By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service
Jan. 15, 2008 - Iraq's new air force passed its infancy in 2007 and will continue to build and grow over the next few years, a U.S. unit commander in Iraq said yesterday. Air Force Lt. Col. Cy Bartlett, commander of 770th Air Expeditionary Squadron, is finishing a 12-month deployment at Taji Air Base, Iraq, and said he witnessed the Iraqi air force "getting off the ground" over the past year.
"The Iraqi air force is coming on strong. They have limited resources right now, but they're building and they're growing, and this is going to be the case over the course of the next couple of years," he told online journalists and "bloggers" in a conference call.
Bartlett's squadron, which trains and advises Iraqi helicopter operations, is part of the Coalition Air Forces Transition Team that is rebuilding Iraq's air force. When the squadron started its mission a year ago, Iraqi helicopter pilots were involved in very few operations -- "just a couple of training missions a week," Bartlett said. However, by the end of 2007, the squadron had amassed "almost 3,000 flying miles and over 500 combat missions" with Iraqi pilots, he said.
The increase, he said, is due largely to training efforts by the coalition and Iraqi pilots.
"The Iraqi air force is focused on building (a) system of capabilities to fight counterinsurgency. A key piece to that is being able to train their ... pilots and their support personnel and to be able to have the capability to make that training self-sustaining," Bartlett explained.
The 770th Air Expeditionary Squadron initiated a course in which beginning pilots learn basic skills in Bell 206 helicopters, then are transitioned into flying Bell UH-1 and MI-17 helicopters and participating in combat missions with coalition forces, Bartlett said. Another unit in the coalition transition team offers full undergraduate pilot training to the Iraqis, he said.
"We have the first Iraqi trained pilots, modern-era, to come through our UH-1 course, to graduate there, and to go out and fly combat missions over Baghdad," he said. "We've also reached the point this year where the Iraqis have been able to fly combat missions by themselves."
The increased numbers of Iraqi aircraft in flight have had a positive effect on the attitudes of the country's people, Bartlett said.
"People have come to recognize the sound of the Iraqi helicopters, and the mothers are actually bringing their children outside to see the helicopters. Kids are looking up from the soccer fields, and there's a lot of waving going on," he said. "There is a lot of pride in the fact that the Iraqi air force is flying. It is a visible symbol of the government of Iraq, and this is very valuable in the counterinsurgency campaign."
To provide for long-term sustainment, the coalition is recruiting qualified individuals from the old regime to gradually take over training of the "new generation" of Iraqi air force members, Bartlett said.
"Over the course of the next few years, some of these individuals from the old regime will be very valuable to help bring that experience in," he said.
(Kristen Noel works for the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)