By Air Force Senior Airman Eric Schloeffel
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 25, 2008 - While Iraqi air force pilots continue flying sorties to aid stability in their nation, Iraqi maintainers on the ground here have achieved important benchmarks to keep their fleet in the air. Airmen with the Iraqi air force's 3rd Squadron took over a wide variety of maintenance duties on the unit's Cessna 208 Caravan fleet that's used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, a task formerly performed by U.S. contractors.
"The 3rd Squadron was recently asked to transition from contracted maintenance to full Iraqi support," said Air Force Capt. Gordon Beran, 870th Expeditionary Air Advisory Squadron combat aviation advisor. "Having the ability to take over maintenance for their new fleet is very important. It brings them one step closer to a fully autonomous air force."
The all-Iraqi crews perform Level 1 maintenance tasks such as aircraft launch and recovery, pre-flight maintenance, ground handling and aircraft servicing.
This was no simple undertaking for the Iraqi maintainers, who had no experience with Western-style aircraft and whose English-speaking abilities are limited.
"While the Cessna 208 is fairly basic, these aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance technology found on most U.S. Air Force advanced weapon platforms," Beran said. "The aircraft takes a lot of training for a pilot to operate - and takes just as much for the maintainer."
The maintainers here received their previous training with Russian equipment that the old Iraqi air force used during Saddam Hussein's regime, the captain added.
To meet the challenges of maintaining an unfamiliar aircraft, the Iraqis relied heavily on their experience, but also worked hard to understand the endless pages of technical orders that deal with the Cessna 208. Airmen from the Coalition Air Forces Training Team - a collection of U.S. servicemembers who advise and train Iraqi airmen - always are on hand to guide them.
Since the 3rd Squadron moved from Basra to Kirkuk a few years ago, the program has made leaps and bounds to aid stability efforts in Iraq, Beran said.
"The Cessna 208 provides overwatch for oil pipelines that run from Kirkuk to Basra, where the oil is then exported to provide revenue for Iraq," Beran said. "Aircrews have witnessed numbers of insurgents planting bombs on various pipelines and power grids, and alerted the U.S. and Iraqi army to handle the situation. These efforts show the Iraqi air force is making extremely important contributions to help stabilize their country."
The 3rd Squadron's maintainers seem to agree and believe that the maintenance transition is another piece of the pie for the Iraqi air force to achieve its goals.
"Just a few years ago, the Iraqi air force was a very small organization," said an Iraqi air force colonel who works as the 3rd Squadron chief engineer. "We now have maintainers and technicians taking control of the maintenance of our aircraft, and we're working with the Americans to learn their maintenance rules so our air force can have a good future.
"The American aircraft here are very different than what the Iraqi maintainers are used to," he continued. "The systems - such as Global Position System - are very advanced, and our aircraft in the old Iraqi air force never had such technology. But we are learning as much we can, and are very happy to have this opportunity."
Coalition trainers say the 3rd Squadron airmen have exceeded expectations, and that the transition so far has been successful.
"Just a few weeks ago, the squadron had an aircraft that was grounded because a part broke," Beran said. "We wanted to see what solution they would come up with on their own."
The Iraqi chief engineer weighed his options and decided to transfer parts from another aircraft that had accumulated more flight hours and was closer to its next scheduled maintenance inspection -- a process known as "cross-canning." The Iraqi airmen placed an order for the new part, then broke out their technical orders - which are all in English - and expertly repaired the Cessna 208 with practically no help from their coalition training team, Beran said.
"They got the Cessna back up in the air by their own hands so it could fly combat missions again, which is very significant," he said. "Their decision to transfer aircraft parts from one aircraft to another is a fundamental fleet management technique."
The cross-canning method properly balances fleet health through flight-hour management and results in more aircraft availability for counterinsurgency operations, Beran explained.
"This is a great example of the Western influence we've been advising," he said. "The Western influence isn't right or wrong - it's just different and new to the Iraqi air force. But their ability to grasp those concepts on their own shows the progress they've made. These guys know what they are doing."
While U.S. contractors still perform higher-level maintenance tasks associated with 3rd Squadron aircraft, Iraqi crews are preparing themselves for a complete transition in the near future. To augment these efforts, the 3rd Squadron recently received 28 new airmen from Iraqi air force basic training at Camp Taji, Iraq. These airmen will begin their maintenance careers working on the 3rd Squadron's CH-2000 and receive certifications each step of the way by their Iraqi supervisors.
These developments show a bright future for the 3rd Squadron, and the Iraqi air force's capability to operate without the helping hand of coalition forces in the not-so-distant future, the Iraqi colonel said.
"We have come a long way in a very short time, and it keeps getting better here," he said. "We are moving step by step, with the older guys teaching the new guys the right way to get the job done. The Iraqi air force is moving into the future very quickly."
(Air Force Senior Airman Eric Schloeffel serves in the 506th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs Office.)