***image1***One flight. In all the missions flown by the U.S. Air Force across all the world in one year, just one is singled out for the Mackay Trophy, given in honor of the “most meritorious flight.” As far as awards go, this is rarified air.
And in February 2005, Master Sgt. Tommy Lee, 37th Airlift Squadron flight engineer, found himself in a similar stratosphere, buried in a cloud bank a thousand feet over the green, mountainous terrain of northern Iraq. Along with four other Airmen, he was aboard an Iraqi Air Force C-130, manned by an Iraqi crew and carrying newly elected prime minister Ayad Allawi, who was bound for a meeting with Kurdish dignitaries.
Sergeant Lee and the other Airmen were aboard as part of an elite Advisory Support Team that had trained the Iraqi crew, which was now acting as an Iraqi equivalent to Air Force One.
All things being equal, this would have been a meritorious flight. When the plane lifted off from Baghdad, after all, it began the first Iraqi-manned Air Force mission carrying the head of Iraq’s fledgling democratic government.
But as the plane flew north across hostile territory and into foul weather, different factors conspired to greatly increase the degree of difficulty for the flight. “The biggest obstacle that day was language,” said Sergeant Lee, referring to the gap between the Airmen and their Iraqi counterparts. “Plus, the weather wasn’t good.”
Their flight was scheduled to land at Al Sulaymania, an uncontrolled civil airport near Kirkuk. But as the C-130 dropped out of a low cloud bank, Sergeant Lee saw something that gave him serious pause. “There was a hole in the runway,” he said. “A big one.”
Under ordinary circumstances, said Sergeant Lee, the plane would have turned around and gone back to Baghdad. But the crucial nature of this mission dictated something a little out of the ordinary.
“We made a couple of low approaches to check it out,” said Sergeant Lee. “I made a joke that we could land on the taxiway, and we ended up doing it.”
Due to the tactical nature of landing on the much narrower taxiway, the Iraqi crew flew to the approach point before handing the reins off to the U.S. Airmen, who landed the plane safely.
In his role as an AST trainer, Sergeant Lee worked for six months in 2005 to help train an Iraqi flight crew from scratch. As a flight engineer, he taught the Iraqi crew how to calculate airspeeds, prepare for landings, flip switches and read charts. He did it all with students who had worked previously on Russian planes and spoke little to no English.
“We used interpreters at first, but they couldn’t speak ‘aviation,’” he said.
“The pilots could speak some English, but we ended up doing a lot of pointing.”
For his part in the historic flight, Sergeant Lee found out last month that he and the other four Airmen would receive the 2005 Mackay Trophy at a ceremony in November. “I’ve only recently started to understand what a big award it is,” he said. “I’m truly honored and wowed by the whole thing.”
Ultimately, though, it was his role as a trainer that pleased Sergeant Lee the most. “Training the Iraqi students was the most significant event I’ve ever had in my career,” said the 17-year Air Force veteran. “To teach students from scratch was challenging, to say the least, but very rewarding.”