By David Mays
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 30, 2007 - Recruiting experienced pilots and implementing unprecedented training methods are the best ways to fast-track Iraq's infant air force, a coalition commander said today. "In order for the Iraqi air force to get off the ground, we need to bring pilots on board," U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Wobbema said. "The only way we're really going to successfully do that on a timely basis is to re-recruit those pilots who were in the air force prior to (the Gulf War in) '91, because they really haven't had an air force since then."
Wobbema, who commands the "Happy Hooligans" of North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Maintenance Group, 119th Fighter Wing, volunteered to deploy to Iraq earlier this year to help stand up Iraq's air force from scratch and recently was assigned as chief of staff for the Coalition Air Force Transition Team. He told online journalists and "bloggers" during a conference call from Baghdad's International Zone that recruiting pilots once loyal to Saddam Hussein can be a tough sell.
"The concern of security is one of the biggest things," he said. "That probably is the largest pole in the tent with regard to getting these guys on board."
But after an experienced pilot is vetted and cleared, Wobbema explained, that individual is jump-started for success in the sky.
"Once we get them going, then they are already qualified pilots, they already have wings, and so the timeline to get them mission-capable in their respective airframes will be reduced," he said. "That's the only way we're going to grow the air force to a size and capability on a timely enough basis that we need to have to accomplish the tasks that we have."
Besides common-sense pilot recruiting, coalition trainers are employing education efforts never before attempted, the colonel explained, like taking the basic United States airman course, previously taught only at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, overseas.
"I'm really impressed with the airmen we brought in. The guys that we have in Taji are people who don't normally get the opportunity to deploy, per se, in their current career field as instructors," Wobbema explained. "Never before has the Air Force brought people to a foreign country to do their basic enlisted training program like this, so it's really unique, and it's been really interesting to watch it manifest itself."
U.S. and coalition partners conduct basic airman training, run a technical school and operate an officer candidate program from sprawling Taji Air Base, just north of Baghdad, the colonel said. Coalition trainers also are embedded with more experienced Iraqi air force teams in Kirkuk, Basra and elsewhere in Iraq, where they can offer continuing field education, primarily in maintenance, he said.
"Keep in mind, we've only been working this Iraqi air force piece strongly since about the first of this year, the actual building and equipping and 'plussing-up' of the personnel," he said.
Iraq's air force continues to grow, Wobbema said. So far, more than 1,280 airmen have been recruited, including 140 pilots whose enthusiasm sometimes has to be curbed, the colonel explained.
"I've been a fighter guy my whole career, and a lot of the Iraqi air force pilots are all former fighter pilots, and of course if they had an unlimited budget and didn't want to worry about anything else, we'd be buying F-16s, F-18s for them, or they would be buying them for themselves; that's what they'd be wanting to do," the colonel said. "But we have to walk before we can run."
For now, Iraqi pilots successfully are conducting intelligence and surveillance missions with a specially equipped Cessna Caravan turboprop, Wobbema said. Soon they will be flying an armed Caravan and a propeller-driven light attack aircraft to help handle Iraq's most pressing problem: the insurgency taking place within the country's own borders, the colonel explained.
"From there, it will migrate to being able to develop an air-defense capability to protect their borders from outside influence and then from there, who knows?" he mused. "At some point in time, I suspect that they will ultimately migrate to becoming a fully integrated part of the world community."
(David Mays works in New Media at American Forces Information Service.)