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United pilot from Iraq sees chance to help out

- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

For Haytham Kamal Alsalih, Iraq's $5.5 billion plane order from Boeing is good reason to consider taking a trip back home.

The Iraqi-born United Airlines pilot, with 12,000 hours of flying time under his wings, said in an interview he felt the need to offer his services to his native land as soon as he learned of the order.

"I have a deep passion to see Iraq back on its feet," said Mr. Alsalih, 50, who lives in Irving, Texas. The airplane order "shows they have the commitment and they have the money, but what Iraq really needs now is people who know the business."

Mr. Alsalih, who was born in Baghdad, remembers Iraqi Airways under Saddam Hussein as "pretty antiquated" when he last flew on the state-owned carrier a quarter-century ago. He was raised mostly in the United States — his father for a time was a U.N. official — but he attended high school in Iraq.

He said he was not concerned about the security situation in his homeland.

"I don't think I will be walking down any dark alleys," he said. "Most of the work would be at the Baghdad airport, which is heavily guarded, or in the Green Zone."

Although Iraqi officials have not yet responded to his offer of help, Mr. Alsalih said he does not expect to be flying one of the new 737s the government has ordered. He said he wanted to offer his expertise on how to manage and organize the operation and train staff for the airline as it rebuilds.

Mr. Alsalih said he had hoped to join Iraq's reconstruction effort four years ago, when United was in discussions on a $400 million, 26-plane deal with the government right after the ouster of Saddam Hussein. But the deal fell through amid the worsening violence of the early post-Saddam days.

The pilot said he is ready to quit his post at United if Iraqi Airways takes up his offer to help.

"It's a full-time job, no question," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done."