On the eve of yet another Middle East conflict, an ex-Iraq Air Force combat pilot in exile
THE EIGHT YEAR LONG war of attrition between Iraq and Iran, produced a generation of Iraqi pilots whose professional career developed mainly while their country struggled in a conflict which never seemed to reach an end.
Many fought, survived or died, but a small percentage started to oppose the waste of men and resources and the way their President handled everything. In a political system like Iraq’s, this kind of opposition has only one possible end, jail or the firing squad. Many ended their days in this way, but a few were fortunate enough to leave the country to settle as exiles under a new identity in order to avoid Iraq’s agents disguised as embassy officials who were in charge of locating and — if possible — eliminating dissidents.
This exclusive narrative, which must be anonymous for obvious and understandable security considerations, offers a first hand testimony about one of those who went into exile, principally concerning his career. A well educated man approaching his forties, his first thought, with certain anguish is for his former air force, in his words a powerful but constantly purged air arm, which may very soon be only a memory. In his own words…
«…Late in 1985 I was posted to one of the Mirage F1 equipped squadrons, while several months before I had been sent to Orange, France, for conversion to the type. Later this was carried out entirely in Iraq with the dual seat F1s and a flight simulator.
My earlier postings had been to a Hunter Squadron based in northern Iraq, where I undertook many ground attack missions, against Kurdish guerrillas, and the Iranians. At this airfield I lost a fellow pilot from the same flying course during a surprise attack by a couple of Iranian Phantoms. I was able to take-off, but due to their higher speed they escaped easily. My next posting was to a MiG-21 squadron. Soon I mastered this beautiful fighter and in the two years I was there, three types of missions were performed: air defence, air cover and ground attack. For the latter two roles the MiG was severely handicapped by range and warload
During that time my squadron lost seven aircraft and five pilots, but only one to the Iranian Air Force. The others due to AA fire or accidents.
From that era I remember a number of bold raids performed by Iranian aircraft as, thanks to the technical help of Israel — at least that’s what we were told — a considerable proportion of its Phantom fleet remained operational. These raids were indiscriminately made against civilian or military targets, rarely could we catch them, but SAMs and A A fire took a toll. During all the combat sorties I made in the MiG-21,1 only once received damage and that amounted to two small-arms calibre holes on the vertical fin during a ground attack sortie. During that time I had several engagements with enemy aircraft but without positive results, although in one instance I was able to shoot down an Iranian AH-1J Cobra gunship with 23mm cannon fire. This action almost took my life, as the MiG almost stalled as I had to slow down considerably to centre the helicopter in the pipper. Fortunately I was able to recover from that situation.
I spent the next two years as instructor in the Flying School. Here a fellow officer confirmed to me what I had been hearing for the past three years. All the pilots above the rank of Captain from the air defence squadron in charge of covering the Osirak nuclear reactor bombed by the Israelis in 1981 had been shot. This madness started to eat on me.
Afterwards I was selected to convert to the Mirage F1 in France. My first impression on seeing this warplane was one of confidence, besides its good flying qualities, its nav/attack system was quite advanced.
I performed close to 300 combat sorties in the F1, and perhaps the most exciting was the one I made in early 1987 consisting of an attack against the Iranian petro-chemical complex at Kharg Island. The strike was composed of four Su-22 Fitters with retarded bombs, two F1 s with Exocets, and four F1s as escorts, deploying to an advanced base in southern Iraq. The attack would take place at sunrise. I was element leader in the second covering section. Our aircraft were configured with two Magic AAMs, full 30mm ammo and two 1,200 litre tanks.
After take-off in darkness, the ten aircraft joined up with the Exocet-armed F1s in front, the Sukhois behind, while we were to both sides and in the rear. We were at 5,000ft and they at 2,000. With the sun slightly over the horizon we entered the Gulf and complete harmony started to descend. Some 30km from the island the two F1 s climbed slightly turning on their Agave radars, then fired the Exocets, which initially fell ballistically before their rocket motors fired just above the waves, leaving a whitish smoke trail. I lost sight of them in the morning mist. Both Mirages made a hard 180° turn for home. The Sukhois bombed in shallow dives and we turned left to orbit between Kharg and the Iranian coast. Now I had the island in sight and a dense smoke column raised from the harbour area, possibly a tanker had been hit by the Exocets.
The Su-22s were flying very fast towards the target with their wings fully swept back when Iranian flak started to shoot, I could see the tracers and the little black puffs. They dropped their lethal bomb load and a few seconds later several explosions rocked the complex. The Sukhois started a wide right turn heading for home when a large fireball blossomed just in front of the flight leader, who went through it. After emerging, the Fitter commenced rolling to the right until inverted, shedding pieces or debris. Then a wing fell off and in this attitude it impacted into the water in a big cloud of spray. No ejection was observed. It had been shot down by a Hawk SAM.
Attentive as we were to the drama, we didn’t take notice of something more dangerous for our integrity — that closing in on our three o’clock, almost within the sun’s circle where they were almost invisible. My wingman gave the warning call — “bandits at three o’clock!” I turned my head and saw something reflecting just to the right of the sun. We broke right to meet them head on. Now I could distinguish their shapes. They were a pair of Phantoms, identified by their smoke trails, and an F-5 Tiger in trail. Then I saw that the Phantom to my right, we were fully a 1,000m ahead, launched what appeared to be a small missile, perhaps more to confuse us rather than having obtained a positive lock-on on any of us. The trick worked.
As the first Mirage section which had fallen behind and a little higher than our section during the right turn, broke to the left easing the enemy pursuer, which now started a left turn. The Phantom which had launched the missile crossed below and to my left going like hell. I half rolled to the right starting a high ‘g’ descending front and at some 3,000m, I was in full afterburner, as was the Phantom.
I had lost sight of the other aircraft, both friendly and enemy, except my wingmen who followed in trail some 500m behind. The Cyrano radar showed signs of trying to lock on the F-4, and very soon the HUD provided cues that I was within the firing envelope. While the Magic AAMs started their bell-rattle that showed their seeking heads were locked, the Iranian pilot quickly noted his dangerous situation and without any support broke to the right. I pressed the trigger. After a brief delay the left wing-tip Magic fired and to make sure of the kill, fired the second. The F-4 was now with a 90° angle bank and 20° offset to my right and some 1,000ft over the water.
The first AAM hesitated then passed by his right without detonating. The second closely followed the first, but this time the proximity fuse worked. I observed a small fireball under the Phantom’s belly followed by a trail of vapourised fuel then a long sheet of flames. Almost at the same time both crew ejected, then the F-4 started a spin. I pulled up to avoid debris, losing it from sight, but my wingmen saw it crashing in the sea and both crews hanging from their chutes.
As fuel was getting low, we returned home where we found out that everybody had returned except the Su-22 flight leader. I had got a kill and automatically this implied a medal, but my worst problems would soon follow…»
As a matter of fact, two months later the ‘erroneous’ attack took place on the frigate USS Stark, with the subsequent purge of the pilotwho did it. Our anonymous interviewee protested at the way the matter was handled and following instructions of the air base’s political officer, his CO grounded him and he was arrested. This was his situation until August 1988 when the war ended. By then he could move to Baghdad with relative freedom and he contacted other young officers becoming more and more critical against the regime.
By the end of the year he learned, through a friend, that the feared Baasist secret service was after him. Almost miraculously, some people contacted and helped him get out of Iraq. Being a bachelor made the task easier. After an identity change and spending some time in a Middle East country, he settled in Europe where he lives peacefully although since August 2, 1990, he is extremely worried for his country, thrust into the worst international crisis since the end of World War Two thanks to its ambitious leader.