Baghdad’s attack helicopters blast Islamic State — but at high cost
by ARNAUD DELALANDE
Iraq’s war on Islamic State has taken a heavy toll on the Iraqi army’s helicopter crews. And the battle of Mosul that began in October 2016 has only increased the pressure on the young aviation force, which formed with American assistance in 2007.
Many of the Iraqi army’s chopper crews fly from Erbil airport in Iraqi Kurdistan and Qayyarah airfield south of Mosul. The force suffered its latest loss on Oct. 29, 2016, when a Bell IA-407 belonging to the army’s 21 Squadron crashed in the Mukeshefah area north of Samarra. Pilot Hussein Ali Kadhim and co-pilot 1st Lt. Ali Hafez died.
We spoke to two pilots who’ve been fighting ISIS for more than two years.
Maj. “A” — we’ve agreed not to print aviators’ full names — joined the army in 2007 and graduated from the military academy the following year. He flew the Cessna 172s with the 1st Training Squadron — renamed the 201st Training Squadron in March 2011 — and then switched to helicopters — the Bell 206 and the OH-58 with the 200th and 300th Training Squadrons, respectively.
Maj. A graduated in 2010. His first assignment was the 88th Attack Squadron for six months, training on Gazelles. He left the squadron after completing just 12 flight hours and transferred to the 55th Attack Squadron, operating the Eurocopter EC635.
Islamic State invaded Iraq in mid-2014 and Maj. A soon found himself in the thick of the fighting, desperately trying to halt ISIS’s advance. “My missions in the 55th Attack Squadron are reconnaissance, support for ground forces, VIP escort, fast ground attacks and cover for Mi-17s involved in rescues,” Maj. A said.
On Dec. 12, 2014, two of Maj. A’s comrades — Capt. Sadiq Abdel Salam Al Hijami and Col. Sabah Al Idani —died when ISIS shot down their EC635 with a shoulder-fired missile.
Maj. A. was not directly engaged in the battles for Tikrit and Baiji in March 2015, but he remembers this dangerous period, all the same. “At that time, I was in Anbar province to protect Al Assad air base and support ground forces in Al Baghdady and Haditha,” he said.
“Helicopters were often hit by ground fire. Personally, I was hit seven times, most of them by 12.7-millimeter [rounds]. One of the shots was made by a sniper, very close to my face, and hit the door next to me. The injuries to my face were minor.”
On one mission around this time — Maj. A said he doesn’t remember the exact date, but the Iraqi army reported a helicopter crash on April 22, 2015 — his EC635 lost a rotor blade after being struck by enemy fire. He tried to reach Al Taji, but lost lift and had to land in Al Karmah, near ISIS lines. “My co-pilot and I ran and ISIS didn’t catch us,” Maj. A recalled.
Six hours later, the two aviators reached Al Taji — and safety. “In that mission, I figured out that I should not fight with [ISIS] with too many emotions,” Maj. A said. “Think, don’t fight, if you want to stay alive.”
The Iraqi army deployed its full force in the battles for Tikrit and Baiji — Mi-35Ms, EC635s, Bell IA-407s, Bell UH-1Hs and Mi-171s. With so many aircraft over a small area, the friendly-fire risk was high.
“An incident occurred with the commander of the 35th Squadron, during the operations to liberate Tikrit,” 1st Lt. “M” from the 21st Armed Reconnaissance Squadron recalled. “The IA-407 of the colonel of the 21st Squadron was hit in the rotor by rounds from an Mi-35 helicopter, resulting in the destruction of two rotor blades in the upper tail, but he was able to return to Camp Speicher,” 40 kilometers away.
It was an amazing feat of flying.
A year later in June 2016, Maj A. flew missions targeting the ISIS convoys fleeing Fallujah. He described one mission in particular that stood out. After attacking a convoy on June 30, 2016, he flew a second mission late that night — evacuating civilians, including children, who’d been caught up in the fighting.
“Many civilians were killed by ISIS on the other side of Ramadi close to the second convoy,” Maj. A recalled. “My last mission of the day was to bring five children whose parents were dead [to Baghdad].” Two of the kids died en route.
“It was really sad. I was very affected by this particular rescue mission and I could not fly as well, so I was grounded for all the morning until 6:00 P.M. But the war against ISIS does not wait. I flew again in the afternoon because the fighting must continue!’