Iraqi-pilot trainer earns Bronze Star

Janet Taylor-Birkey

Last summer the Air Force was looking for pilots to serve six months as aviation advisors to the new Iraqi air force as part of AEF (Air Expeditionary Force) 7 and 8. Lt. Col. Jack Maixner, who was at the time Assistant Director of Operations for the 522nd Fighter Squadron (currently director of operations with the 523rd), volunteered and was selected to go.
Lt. Col. Maixner’s trip to the desert was not the usual military tour-of-duty, said Lt. Col. Brad Kearney, 523rd Fighter Squadron commander.
“It was a unique job that needed to be done, a very important one, and he excelled at it,” said Colonel Kearney. “With his operational background and his skills as an F-16 pilot — as well as a tactical pilot and his strong leadership background — he was the right man for a very challenging job.”
The six month tour to Basra, Iraq, included working with an Iraqi reconnaissance squadron consisting of 12 Iraqi pilots, two pilot advisers, one sensor adviser and one maintenance adviser. Their mission was to help upgrade Iraqi pilot skills and teach them to fly recon missions in the Seabird Seeker.
The language barrier was fairly difficult said Colonel Maixner, adding that about half of the Iraqi pilots spoke English fairly well, while two or three of the pilots barely spoke any English. “A lot of the times when we were flying with those guys, we would point at things rather than try to talk to them,” the colonel said.
Although the squadron had a translator for communicating on the ground, the one-on-one air situations got a little harrier. “Sometimes pointing worked better than talking,” he said, adding that pointing worked well since the instrument panel is labeled the same as in U.S. aircrafts.
U.S. advisors help Iraqi pilots, but do not have to start from scratch in training. “The pilots who are in the new Iraqi air force, were in the old Iraqi air force. Most of the guys we worked with were former MIG pilots,” said Colonel Maixner.
“They had basic aviation skills: we were showing them how to fly a different type of aircraft and different missions. It wasn’t just training. We actually flew reconnaissance missions in support of OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). So we were flying operational reconnaissance missions about half the missions and the other half we were training.”
Colonel Maixner worked with the pilot training aspect, but final decisions were left to Iraqi squadron commanders. “The squadron commander flew all the check rides, so [he] would make the final decision of when one of his guys was qualified to fly alone.
Besides the language barrier, Colonel Maixner said he and other advisors had to be considerate of cultural barriers because the Iraqi’s have a different approach of how to run an air force than the United States does.
“These guys came from the old Iraqi air force. Now they’re making the transition to the new Iraqi air force and they are making a lot of progress,” Colonel Maixner said, but in the transition to the new form of government, some have old ideas they want to hold on to.
Old ideas aside, Colonel Maixner said “the Iraqi pilots that we worked with were obviously positive about democracy and about their future.” Being able to directly contribute to OIF in this capacity and seeing their struggle in gaining freedom and stabilizing their government was especially impacting for the colonel.
“Since we worked with these guys, we were in their squadron for six months. I guess it kind of personalizes the struggle they are going through,” Colonel Maixner said. “Now I know all these Iraqi pilots and maintainers, so it personalizes it.”
There is more work to do in Iraq, but it’s men and women like Colonel Maixner who will help make freedom a reality for the Iraqi’s. “What [Colonel Maixner] was able to do was help the Iraqi forces. It’s just one of the many steps their military and their government need to sustain their country in the long term,” said Colonel Kearney. “He did great work and made great strides in that.”