While the Republic of Iraq builds a strong defensive posture in the Middle East as it faces the challenges of securing its new democratic course at home, the 162nd Fighter Wing at the Tucson International Airport graduated two Iraqi air force (IqAF) F-16 pilots June 27.
An occasion one would arguably find unimaginable a decade ago, Iraqi government heads and military leaders came together with 162nd Airmen, U.S. Department of Defense officials and business leaders to attend the inaugural graduation ceremony at a hotel in Tucson.
“This is a historical day for the Iraqi air force and for the Iraqi people, and we are headed in the right direction,” said Staff Lt. Gen. Hamad Ameen Ahmed Mam Seeny Anwer, Chief of the IqAF. “They (IqAF pilots) will return to our country – then transfer that American experience of training to the next generation of Iraqi air force pilots.”
The graduation ceremony was part of an Iraqi delegation’s orientation tour, which included exposure to F-16 flying operations, maintenance and non-flying demonstrations, a tour of the local defense contractor manufacturing facility, a visit to a Davis-Monthan Air Force Base field training detachment, and finalizing their visit to Tucson with flights for a select few in the AT-6C.
For Capt. Mohammed Hamaameen, one of the IqAF graduates, his new designation as a “wingman” is a thrilling feat that will have greater meaning back home.
“I love the feeling of just flying in the F-16 and one day knowing that you are going to protect the people of your homeland – it’s a nice feeling,” said IqAF Capt. Hamaameen. “As soon as we start flying, they (the Iraqi people) can sleep comfortably knowing there are pilots above protecting their skies.”
Fellow graduate IqAF Capt. (Select) Mohammed Hassan Ghale, who will join Hamaameen as part of Iraqi’s future air power, recognized the journey to achieve his personal goal and acknowledged the training he received at the wing.
“This is a dream that became true,” he said. “We came a long way from home, and finally got to this level. We thank the instructor pilots and everybody who has supported our mission.”
The newly minted F-16 fighter pilots were presented with decorative fighting swords from Iraqi Acting Minister of Defense Sadoun Al-Dulaimi.
“This chapter signifies a new era in participation with our American friends and not forgetting our gratitude for the U.S. Armed Forces’ pivotal role in helping us remove Saddam Hussein,” said Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily.
“We are back in the international arena as a country,” Faily added, as his speech at the ceremony came only hours after the United Nations Security Council’s unanimous decision to end Chapter VII sanctions against Iraq.
According to the public relations office of the Embassy of the Republic of Iraq, lifting the sanctions, established in 1990, highlights the country’s increased political and economic cooperation in its region.
The first wave of F-16s are slated to arrive in Iraq in mid-2014, and according to U.S. Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jeff Orr, point-of-contact to the Iraqi training program, bringing the multi-purpose fighter to the country is “a big piece of their sovereignty puzzle.”
“Once they have initial operating capability with their F-16s, they will be able to guard their own airspace without help from anybody else,” Orr said.
While the 162nd Fighter Wing continues to serve as an ambassador of goodwill to other allied nations by producing combat-ready F-16 pilots, the Iraqi flag will continue to wave side-by-side with other countries represented at the international training unit.
Lt. Col. Charles Blank, 152nd Fighter Squadron commander, said the wing can expect roughly 40 more IqAF pilots over the next five years, with the frequency of their arrivals depending on where they stand in the pilot training pipeline.
Though the graduation ceremony represented a milestone for both the Iraqis and the 162nd Fighter Wing, Blank said the political climate of the partner-nation made the event all the more significant for the graduates and even future graduates.
“Given everything that is going on, they have done exceptionally well and continue to do so,” he added.
Col. Mick McGuire, 162nd Fighter Wing commander who made the opening remarks at the ceremony, described the new F-16 graduate’s dedication to training as a foundation for a long-term relationship.
“They are the future leaders of the Iraqi air force, and I know that 20-25 years from now when they are wing commanders and general officers, they will have fond memories of the U.S. Air Force and the 162nd Fighter Wing, and always look to us as a partner and somebody they can trust when it comes to working through the decisions they need to make as an air force,” he said.