U.S. Navy Lt. Philip Ritchie (right), a King Air Military Training Team training officer, and an Iraqi pilot with Squadron 87 go through an in-flight checklist March 3, 2011, during a flight from New Al-Muthana Air Base in Baghdad to Basrah, Iraq. Lieutenant Ritchie is deployed with the Iraq Training and Advisory Mission-Air to teach Iraqi pilots how to fly the King Air 350. He is deployed from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman)
An Iraqi King Air 350 with an American instructor pilot and an Iraqi student pilot at the controls departs from Basrah International Airport March 3, 2011, en route to New Al-Muthana Air Base in Bagdhad. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman)
Visibility begins to fade during a flight aboard an Iraqi King Air 350 March 3, 2011. This flight, with an American instructor pilot and an Iraqi student, was diverted from New Al-Muthana Air Base in Bagdhad to Al Asad AB, Iraq, due to one of the unpredictable sand storms that wreak havoc on air traffic in the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman)
Visibility goes from bad to worse during a flight aboard an Iraqi King Air 350 March 3, 2011. This flight, with an American instructor pilot and an Iraqi student, was diverted from New Al-Muthana Air Base in Bagdhad to Al Asad AB, Iraq, due to one of the unpredictable sand storms that wreak havoc on air traffic in the region. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman)
The sun is barely visible above a temporary hangar at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, March 3, 2011. Due to one of the unpredictable sand storms that wreak havoc on air traffic in the region, numerous military aircraft were diverted to this location. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman)
U.S. Navy Lt. Philip Ritchie, a King Air Military Training Team training officer, conducts a pre-flight inspection March 4, 2011, for a King Air 350 that had been diverted to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, due to one of the unpredictable sand storms that wreak havoc on air traffic in the region. Lieutenant Ritchie and an Iraqi student pilot were preparing to head back to New Al-Muthana AB, in Bagdhad. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman)
Commentary by Tech. Sgt. Randy Redman
321st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
3/15/2011 - BAGHDAD (AFNS) -- What started out as a "typical" flight out of New Al-Muthana Air Base near Baghdad International Airport on March 3 turned out to be anything but routine. As it turns out, just about any flight out of New Al-Muthana AB has the potential to be a stomach-churning, white-knuckle, flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. It seems that remaining flexible is the key to success.
Earlier in the week, I had coordinated a flight with the 321st Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron to cover the training U.S. advisors are doing here every day. U.S. Navy Lt. Philip Ritchie, the 321st AEAS training officer, scheduled a flight from NAMAB to Basrah International Airport to facilitate training with an Iraqi pilot. The flight had been delayed several times already because official reports said it wasn't safe to fly.
By Thursday morning, everything was finalized except the paperwork that would allow me to fly on an Iraqi plane. It seemed simple enough on the surface, but thanks to multiple levels of security, safety and red tape, the flight was delayed several additional hours. While we waited, Lieutenant Ritchie, a T-44 King Air instructor pilot who was deployed from Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, and our Iraqi pilot sat down for a pre-flight lesson.
"He is a promising candidate. He studies hard and seems very prepared for each and every flight," said Lieutenant Ritchie, who is originally from Austin, Texas. "I was supposed to fly with a different Iraqi pilot yesterday, but I had to give him a 'no go' because I could tell he hadn't studied at all."
They discussed various aviation-related topics such as navigation, equipment malfunction and weather, which turned out to be extremely valuable.
On the first leg of the trip, to Basrah, Lieutenant Ritchie and the Iraqi pilot went through their checklist step-by-step. In the back of the plane, Tech. Sgt. Troy DeLeon, a 321st AEAS mission systems operator, scanned images captured by the surveillance equipment installed in the aircraft. Everything finally seemed to be going smoothly. However, as we approached Baghdad IAP on what was supposed to be the final leg of the trip, the call came in from air traffic control that the airport was closed due to poor visibility.
Apparently a cold front had moved in from the north causing one of the unpredictable sand storms that wreak havoc on air traffic in the region. Visibility went from bad, to worse, to zero in a matter of minutes.
Sergeant Deleon and the rest of us passengers noted it was nearly impossible to see anything further than the wingtips of the plane. Lieutenant Ritchie calmly acknowledged instructions from ATC and made a command decision to fly to Al Asad AB, Iraq.
"In the entire time I've been here, this is the first time that I've heard of one of our missions being diverted," said Sergeant DeLeon, who is deployed from Robbins Air Force Base, Ga., where he is a senior director technician on the joint surveillance target attack radar system. He is 10 months into a year-long deployment.
As the conditions rapidly deteriorated, Lieutenant Ritchie was able to establish communication with ATC at Al Asad, who directed us to remain in a holding pattern because visibility was nearly zero. By this time, the plane was running low on fuel thanks to the extra time in the air. So Lieutenant Ritchie, ever the consummate professional aviator, alerted ATC of our in-flight emergency. If we didn't land soon, we would be out of fuel.
Listening in on the headphones Sergeant DeLeon let me borrow for the flight, I was more than impressed by the calm, cool and collected demeanor Lieutenant Ritchie and our Iraqi pilot maintained while ATC gave them step-by-step instructions for landing in conditions that were far from ideal. By the time we touched down, nearly every taxiway was lined with fire trucks, airfield management and multiple emergency vehicles, all with lights flashing like a presidential motorcade!
One might assume that our adventure was over, but it continued. To begin with, the cold front that caused the sand storm had moved into the area. It was quite warm earlier in the day, and no one had prepared for the biting wind that cut through our clothes as we stood on the flightline waiting for a fuel truck to arrive. Who knew it would be so cold in the middle of the desert?
While several men refueled our aircraft, Lieutenant Ritchie went to inform our chain of command of the diversion and make overnight lodging arrangements. Because our crew was unexpected, there was no room for us at the inn. Our only option was the transient quarters which consisted of a large, hardened tent and sweaty-smelling cots. It wasn't the Hilton, but it sure beat sleeping in the aircraft on the flightline overnight. Well, except that the guy on the other end of the tent snoring loud enough to vibrate the floor wouldn't have been in the aircraft with us.
After a rough night's sleep with no pillows or linens, we finally made our way back to New Al-Muthana AB under clear blue skies. Throughout the entire excursion, I was more than impressed with the professional demeanor of the pilots and aircrew. They were able to adapt and overcome each situation as it evolved as if it were common practice.
According to Lt. Col. John Melloy, the 321st AEAS commander, the training program is flourishing. The Iraqis have been able to successfully plan and execute their own missions and should be able to keep the program running productively after the planned U.S. withdrawal in December. If they remain flexible, it is a fair assumption they will be successful.
4/4/2011 1:50:45 PM ET Good story, TSgt. Redman. Vic back at home
Vic, Langley AFB
3/18/2011 1:32:02 AM ET Can we predict sandstorms? Although just a short while ago the answer to this question would have been no, recent improvements in technology have made forecasting sandstorms much easier. How good a country is at predicting is largely a product of their economic and scientific capability. In locations such as Iraq these resources are limited or nonexistent. Bottom line - this storm was not predicted.
TSgt Randy Redman, Baghdad
3/16/2011 3:16:48 PM ET I would suggest that you reevaluate your adjectives used in the story. The sand storms are not unpredictable. In fact the one you mentioned in the story was accurately forecasted 4 days in advance along with those biting winds. Sounds like someone zoned out during the weather briefing.