- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

BASRA AIR STATION — A team of U.S. Air Force personnel at this sprawling British base in southern Iraq is working to rebuild an air force that the U.S. military spent more than a decade destroying.

Former test pilot Lt. Col. Kelly Latimer and her team of five pilots and maintainers are partnered with 70 Squadron of the reborn Iraqi air force, which three years ago had been grounded by 12 years of attacks and sanctions.

The squadron’s 15 Iraqi pilots and 39 other personnel operate four light aircraft donated by coalition countries — two bulbous Seekers powered by a single pusher propeller and painted bright yellow, as well as two single-prop CH-2000s sporting a more conventional engine-in-front layout and gray paint.

Both types carry infrared and daylight cameras for monitoring power and oil infrastructure and for spotting targets for other branches of the Iraqi military.

This year, the squadron has spent 900 hours in the air, usually flying about five sorties a day. An American pilot rides along on all flights.

The squadron’s equipment and missions are basic stuff. The Seeker makes 80 knots and, from the ground, sounds like a motor scooter. “With a bit of a headwind, we get passed by cars on the road,” Col. Latimer said.

Many of the unit’s Iraqi aviators are former fighter pilots, some having flown the Mach-3 MiG-25.

“I thought coming in that these guys would be disgruntled,” Col. Latimer said, “but they’re happy to be flying and to have a job.”

When the squadron was formed two years ago, most flights were dedicated to training. But now that almost all the Iraqi fliers are checked out on both the Seeker and the CH-2000, the unit can dedicate more efforts to patrolling vital oil and power facilities and supporting the Basra-based Iraqi army’s 10th Division and the tiny Iraqi navy based at nearby Umm Qasr.

On one recent anti-smuggling exercise, 70 Squadron pilots spotted suspect boats with its cameras and used radios to direct Iraqi patrol craft to an intercept.

“We need more exercises,” Col. Latimer said, especially to improve the ground and sea forces’ procedures for talking to the air force.

Col. Latimer anticipates that the squadron will swap its single-engine aircraft for bigger twin-engine planes that are faster and can carry more equipment, perhaps including advanced sensors that can transmit imagery directly to ground forces.

In the meantime, there are logistical problems to sort out. The CH-2000s need a new support contract, and aviation fuel has been in short supply. And Col. Latimer is hoping to find Iraqis with training experience so the squadron can train pilots on its own.

But there are no plans for the Americans to leave. The next rotation of U.S. advisers will stay a full year, compared with four months for the current team.

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