Iraqi air traffic controllers work together at the Taji airfield
Iraqi air traffic controllers work together at the Taji airfield, some 50 kilometers north of Baghdad on October 19. Iraqi traffic control staff are gearing up for life without their American trainers and, more crucially, US equipment. © Prashant Rao - AFP
Iraqi air traffic controllers work together at the Taji airfield
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Prashant Rao, AFP
Last updated: November 2, 2011

Iraq air traffic controllers prepare to fly solo

Two months before a US pullout, Ali and Ahmed, both 20-something and Iraqi military air traffic controllers, are gearing up for life without their American trainers and, more crucially, US equipment.

For now, the pair voice confidence that they can do the job on their own.

But they will lack their own modern radar systems, as the nascent Iraqi air force is still working to establish key support systems to ensure airfields function without incident.

"When aircraft come in to the airfield, five flights, six flights (in sequence), it will become more complex," said Ahmed, an air force second lieutenant who, like his other Iraqi colleagues, declined to give his full name for fear of being targeted by insurgents.

"You have to sequence, you have to visualise the aircraft, where they are," said the 26-year-old native of Babil province, in central Iraq.

He added: "When it gets very busy, it will be complicated."

Ahmed and other Iraqi controllers have undergone months of American training not only to learn the intricacies of an air traffic control room -- the one he runs has multiple computers and sets of communications equipment -- but also to bolster their English, the international language of air traffic.

Taji, the first military base in Iraq where domestic controllers are fully in control, remains a relatively simple operation -- most of its traffic is comprised of helicopters, or "rotary-wing aircraft", which are typically simpler to deal with than planes, or "fixed-wing".

"This is quite simple -- we aren't involved in controlling radar, it's just the tower," said Ahmed. "I would love to be an approach controller, to use radar."

Radar facilities at the Taji airfield are presently comprised of a ground control approach system, which aids controllers and pilots in the immediate vicinity of the airfield during bad weather, according to US air force Staff Sergeant Ronald Hutchins.

The system is owned by the US, and they will be taking it with them when they leave, Hutchins said -- a full American withdrawal from Iraq is due by year-end under the terms of a bilateral security pact.

"Without it, you're definitely crippled," said the 24-year-old, an air traffic controller himself. "In a sandstorm, you can't see, so you rely on your instruments."

Key support systems are also only just being established or have yet to be put together, such as an "airfield driving programme".

That particular shortfall was readily apparent on a recent visit by media, when a forklift truck strayed onto the runway, with minutes to go before a massive C-130 transport plane was due to land.

Ahmed quickly fired off his "light gun", alerting the driver of a message from the control tower, while his colleague Ali, a 28-year-old first lieutenant from Baghdad, turned his full attention to the C-130 to gauge how much time was available.

While the two focused on their duties, an unmarked station wagon quickly sped towards the truck, leading it off the runway.

US trainers said that while the pair did exactly what they needed to, the incident highlighted still-present needs: in this particular case, clear rules for the truck driver, and vehicles that can carry out the function of the station wagon.

"That's the importance of what we're trying to train them on, is the importance of an airfield driving programme," said US Air Force Captain Diana Kostrna, who is the chief American air traffic control adviser at Taji.

"Training and making sure your maintenance guys, guys who are operating on and around the airfield who don't normally understand aviation, know where they need to hold short, know where they can and cannot cross, and where the boundary lines are," the 28-year-old added.

For now, though, it is unlikely that Ahmed's job will become much more complicated in the near future.

The Iraqi air force, unlike the army, is in the early stages of rebuilding after being decimated in the 2003 US-led invasion: a report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), a US watchdog, puts the size of the air force at around 5,000, compared to the 200,000-strong army.

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies's report "Military Balance 2011" also estimates Iraq has fewer than 100 helicopters and around 60 military aircraft.

The country ordered 18 F-16 warplanes from the United States earlier this year, but it will be years before that force is fully operational.

Iraq's top military officer Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari said, in the SIGIR report released on Sunday, that Iraq would be unable to defend its airspace until 2020 at the earliest.

Iraq only took responsibility for all of its airspace for the first time since 2003 in early October.

As for air traffic control, US trainers at Taji insist that their Iraqi counterparts are well-enough trained to handle the core job on their own, and Ahmed and Ali -- part of a group of eight who work in shifts -- are enjoying their duties.

"At first, I hated this job, I will be honest with you," admitted Ali, the first lieutenant. "Some people told me it would take a long time for the training, three or four years."

"But when I work in the tower, I feel like I control everything in my airport. Now, I enjoy it very much."

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