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NEWS | Sept. 7, 2010

Air Force transfers airspace to Iraqis

By Sr. Airman Perry Aston and Staff Sgt. Sanja Allen , U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs

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Tom Samples, an air traffic controller trainer, advises an Iraqi air traffic controller at Baghdad International Airport as he directs aircraft Aug. 31, 2010. (Photo by Sr. Airman Perry Aston)

BAGHDAD (Sept. 3, 2010) — The Iraq Civil Aviation Authority reached a milestone here Sept. 1 when the U.S. Air Force handed over the Kirkuk sector of   airspace, 15,000 feet and above, to the ICAA at Baghdad International   Airport.

The Kirkuk sector of airspace consists of the northern 1/3 portion of Iraq airspace, which had been previously controlled by the U.S. Air Force out of Kirkuk Air Base.

“Tonight marks a very historic occasion,” said Maj. Jamie Flanders, Air Component Coordination Element -  Iraq airspace planner, minutes after the changeover took place.

Until now, the Iraqi government controlled only airspace above 24,000 feet,  or “flight level two-four-zero.” Everything below that level had been managed by the Air Force at air traffic control facilities in Kirkuk and Balad.

Control of the rest of Iraqi airspace above 15,000 feet is scheduled to be transferred Nov. 1.

According to Julie Abraham, transportation attaché here at the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. government is supporting Iraq as it builds its ties with the world.  Transitioning airspace to Iraqi control as air traffic grows here is one way to do that.

“Once we [Iraqis] assume control over the other sectors, we’ll be in control of 15,000 feet and above,  nationwide in Iraq,” said Ali K. Ibrahim, the director for Air Traffic Control (ATC) at the ICAA. “Next year, we will assume the rest of the airspace and control all airspace in Iraq.”

The Iraqi air traffic controllers work hand-in-hand with U.S. Airmen, U.S. Embassy aviation advisors and American contractors from WCG to prepare them to provide safe service for Iraq’s skies.

Based out of Bethesda, Md., WCG is contracted by the ICAA to assist with the airspace transfer and to prepare Iraqi controllers to assume full control of Iraq’s airspace.

“I’m excited about this job because it’s a challenging professional job and because of the contributions I can make to Iraq,” said one Iraqi air traffic control student. “You need to be focused all the time. I hope we can do a lot for the ICAA so that the ATC can develop through the years and get the job done.”

The job looks exciting to controllers in training, but it is also difficult to monitor and guide more than 400 aircraft traveling through the Iraqi skies, up from about 60 or 70 just two years ago when Tom Samples began working here as an ATC instructor.

“This is probably some of the most difficult air traffic to control in the world because there are no back-up radios and no back up landlines,”  said the retired Federal Aviation Administration controller who now works for WCG. “We’ve had American controllers come over here that couldn’t work this traffic. We had to send them home.”

The students also recognize the complexity of the job, but they are proud to be doing something meaningful for their country.

“Being an air traffic control is a difficult job,” said a female student at the Iraq Civil Aviation Training Institute at Baghdad International Airport. “But we have to approach our job with seriousness and dedication, because we are responsible for many peoples’ lives on the airplane. So we have to be open-minded. We have to remain alert and respond quickly and effectively to critical situations in order to avoid a collision or a critical situation. Being able to do this will make us proud of ourselves.”

Training these young Iraqis to take over their nation’s skies has been a remarkable task that Flanders is proud to be a part of.

“Looking around here, what an awesome, great thing to be involved in,” said Flanders, a native of Keller, Texas.  “You’ve got U.S government,  American contractors and Iraqis building a better air traffic control system and a better Iraq.”

The transition of air space to Iraqi control is one example of the extensive joint-US military/civilian effort here to build capacity and assist Iraq in achieving future prosperity.