TAJI â€” As part of American efforts in Iraq to continue strengthening a long-term partnership, Airmen assigned to the 721st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron train, advise and assist the Iraqi Army Aviation Command with all helicopter operations here.
â€œThe air advisors are applying their technical skill and knowledge in a whole new way, and itâ€™s having a significant impact on the Iraqis,â€ said Lt. Col. Scott Curtin, 721st AEAS commander. â€œWe have seen great leaps forward in what the Iraqis were able to do when we got here to what they are able to do now.â€
Senior Master Sgt. Maurice Moore, 721st AEAS superintendent, said the 29 air advisors assigned to the squadron mentor Iraqi pilots and maintainers on a daily basis to help them build a safe, self-sustaining rotary-wing force.
â€œThey are going out of their way to help the Iraqis, and the Iraqis have come a long way to making things better,â€ said Sergeant Moore. â€œItâ€™s great to be a part of that.â€An Iraqi Army Aviation Command Mi-17 helicopter sits on the flight line, Dec. 12, 2010, in Taji, Iraq. USAF photo/Senior Airman Andrew Lee.
As the main hub for helicopter operations in Iraq, Taji is home to more than 45 helicopters. Air advisors use those aircraft to train pilots new to this model, as well as to teach experienced pilots new skills to further their capabilities.
â€œFor the new pilots, this is their initial qualification on [this] helicopter. We teach them the basics,â€ said Capt. Kate DenDekker, 721st AEAS combat air advisor. â€œFor the older generation of Iraqi pilots, we are teaching them precision maneuvering. They are practicing things that they normally wouldnâ€™t do and are becoming really good at it.â€
The training syllabus is filled with a myriad of instruction ranging from proper emergency procedures and tactical and formation flying, to how to fly using only the helicopterâ€™s instruments during inclement weather. The objective is for these aviators to be prepared for anything on a long-term basis.
â€œOur goal is for them to be able to support all their own missions in Iraq after we leave,â€ said Maj. Brandon Deacon, 721st AEAS director of operations. â€œThe air advisors are doing a great job ensuring that happens. I am really proud of all the work they have done here.â€
Pre-flight planning for the Iraqi pilots and air crew is a high priority to help instill a safer, more efficient way for them to carry out their orders. DenDekker said in the past when these pilots received orders for a mission, they would simply head out with no pre-flight planning for contingencies and how to react to them.
â€œNow with the briefing skills we have taught them, they plan ahead for a lot of things that they otherwise wouldnâ€™t have talked about,â€ she said. â€œThey brief everything, so if it actually happens while they are in the helicopter, there is no question as to what they need to do.â€
A heightened sense of readiness during the training missions is very important because the air advisors have experienced real-world altercations.
â€œCrew coordination is an area where we focus our advising efforts,â€ said Curtin. â€œFor example, our door-gunner instructors work with Iraqi trainees to best employ the defensive firing capability of the Mi-17 when they come under attack from ground fire.”
The teaching hasnâ€™t been a one-way road; air advisors are learning a thing or two from the Iraqis as well. DenDekker explained that she has learned something on every sortie.
â€œThe older generation of pilots has a lot of hours in these helicopters,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™ve flown with a lot of pilots that have flown these helicopters in a way that I have never seen before. The Iraqi pilots really know their helicopter and what the limits are.â€
DenDekker said the language barrier with the younger pilots has taught her to be more specific and straightforward with her instructions.
â€œI have to be specific about what I mean. I canâ€™t use euphemisms because they donâ€™t know what they mean,â€ she said.
Because pilots and air crew wouldnâ€™t be able complete their missions without properly maintained helicopters, the 721st AEAS maintenance air advisors work with Iraqi mechanics to ensure the pilots and air crews have safe and reliable helicopters. Thanks to the Iraqi maintainersâ€™ extensive experience, the air advisors spend their time helping to improve their current methods.
Although civilian contractors handle the bulk of the maintenance, advisors mentor the Iraqis on a variety of tasks ranging from simple upkeep like washing the helicopter, to more technical jobs like adjusting the feathering hinge reservoir on the tail rotor.
â€œWe have more of a hands-off role,â€ said Master Sgt. Laurence Shaw, 721st AEAS maintenance air advisor. â€œWe look for ways to help them improve what they are already doing [and] help them incorporate safer, more efficient practices.â€
Because the advisors operate outside of their normal comfort zones established on American soil, the mission of working side by side with their counterparts at the Iraqi base comes with its fair share of challenges.
â€œThey have had some of these helicopters for a long time,â€ said Shaw. â€œWe are trying to overcome set practices, and get them to do things a little bit different than they are use to. It can be a bit difficult at times.â€
Thankfully, American airmen have proven themselves up to the challenge.
â€œThese are some of the best airmen I have ever worked with,â€ said Capt. James Kepka, 721st AEAS director of maintenance. â€œThe Airmen here put a lot of hours in to make sure we get the Iraqis knowledgeable on the right maintenance procedures.â€
Overall, the combination of operations and maintenance leads to one set goal for the advisors – to leave a lasting impression in Iraq.
â€œOn a day to day basis you donâ€™t think about it, but we know the impact will be huge,â€ said Curtin. â€œThe younger pilots and enlisted personnel will affect the way helicopters are used in Iraq for generations to come. The air advisory role will continue to grow. This is something we can do to build enduring relationships in this region and around the world.â€
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