By Army Sgt. Frank Vaughn
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 28, 2009 - Air operations here cater to a wide range of travel needs, providing air travel for servicemembers and civilians for mission requirements and leave. As commercial aircraft land and take off at Basra International Airport, servicemembers of 3rd Air Operations Battalion, 58th Aviation Regiment, and civilian employees of Skylink Arabia work together to ensure it all goes smoothly.
Army Lt. Col. John Kornman, the battalion's commander, said his unit -- activated at Illesheim, Germany in June 2007 -- is one of 10 air operations battalions in the U.S. Army and the first to deploy. The battalions are a new concept in the Army, he added.
"[Our deployment] is a huge step for Iraq as we work with contractors and the Iraqi airport manager to bring [Basra International Airport] up to international standards and enhance commercial travel here," he said.
Kornman made it clear his unit is a tenant of Basra International Airport. While the battalion is responsible for air operations here, he said, its primary role is to strengthen the capabilities of Skylink Arabia.
"We have made big steps to bring the airport up to international standards," he said, noting that an International Civil Aviation Organization inspection is scheduled for November. "We are all working hard to make sure we are ready for it," he added.
Commercial travel will enhance tourism and commerce in the local area, Kornman said, making the battalion's efforts important to Iraq's future.
"We have three to five commercial aircraft a week landing here," he said. "We hope to eventually see as many as 60 a week in the future."
Tony Randerson, station manager for Skylink Arabia, said many local Iraqis already have benefited from the employment opportunities Skylink has to offer.
"We provide, in a joint venture with Iraqis, manpower and technical guidance to help develop operations here," he said. "Iraqis are covering about 50 percent of the air traffic control now."
Army Sgt. 1st Class John Fritz, the battalion's departure and traffic control group noncommissioned officer in-charge, said Iraqis also handle aircraft fueling, traffic control, cleaning, pallet construction and forklift baggage transport.
The cooperation of Iraqi citizens in this effort not only has been an opportunity for employment, but also has been essential for mission success, Kornman said.
"Iraqis are helping us make the operation happen," he said. "We couldn't do this without their efforts."
Fritz said the entire scope of air operations at Basra will eventually be contracted, but a couple of obstacles must be overcome first.
"We still need more manpower," he said. "We also have to get them through the vetting process for security clearances. Once we clear those hurdles, the entire mission will be contracted."
Most of the Iraqis employed by Skylink are in entry-level positions, Paul Greenaway, acting project manager for Skylink, said. "We start them with basic jobs, but we have a training program to allow for advancement," he explained.
Randerson said some workers have shown potential for added responsibility.
"They came to learn," he said. "They seem very eager to get the knowledge they need to succeed at what they do now and potentially promote as they go."
(Army Sgt. Frank Vaughn serves with Multinational Division South.)