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The five winners of the Air Force’s 2006 Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year trained and assisted the first Iraqi Air Force C-130E aircrew.

The five winners of the Air Force’s 2006 Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year trained and assisted the first Iraqi Air Force C-130E aircrew. (Lisa Burgess / S&S)

ARLINGTON, Va. — Among Air Force fliers, the Clarence Mackay Trophy, given for the most meritorious flight of the year by an Air Force person, persons or organization, is the most coveted of honors.

The close calls, daring rescues and feats of bravery by past honorees could fill Hollywood scripts for years to come.

So why did the five 2006 Mackay winners, who carted some VIPs from Point A to Point B — a routine transport mission — get the trophy?

That, as the saying goes, is the rest of the story:

The Feb. 13, 2005, mission was in a combat zone — Iraq, to be precise.The VIPs were Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, his deputy, and another dozen top-ranking Iraqi and American officials, who were traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan to try to convince the Kurdish leaders to participate in the upcoming January elections.The aircraft, a C-130 Hercules transport, was one of three that had been donated to the new Iraqi Air Force by American taxpayers.The plane was the first in modern Iraqi history to be flown by an all-Iraqi military aircrew, and marked the first time a U.S. Air Force advisory support team provided initial qualification training while in a combat zone on an operational mission.“We don’t usually train students in combat zones,” Maj. Brian Lewis, an instructor pilot on the flight, told Stripes during a Monday interview with the “Train 60” crew in the Pentagon.

The Iraqi pilot wasn’t a complete rookie — he had flown the Russian-made Ilyushin IL-76 transport back in Saddam Hussein’s Air Force some 15 years earlier, according to Maj. Michael Frame, aircraft commander during the flight.

But he had spent just one hour actually flying a C-130, in Little Rock, Ark., where the Air Force had brought some of Iraq’s new Air Force personnel for training earlier in the year, Frame said.

The 60 minutes of “stick time” wasn’t enough to keep the Iraqi pilot from feeling “a little uncomfortable” when the weather turned bad, about 30 minutes into the flight, Frame said.

Once the C-130 had to dive beneath the weather, to an altitude of about 1,500 feet, the Iraqi gave control of the aircraft back to Frame.

Lewis, meanwhile took control of navigation, because the aircraft was now way beneath the sight of the air traffic control radars at Kirkuk Air Base. Lewis had to navigate using a visual flying pattern, over unfamiliar territory, low enough to be within reach of hostile ground fire.

It was knuckle-biting time, said Master Sgt. Corey Turner, an instructor loadmaster who was in the back “scanning for threats.”

“We didn’t know if the Iraqi markings and tail number would work for us, or make us a juicy target” for insurgents, he said.

Train 60’s destination was Al Sulaimani, a newly constructed civil airport in Iraqi Kurdistan about an hour and 15 minutes from Baghdad by air.

None of the crew, American or Iraqi, had ever seen the airfield before, Frame said.

When they arrived, the crew saw a beautiful new terminal, a narrow taxiway — and a half-completed runway, still missing large sections of concrete.

They jumped on the radio to the tower to ask for advice.

No one answered. On any frequency.

“No one had told anyone on the ground we were coming in,” Frame said.

Told by Allawi to land the plane, Frame lined up the C-130 and brought it in — on the 70-foot-wide taxiway, not the runway.

Prodded by his aircrew, Frame said the feat “was probably a 10 on a scale of 10, in terms of pilot skills.”

As historic, tense, and full of surprises as the mission may have been, the latest winners of the Mackay trophy said they believe that every airman involved in training the Iraqi air force deserves credit for the 2006 award.

“This isn’t just an honor for us,” Senior Master Sgt. John Spillane said. “It’s an honor for everybody who was there.”

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