US Opens Flight School for Iraqi Pilots

The Associated Press
Sunday, December 2, 2007; 12:59 PM

KIRKUK REGIONAL AIR BASE, Iraq -- Lt. Col. Mark Bennett never imagined he would fly a propeller plane over northern Iraq with a former member of Saddam Hussein's air force at his side.

Four years ago, Bennett screeched across Iraqi airspace in a B-1 bomber, dropping 2,000-pound bombs on runways and hangars at an Iraqi air base below. Now, he is back to rebuild the same Iraqi air force he helped disable during the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Bennett is one of more than 80 Americans training Iraqi pilots at a flight school inaugurated this week at this U.S. military base set up on the ruins of a Saddam Hussein-era air base. The goal is to restore the Iraqi air force _ once the sixth-largest in the world _ to at least part of its former glory.

The landscape here still bears the scars of U.S. bombing runs in 2003 _ craters in the runways and hangars roofs ripped open to the sky. Old Iraqi jet fighters decay in a gravel lot, near berms where Saddam's henchmen tried to bury them to elude U.S. detection in 2003.

A dozen Iraqi cadets began studying here in October in new classrooms and flight simulators built by Americans, training on helicopters as well as Cessna propeller planes affixed with surveillance cameras to watch insurgents below.

"Our objective is to help them build the air force into something that can assist in counterinsurgency operations _ through surveillance now, but also with light attack planes," said Brig. Gen. Bob Allardice, who heads the Coalition Air Force Transition Team.

"Eventually, they'll help defend their borders, but they're not there yet," said Allardice, a 49-year-old Takoma, Wash., native.

Half the students are already members of the Iraqi air force refreshing their skills and learning to be flight instructors themselves. The other six are recruits, many of them 25 years younger than their classmates.

The U.S. Air Force has been training seasoned Iraqi pilots since 2005, but the base in Kirkuk is the first to take recruits with no experience and to structure itself as a traditional flight school. The one-year course will accept new students quarterly.

Over the past four years, American military forces across Iraq have shifted their focus from first ousting Saddam and then combatting insurgents, to training the Iraqi government and military to take over the job.

Violence has dropped sharply in recent months, and this year's 30,000-strong U.S. troop buildup is set to reverse next year. Such developments have spurred the Bush administration to put even more emphasis on transferring autonomy to Iraqis.

The mission shift is particularly acute for Bennett, who flew 15-hour combat missions over Iraq in 2003 and now finds himself forming steadfast friendships with the Iraqi pilots he trains.

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