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Iraqi air force pilots take flight into history
Iraqi air force 2nd Lts. Habeeb, Majid and Hassan salute during the Iraqi national anthem at their graduation ceremony from Iraq's only fixed-wing flight training school Oct. 13 at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Iraq. One graduate plans to become an instructor pilot for the school, and another will fly a King Air twin-turboprop aircraft on operational missions. The third will travel to the United States to learn to fly the T-6 Texan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Randi Flaugh)
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Pilot training in Iraq: a genesis story

Posted 10/22/2008   Updated 10/23/2008 Email story   Print story


by 2nd Lt. Agneta Murnan
71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

10/22/2008 - VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- What does it take to create a new generation of Iraqi pilots with just three computers, two chairs, a few saw horses and scrap wood? Ask Team Vance member Maj. Joseph Markusfeld of the 33rd Flying Training Squadron here. 

He has just returned from Forward Operating Base Warrior, Kirkuk, Iraq, where he was part of a team that established pilot training for the foundation of the new Iraqi Air Force.

In the next few months, Maj. Terry Bloom and Capt. Brian Riggle of the 32nd FTS, and Capt. Pat Thomason and Capt. Leon Butler of the 71st Operational Support Squadron, will return to the U.S. to help tell the stories of expeditionary pilot training in a combat zone. 

Major Markusfeld, first to return from the 52nd Expeditionary FTS, hosted by the 506th Air Expeditionary Group, described looking at the original job description of the 365-day deployment as history in the making. 

"I watched the news and was really interested in our operations overseas," said the major. After discussing the tasking with his wife, Staci, Major Markusfeld decided that this was a chance to write a chapter in history. 

The five Vance instructor pilots prepared for deployment by attending courses in both Air Advisor Training and combat skills training. They also learned to fly the Cessna 172 and Cessna 208 in austere environments at Spartan Aviation in Tulsa, Okla.

When Major Markusfeld arrived at FOB Warrior last September, "there were no aircraft, no checklists, no continuity, no books, no flight-safety regulations besides a small series of general orders."  He explained that the four students selected for pilot training were identified by tribal leadership as the future leaders of Iraq. 

"Before work could begin, personal relationships had to be made. We shared pictures of our families, we talked about our homes, we ate lunch together," explained the Vance instructor pilot. Describing his acquired taste for Iraqi black tea, Major Markusfeld said that establishing relationships was vital to Iraqi culture. "The Iraqi mentality is -- how can you get work done until you know with whom you are working?" 

By the end of the tour, the Iraqis were asking the team not to leave and the number of student pilots had grown from four to 40. 

As the Iraqi/American team came together, Major Markusfeld became the assistant director of operations and primary safety advisor; writing their first flying training manual and quick-reaction checklist. 

Major Bloom, arriving a month after Major Markusfeld, took over as Chief of C-172 Standards and Evaluation and developed much of the C-172 ground school. He also wrote the first emergency procedures guide and led the team writing the Squadron standards. 

As chief of Scheduling and Airspace, Captain Butler wrote the first Iraqi Functional Check Flight program and led the creation of the combat airspace. 

Captain Thomason, chief of C-208 training, created the C-208 advanced training program and was key in the validation of the combat airspace. 

Captain Riggle acted as flight commander for more than 25 Iraqi student pilots and helped author the scheduling processes that the Iraqi air force benchmarked commandwide. 

These accomplishments were all in addition to flying with Iraqi student pilots six days a week and advising their Iraqi counterparts on air operations. Their model - Vance's specialized undergraduate pilot training. 

"As much as each of us focused on key elements of developing the training program, we all did a little of everything," Major Markusfeld said. "You couldn't be special. When we saw a deficit, we'd jump in, determine the best practice from our experience, and establish the precedent." 

The team's "crown jewel" was the Kirkuk Regional Airbase airspace capacity. The team reported that the most optimistic speculators projected the maximum air traffic capacity to be about four sorties per day. Through the team's exceptional airspace development and management, the capacity exceeded 30 sorties per day. 

"The limiting factor became instructor pilots, not airspace or logistic capacity. We often flew an average of 15 sorties a day." 

Major Markusfeld described moments when the enormity of the job hit him. "I recall flying a navigation mission with a student not far from the border of Iran and realized what we had accomplished against all odds - from nothing to flying, basic aircraft handling, cross-country, and instrument training missions all over Iraq and into Kuwait. We came so far - so fast." 

Considering the end goal of developing a capable, sovereign Iraqi air force ready for national defense, the team took special interest in fostering national pride among the students. 

"The concept of tribal versus national pride was an important consideration. Tribal ties and family expectations are extremely strong. Family members' activities have direct impact on the tribe's well-being," said Major Markusfeld. 

"We took every chance to foster a sense of team unity and esprit de corps, transcending tribal divisions for a greater purpose. For personal and family safety, many of the students could not discuss their activities with their families and had cover stories," he added. 

The team didn't lose a single student or instructor, despite every sortie being a combat mission in a highly-charged environment. 

"We could not have done the mission without our exceptional maintenance and support teams in the 52nd EFTS, the backing of the host wing, and few visionary leaders in both the U.S. Air Force and Iraqi air force," said Major Markusfeld. 

"In addition, the support we received from our home squadrons gave us the tools to affect the mission downrange and the peace of mind that our families were in good hands. 

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is not an exaggeration to say the 52nd EFTS turned a page in history." 

Major Markusfeld left Iraq with stories he says that could fill a book, and a mental picture that fills him with pride. 

"As I was leaving, I got to see three Iraqi students prepare to graduate and take their place as the best pilots in their air force. I watched as new Iraqi instructor pilots flew with new Iraqi students, launched by an all-Iraqi ground crew. 

"The instructions, plans, procedures, and techniques were being passed on to the next Iraqis stepping up to defend their country." 

(This is the first part of a series on the involvement of five Vance instructor pilots with the creation of Iraqi pilot training.)

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