By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Frost
KIRKUK, Iraq By age 15, his destiny was already set by Saddam Husseins regime he was to become a fighter pilot, a necessity in the bloody war with Iran. He took the controls of a Bravo, a single engine, propeller-driven training aircraft, and performed his first solo flight before most Americans could even drive.
Today, Iraqi Air Force Maj. Abbas, his name changed in this story for security reasons, serves once again in the Iraqi Air Force, but hes no longer asked to fly for the dictator but to fly for his country.
Abbas is an instructor pilot with the Iraqi Flying Training School in Kirkuk, Iraq, where he teaches initial pilot training to future Iraqi pilots. Like many instructor pilots who have returned to the school to teach, he was a fighter pilot under Husseins regime with a great deal of experience and training.
My education was only for flying, said Abbas, while he kept watch over a pitcher warming a batch of his famous chai tea. These pilots that we have now have more education. We know everything about the weather, the sky and the airplanes.
After he finished his education in his late teens, he began attending the Iraqi Air Force Academy in Tikrit, Iraq. Upon completing his training at the academy, Abbas was sent to France, where he learned to fly advanced fighter aircraft.
They sent me to France to finish my education, he said, pointing to the name patch on his chest and the stitched wings above his name. I have the wings I earned in France.
Abbas returned to Iraq in 1990 after the Iraq and Iran war came to an end, although missing battle is something that doesnt seem to bother the pilot much.
Not for the war, but because I love flying only for that, said Abbas about why he enjoys his duties.
Thats not good, he says under his breath while pouring the light brown tea into a cup before adding more chai to the pitcher, taking a break from his story. Not strong enough yet.
Upon his arrival in Iraq from France, he was placed in a squadron that flew Mirage F1 fighter aircraft.
That same year, Iraq invaded its neighbor Kuwait, triggering a response by U.S. and Coalition forces. Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm followed in early 1991.
Abbas, only a lieutenant at the time, was grounded during the war, he said. The combat missions were reserved only for higher-ranking officers.
The war ended quickly and left Iraqs Air Force decimated, sanctions against the country and no-fly zones that kept the air force limited in the areas it could train and fly in Iraq.
Things changed quickly for the Iraqi Air Force after that, as pilots salaries dropped, he said.
In 1988, all the pilots from the war with Iran loved their jobs, said Abbas. Saddam sent them a lot of money for flying. When you did something, he gave you a car. When you did something against Iran shot something down he would give you some money or a gift.
Despite the pay changes and limited resources for the air force, Abbas squadron continued flying.
In 1993 something went wrong, he said when President Bill Clinton ordered airstrikes against Iraq in Operation Desert Fox.
I was in Mosul, and they told me to scramble, to climb, to take off, he said when U.S. planes entered his bases airspace that day. I did some combat with an F-16. He fixed his missile on me six times.
The cat and mouse game with the American fighter ended after Abbas began descending toward his home airfield.
He came beside me, and I saw him, he said, pointing out that there were only 50 meters between him and the American pilot. I saluted him, he saluted me, and he (left).
His time in the Iraqi Air Force only lasted six more years. In 1999 Hussein had him thrown in jail and relieved from the military after the dictator thought he was planning to fly to another country with his fighter and defect. He was only jailed for one month, but he never returned to the air force.
After Coalition forces announced plans to rebuild the Iraqi Air Force, Abbas answered the call of his country.
His chai tea is complete at last. He fills three small tea glasses halfway with sugar, pours the dark brown tea into them and gives two to his American guests.
Is it good? he asks.
His tea isnt the only thing that receives the praise of his peers. American advisors from the 52nd Expeditionary Flying Training Squadron, which helps train Iraqi pilots and advise the Iraqi Flight Training School, have dubbed him Maj. Atlas for his ability to handle many tasks at once and for the enormous role he is playing in rebuilding Iraqs Air Force.
He instructs students on small Cessna aircraft that were purchased by the Iraqi government through Foreign Military Sales, a system that allows the Iraqi government to purchase military equipment with their own money from foreign nations, including the United States.
Although he is impressed with the strides the Iraqi Air Force has taken over the past few years, he says that he would still like to see Iraqi jet aircraft take to the skies once again.
I am old now, he said. If I wait six more years for another aircraft, I dont think thats good for my health.
For now, Abbas will have to stay with training the future pilots who will be piloting the jets. He doesnt seem to care as he beams a smile across the flightline, places a red ball cap saying Rig Boss on his head and walks to his plane to take off for another flight over his home country of Iraq.