North Carolina National Guard Apache pilot. “From here on out it will be the Office of Security Cooperation – Iraq.

Negotiations are on-going between the U.S. and Iraqi government on the trainers and advisor force. One thing that is for certain is that under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, some 200 trainers will remain in Iraq to provide much needed training and guidance as part of OSC-I.

U.S. Army Col. Charles J. Burnett, an Army Blackhawk instructor and maintenance test flight examiner from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has been tapped to lead the Army aviation section of OSC-I. He's no stranger to providing U.S. expertise and security assistance overseas, having completed missions in Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay.

 

 “Right now, the mission is to build on the past success of the United States Forces - Iraq, Advising and Training mission and provide the way ahead toward a self sustaining Iraqi Army aviation capability,” said the 54-year-old Burnett.

Burnett won’t be alone; he’ll have experienced hands to assist him in that mission. Many of the current A&T team members have volunteered to stay on to work with Burnett’s team in the OSC-I office, slated to officially take command Oct. 1.

“The most important objective is to leave this country able to provide for its internal security and able to fend-off foreign interference from other nations,” said Burnett. “Army aviation and the helicopter capability we help provide will play a key role in providing that foundation capability.”

For Weiss, Trossen and the many Soldiers and Airmen, both rotary wing aviators and not, the Iraqi helicopter force that takes to the skies over this desert land will be their enduring legacy; a phoenix rising from the ashes for the future of the Iraqi state.

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