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Dec. 3, 2008—On the east side of Camp Taji, Iraq, sits the “Blue Zone,” the collection of aged structures that house the fledgling Iraqi Air Force’s helicopter fleet. Once a Republican Guard airfield, Taji is now operated by the US Army.

Many of the Iraqi pilots and maintainers who call Taji home have significant experience with some of these rotary-wing platforms, which include the Mi-17 mobility helicopter. In some cases, this familiarity dates back to the early days of the Iran-Iraq war.

Still, while US-led training operations have stepped up, progress with this helicopter force is measured in incremental steps, not bounds, according to the director of operations for the Coalition Air Forces Transition Team advisory unit stationed there.

"This is an older force, and, in many ways, it is a challenge to help them adapt," said USAF Lt. Col. William Rowell, DO for the 721st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron.

Newer recruits are often more eager to learn new tactics, while older pilots may be more resistant to change, said Rowell, a career MH-53 pilot, who, like many of his 54 or so fellow advisers, comes from USAF’s helicopter community. The maintenance advisers come from across USAF’s helicopter force as well.

Taji hosts one IqAF training and three operational squadrons. Bell Jet Rangers, OH-58s, and UH-II Hueys share the ramp with the Mi-17s.

Iraqi commanders, together with the US trainers, are working to increase the proficiency of the small corps of Iraqi helicopter pilots and aircrew so that they may move on from simply shuttling Iraqi troops, government officials, and distinguished visitors to more counterinsurgency-focused operations.

As the Daily Report arrived on base in early November, training missions were under way to certify Iraqi aircrews in the use of night-vision-goggle equipment. (Eight training sorties with the NVGs earn a pilot certification, said Maj. Ryan Campbell, an adviser with the 721st AEAS who is a UH-1 pilot deployed from Andrews AFB, Md.).

The evening of Nov. 9 found Col. Fadhiz Abbas, commander of the IqAF’s 4th Squadron, and a veteran pilot in several Soviet- and Western-model rotary aircraft, briefing his pilots before an evening takeoff. He emphasized the importance of maintaining the proper speed and times on a standard route through Taji’s training area.

These exercises, while lasting only a few hours, are critical to the proficiency of the pilots and the aircrews, many of whom are newer recruits filling new positions such as side gunners. In the past, for example, the Iraqi Mi-17s did not have defensive gunners, even in combat. Now, they fly with side gunners operating 7.62mm PK machine guns, and their pilots and crews must train to new tactics.

While flying hours, logistics, and maintenance sometimes limit how many hours the Iraqi airmen can spend in the air, both the Iraqis and their US advisers are eager for the same thing: seeing the Iraqis get in the air and operating independently, said Capt. Mike Volkerding, a CAFTT adviser who is a UH-1 pilot out of the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School at Fairchild AFB, Wash.

As of early November, IqAF helicopter units had flown 3,126 sorties and amassed 3,424.5 flight hours in 2008, a modest increase from the prior year, during which 3,143 hours were logged.

(For more on the IqAF, read Building a Credible Air Force, an on-the-scene report from the Daily Report’s November trip to Iraq.)